Colonial Governments of the Original 13 Colonies

The United States of America started out as 13 original colonies. These colonies belonged to the British Empire and were founded during the 17th and 18th centuries. 

By the 1700s, the British government controlled its colonies under mercantilism, a system that regulated the balance of trade in favor of Britain. Over time, colonists became frustrated with this unfair economic system and with Britain's administration of taxation of the colonies without any accompanying representation in Britain. 

The governments of the colonies were formed in different manners and with various structures. Each colony was set up in a way such that by the mid-1700s, they had a strong capacity for self-government and held local elections. Some early colonial governments foreshadowed elements that would be found in the U.S. government after independence.

Virginia

Jamestown
Travel Images/UIG/Getty Images

Virginia was the first permanently settled English colony, with the 1607 founding of Jamestown. The Virginia Company, a joint stock company which had been given the charter by King James I to found the colony, set up a General Assembly.

In 1624, Virginia became a royal colony when James I revoked the charter of the bankrupt Virginia Company. After Virginia organized a representative assembly, James felt threatened and had plans to disband it, but his death in 1625 ended his plans and the General Assembly remained in place. This helped to set a model and precedent for representative government in the other colonies.

Massachusetts

Plymouth Rock
Westhoff / Getty Images

Massachusetts Bay Colony was created in 1629 by a charter from King Charles I, and the first settlers arrived in 1630. While the Massachusetts Bay Company was intended to transfer the colonial wealth to Britain, the settlers themselves transferred the charter to Massachusetts, turning a commercial venture into a political one. John Winthrop became the governor of the colony. However, according to the charter, the freemen, who included any of the charter's shareholders, could have drawn up a council, but Winthrop initially tried to keep that secret from them.

In 1634, the General Court ruled that the settlers must create a representative legislative body. This would be divided into two houses, much like the legislative branch later established in the U.S. Constitution.

By a royal charter in 1691, Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony were joined together to form the Massachusetts Colony. Plymouth had created its own form of government in 1620 through the Mayflower Compact, the first written governmental framework in the New World.

New Hampshire

Mason's Patent
Whoisjohngalt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

New Hampshire was created as a proprietary colony, founded in 1623. The Council for New England gave the charter to Captain John Mason.

Puritans from Massachusetts Bay also helped settle the colony. In fact, for a time, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and New Hampshire were joined. At that time, New Hampshire was known as the Upper Province of Massachusetts.

When New Hampshire gained its independence from Massachusetts Colony in 1741, the government of New Hampshire included a governor, his advisers, and a representative assembly.

Maryland

Cecilius Calvert
Kean Collection / Getty Images

Maryland was the first proprietary government, which means that the proprietor had executive authority. George Calvert, the first Baron Baltimore, was a Roman Catholic who faced discrimination in England. He asked for and was granted a charter to found a new colony in North America.

Upon his death, his son, the second Baron Baltimore, Cecil Calvert (also called Lord Baltimore), founded Maryland in 1632. He created a government where he made the laws with the consent of the freemen landowners in the colony.

A legislative assembly was created to consent to the laws passed by the governor. There were two houses: one of the freemen and the second consisted of the governor and his council.

Connecticut

American Puritan reformer Thomas Hooker leads his followers to new homes in Hartford, Connecticut, 1636
MPI / Getty Images

The Connecticut colony was founded in 1636 when the Dutch established the first trading post on the Connecticut River, part of a movement of people who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to find better land. Thomas Hooker organized the colony to have a means of defense against the local Pequot Indians.

A representative legislature was called together, and in 1639 the legislature adopted the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which primarily establishes the rights of an individual. Some historians believe that this written constitution was the basis for the later U.S. Constitution. In 1662 Connecticut became a royal colony. 

