Failed British Colonial Rule of America

English Royal Coat of Arms-Symbol of British Rule
English Royal Coat of Arms



Like most Americans I believed the 13 American colonies were a monolithic group of settlements that were governed by the British monarch. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Each British colony was established for various reasons and one, New York, was originally founded by the Dutch. British colonial rule was administered by a complex and very inefficient bureaucracy in London that acted in the name of the Crown and Parliament. They believed they had the right to govern the colonies any way they saw fit. This was a recipe for conflict because the American colonists were very independent. 

                                                                                               The precise relationship between the Crown and any individual colony depended on whether it was a Royal Colony, a Charter Colony, or a Proprietary Colony. All were founded by Royal authorization, but a Charter Colony was granted to a joint-stock company, a Proprietary Colony was owned by individuals, and Royal Colonies were owned and governed directly by the British government.

The settlers came for many reasons, but the opportunity to better themselves and to escape religious persecution were the most common reasons. Once in the New World, most were quite comfortable to be British subjects, and the early settlers were more concerned with survival than politics. Most settlers did have many traits in common. They were independent, individualistic, confident, hard-working, tough, and ambitious. In short, they were “risk takers.” These traits in an undeveloped environment resulted in successful and prosperous colonies with more freedom than in the mother country.  

Prosperity also led to more schools which led to better educated citizens. A more literate public led to newspapers and pamphlets to keep them informed about the news and politics. The colonists were also in better health because they were better fed and lived in a cleaner and less crowded environment. The crowded cities and towns of  Europe were breeding grounds for disease, poverty, and despair. 

The British government did not interfere with colonial affairs much to begin with having little time for the colonies. Britain was preoccupied with internal strife and happy to reap the benefits of cheap imports and an expanding demand for British products. Mostly London enacted laws and regulations to maximize economic benefits, which usually were good for the colonies too. Some changes, however, adversely affected the colonies, which resulted in considerable resentment and friction. 

American colonists passed their own laws and raised militias for their own defense. They believed that England was sovereign and recognized that British citizenship had many advantages. As time passed, however, the colonists realized that without representation in the British government, they were often given the “short end of the stick.” Resentment about this smoldered until the colonists finally exploded in revolution. 

Europe was also cursed with seemingly endless wars that drained their coffers and resulted in more devastation and poverty. Since the great powers of the day, Britain, France, Holland, and Spain had competing colonies in the New World, their wars usually resulted in conflict in the colonies. The largest was the French and Indian War (1754-63), which was long and bloody. The main benefit for the Americans who fought in these wars was that it trained a cadre that became the core of the Continental Army. 

Britain eventually wanted Americans to help pay for their wars and for the presence of British troops in the colonies. The colonists did not share this view. This is when the Crown began to interfere with the colonial governments and to levy additional taxes. The colonists resented the interference and believed no tax was legitimate unless enacted or approved by them. The increased colonial resistance caused Britain to tighten the screws more, which caused more resistance. No matter who was right about the details, the two sides were locked in a contest that was rapidly spiraling toward revolution. 

Proclamation of 1763-Failed Colonial Rule
Proclamation of 1763

One huge cause of resistance was the “Proclamation of 1763.” This 7 October royal proclamation outlawed all settlement in the vast area between the “crest of the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.” It also limited settlement in wide stretches east of the mountains by declaring previous purchases from the Indians “illegal.” The crown wrongly believed this would prevent future Indian wars. The proclamation would have stopped most western expansion, which was key to colonial development. It was hated by farmers, speculators, and pioneers, and they all ignored it. It also caused heated colonial protest and moved the needle closer to Revolution. 

Another crucial factor that is sometimes ignored by historians is that between 1607 and 1775, at least six generations had been born in the American colonies. Although these generations had a political attachment to Britain, they had no emotional ties and did not identify with the mother country. There were many new immigrants, but these “home grown” people were born “American.” They felt free, and they were tough and self-reliant. Many lived on the dangerous frontier. 

At the start of the Revolutionary War, Britain had a far-flung empire of 31 colonies from North America to Asia. They had to defend their right to rule these colonies or risk losing them. Unfortunately for them, they had not established control in America early, and tried to exert control too late. This never works and they were doomed to fail. 



The first British colony in America was Virginia, a Charter Colony, which was founded in 1607. In 1619, they established a two-part legislature consisting of the governor and his council, which were appointed by the company in England, and a House of Burgesses representing each settlement. During that summer, the first true legislature in North America met in a log church in Jamestown. Virginia became the first Royal Colony in 1624 when the bankrupt Virginia Company’s charter was revoked. 

Virginia developed as a plantation-agricultural society based on tobacco which rapidly depletes the fertility of the land. This led to rapid expansion as new land was needed for new generations and new immigrants. An elite class of educated large landowners dominated the colonial government and Virginia produced many future revolutionaries. 

Large plantations were labor-intensive, and labor was provided by African slaves and white indentured servants. Early planters preferred the indentured servants. These people were mainly English who had willingly bound themselves to servitude for four to six years to pay for their transport to America. For a few years more than 1,500 indentured servants arrived every year. This was a boon to colonization and the economy because when their servitude was worked out, most moved west and established their own farms and plantations. 

Virginia colony was dominated by the Anglican Church, which was the official state religion. The Anglican vestry did provide education for the masses and assured that most poor children could read and write. This was a major positive factor in the colony’s development. Wealthy planters and merchants employed tutors for their children who then often attended one of the institutions of higher learning that were being founded in the colonies. 

The settlement of New England, which produced many revolutionaries, began in 1620 with the Pilgrims who adopted the Mayflower Compact to establish that they would live together under civil officers of their own choosing. They then landed at Plymouth and began building housing. They soon established their form of governing in the first New England town meeting. 

The early settlement of New England was by those seeking religious freedom, and the Pilgrims were joined by the Puritans during the 1630-42 “Great Migration.” The Puritans had suffered greatly due to official religious discrimination in England, but this also bred strong Puritan leaders. 

In 1629 the Crown gave a charter to the Massachusetts Bay Company, which the Puritans quickly gained control of. Boston became the center of this colony and the colony grew rapidly. It is believed that by 1641 about 300 ships had transported about 20,000 settlers to New England. The settlers were mostly English and religious zeal motivated most of them. They established a church state, and expansion was by groups establishing towns that were constructed following a standard design. Each town was self-governing, independent, and controlled by a central church. 

The Massachusetts Bay Colony government became harsh and intolerant which led to many of differing faiths choosing to escape. Rhode Island was colonized and others settled on the Connecticut River and New Haven. Early inhabitants of Maine and New Hampshire remained under the control of Massachusetts Bay. 

Henry Hudson sailed into what is now New York Bay in 1609. This voyage was to set up a Dutch trading post for the importation of lumber, furs, and tobacco. However, in 1621 the Netherlands government chartered the Dutch West India Company to set up a colony. Two years later Protestant refugees from the Netherlands established the first settlement on the island of Manhattan. 

Five years later, more settlers arrived, and the Dutch “purchased” the island from the Indians. New Amsterdam was founded and became a very “cosmopolitan” city, which housed privateers, smugglers, many taverns, and fun-seeking sailors. By 1629 the Dutch had changed the colony to a feudal state that was ruled by harsh, autocratic, and blundering officials.  

The British could not allow a foreign presence in the middle of their colonies and in 1664 a small English fleet forced the surrender of the Dutch colony without firing a shot. The 7,000 inhabitants accepted the new rulers without protest. Charles II appointed his brother James, the Duke of York, ruler and proprietor of the colony of New York. This colony  stretched from the Connecticut River to the Delaware River. The new governor was instructed to establish a liberal regime that would accommodate all the inhabitants. He accomplished this goal, and a representative assembly was established in 1683. 

William Penn
William Penn

One of the greatest colonial figures was William Penn who founded what became Pennsylvania and Delaware. He was the son of a prominent British Admiral and had converted to the Society of Friends (Quakers). He was a friend of the Duke of York, and the King owed Admiral Penn a large debt. Young William Penn wanted to establish a colony where every race and sect could find political and religious freedom. In 1681 the Crown awarded him a proprietary charter. 

William Penn advertised for settlers in four languages offering land on liberal terms, and Pennsylvania flourished beyond any other colony. Immigrants from England and Germany flocked to this colony because of religious freedom, humane criminal legislation, easy terms for obtaining fertile land, and opportunities for trade and manufacturing. 

Penn chartered a representative government with himself as governor in 1682. It operated so well that he issued an improved charter in 1701. 

The high intellectual and moral standards of the Quakers resulted in an unusually elevated cultural level in Pennsylvania. It was known for its libraries, refined homes, scientific advancement, and architectural taste. 

Pennsylvania started many of the institutions that America later prided itself for:  

-complete religious freedom, 


– distribution of land to settlers at low cost, 

– becoming a “melting pot” of people, and 

– establishment of schools open to all. 

Before his death, Penn purchased three counties on the Delaware River from the Duke of York. This land became the colony of Delaware. Initially, Pennsylvania and Delaware shared a governor, but in 1702 Delaware established its own elective government. 

The colony of Maryland was established as a proprietary colony in 1632. The charter was presented to George Calvert, First Baron Baltimore. The intent was to provide a refuge for Roman Catholics and the first shipload of Catholics established St. Marys in 1634. However, Protestants rapidly became the majority because most Catholics opted to stay in Britain. A religious toleration act was passed in 1649 but was repealed after a few years, and Catholics endured discrimination for many years. 