Rhode Island

Landing of Roger Williams by Alonzo Chappel, 1636
SuperStock / Getty Images

Rhode Island was created in 1636 by religious dissenters Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Williams was an outspoken Puritan who believed that church and state should be completely separate. He was ordered to return to England but joined the Narragansett Indians instead and founded Providence. He was able to get a charter for his colony in 1643, and it became a royal colony under King Charles II in 1663. 

Under the colony charter, England appointed the governor, but the freeholders elected an assembly. Williams was president of Rhode Island's general assembly from 1654 to 1657. 

Delaware

William Penn
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Delaware was founded as a colony in 1638 by Peter Minuit and the New Sweden Company. James, the Duke of York, gave Delaware to William Penn in 1682, who said that he needed the land to secure his own colony of Pennsylvania.

At first, the two colonies were joined and shared the same legislative assembly. After 1701 Delaware was given the right to its own assembly, but they continued to share the same governor. It was not until 1776 that Delaware was declared separate from Pennsylvania.

New Jersey

Map of East and West Jersey in 1706
Worlidge, John/Library of Congress/Public Domain

Although it had been inhabited by Europeans since the 1640s, the colony of New Jersey was founded in 1664, when the Duke of York, the future King James II, gave the land between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers to two loyal followers, Sir George Carteret and Lord John Berkeley.

The territory was called Jersey and divided into two parts: East and West Jersey. A large number of diverse settlers gathered there. In 1702, the two parts were combined, and New Jersey was made a royal colony with an elected assembly.

New York

Painting of Sir Edmund Andros

Frederick Stone Batcheller/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The colony of New York was originally part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland founded in 1609 by Peter Minuit, which became New Amsterdam in 1614. In 1664, King Charles II gave New York as a proprietary colony to the Duke of York, the future King James II. Quite quickly, he was able to seize New Amsterdam and renamed it New York.

The Duke chose to give citizens a limited form of self-government. Ruling powers were given to a governor. In 1685 New York became a royal colony, and King James II sent Sir Edmund Andros to be the royal governor. He ruled without a legislature, causing dissension and complaint among the citizens.

Pennsylvania

William Penn, holding paper, standing and facing King Charles II, in the King's breakfast chamber at Whitehall. 1 photomechanical print : halftone, color (postcard made from painting).

PD-Art (PD-old-auto)/Library of Congress/Public domain

Pennsylvania Colony was a proprietary colony founded after the Quaker William Penn was awarded a charter by King Charles II in 1681. Penn set up the colony to allow for religious freedom.

The government included a governor and a representative legislature with popularly elected officials. All tax-paying freemen could vote.

Georgia

General James E. Oglethorpe Statue in Chippewa Square
Jennifer Morrow/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Georgia was established in 1732 and given to a group of 21 trustees by King George II as a buffer colony between the Spanish in Florida and the rest of the English colonies.

General James Oglethorpe led the settlement at Savannah as a refuge for the poor and persecuted. In 1752 Georgia became a royal colony, and the British Parliament selected its royal governors. There were no elected governors.

North Carolina

Colonial America
Stock Montage / Getty Images

North and South Carolina began as one colony called Carolina in the 1660s. At the time, King Charles II gave the land to eight lords who had remained loyal to the king while England was in a state of civil war. Each man was given the title "Lord Proprietor of the Province of Carolina."

The two colonies separated in 1719. The lords proprietor were in charge of North Carolina until 1729 when the Crown took over and it was named a royal colony.

South Carolina

'A view of the town of Savanah, in the colony of Georgia, South Carolina', 1741, (c1880).
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

South Carolina separated from North Carolina in 1719 when it was named a royal colony. Most of the settlements were located in the southern part of the colony.

The colonial government was created through the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina. It favored large land ownership, eventually leading to the plantation system. The colony was known for having religious freedom.

Further Reading

  • Dubber, Markus Dirk. "The Police Power: Patriarchy and the Foundations of American Government." New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 
  • Vickers, Daniel (ed.) "A Companion to Colonial America." New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2008.