The area that became New Jersey underwent many confusing and unprofitable changes. The Duke of York, the original proprietor, gave the area between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers to two friends, Lord John Berkeley, and Sir George Carteret. They called the area the Province of Nova Cesaria, or New Jersey. They offered generous terms for acquiring land, freedom of conscience, and a popular government to attract settlers. By 1764 Berkeley sold his half to two Quakers who took the southwestern part of the colony. In 1680 Carteret’s widow sold the remainder to new proprietors. These changes did not result in a viable colony, so the Crown took it all, establishing a Royal Colony. 

The area south of Virginia was also colonized by proprietors. One group obtained a grant for all of North America between the 31st and 36th parallels. The founders established the familiar government of a governor, council, and assembly. The two segments of this vast land were developed very differently. Charleston, South Carolina was founded in 1670 by settlers from England and the overcrowded colony of Barbados. French Huguenots and Scots followed and by 1700, Charleston was a thriving city. 

The economy of South Carolina was originally based on exports of food, turpentine, tar, and furs, but when rice was introduced it resulted in large plantations to produce rice and indigo. The large exports of rice required a significant movement west for more land and the introduction of African slaves to labor on the plantations. A wealthy planter class soon developed that constructed large and opulent estates. Most planters spent the hottest summer months in their fine town houses in Charleston, which had a pleasant social life with rich traders and merchants. 

The land to the north had a vastly different social and economic character. Much of the North Carolina terrain did not lend itself to the development of large plantations. Like Virginia, the main export was tobacco but in North Carolina it was mostly grown on small farms. There were no great ports like Charleston, so the colony had no large merchant fleet nor supporting merchant class. 

North Carolina had a few great plantations and aristocracy, but nothing comparable to their neighbors. Consequently, there was no need for large numbers of slaves, and the white population grew faster than in the other southern colonies. The early North Carolina population was generally poorer and less educated than those in Virginia and South Carolina. 

North Carolina did become a prosperous colony, but it  developed slowly. The people of the colony were determined, tough, and hard-working and could not be held back. They overcame all the obstacles that faced them to take their place as a colony  unique but the equal of all others.

Georgia, a proprietary colony, was the last of the 13 colonies to be established. It was the creation of a group of British philanthropists who obtained grant of the land between the Savannah and Altamaha Rivers. These men were more idealistic than realistic, but their goal was laudable. They hoped to give debtors and deserving poor people a fresh start in life. 

The town of Savannah was founded in 1733, but the founders imposed unrealistic regulations on the colony: the importation of all drinking alcohol was forbidden, and slavery was prohibited. They also restricted every charity colonist to only 50 acres of land that could only be transmitted to a male heir. 

The regulations severely retarded the growth of the colony. The settlers, however, quickly realized that they needed larger tracts of land for economical agriculture and that they needed slaves for labor. They also wanted to trade lumber for importation of rum from the West Indies. 

The proprietors gradually eased the rules and in 1751 allowed the colonists to elect an assembly. The proprietorship lapsed in 1752 and no effort was made to renew it. They allowed the Crown to take over the colony and Georgia became a Royal Colony. 

The colony was still weak and required constant subsidies, but gradually agriculture became more like South Carolina. It developed a society of wealthy planters in the lowlands, merchants in Savannah, and small farmers in the uplands. 

The lesser-known benefits of the establishment of the Georgia colony include that it provided opportunities for many neglected and abused people; it established a buffer between the other colonies and hostile Spanish Florida; and it laid the foundations for a great state. 

By the start of the Revolutionary War all but five of the 13 colonies were Royal Colonies. The five were Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware which were Proprietary Colonies, and Rhode Island, and Connecticut which were Charter Colonies. The estimated total population of the colonies was about 2,500,000 including about 400,000 slaves. 


On the eve of the outbreak of hostilities, all chances for reconciliation with the Crown had failed and there was no going back. The colonists were finally united in a cause after years of failed attempts to unite them. Colonial union was still tenuous, and the differences would come into play when the Constitution was drafted. In the end this was healthy because we ended up with a Republic with built in protections for the states and for “we the people.” 

The British had failed miserably at governing the American colonies by being inconsistent in establishing control. They had allowed the Americans to have more political freedom than any other people in the world until about 1760 when they began trying to exert  authority. They were doubling the number of British troops in the colonies, demanding the colonies pay more taxes, and trying to control more of the colonial economy.  

Americans had been different from the start, and they had no intention of accepting what they saw as a subordinate position in the empire. They were proud of the fighting record of their soldiers. They knew Philadelphia was the second largest city in the empire, and that as a seat of learning, scientific inquiry, and the arts it compared well with any city outside of London. They knew that American commerce equaled that of Britain and that they were advancing faster than any other people in the world. A spirit of self-sufficiency was everywhere, especially among those on the frontier and among the artisans, mechanics, and laborers of the towns. Revolution was inevitable. John Adams said it best: 

“The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.” 


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