In the 18th century, if I understand correctly, the king of England appointed the governors of the thirteen colonies in North America. How far beyond royal appointments of governors did British rule extend?

One obvious answer is that in the 1760s the British Parliament began trying to impose taxes on Americans --- money to be sent from America to Britain.

Another is that when Britain went to war against France in 1756, colonial Americans helped the British conquer the French colony of Canada.

After the taxation laws of the 1760s some American statesmen took the position that the colonies had their own legislatures and, although they were subjects of the same king as the British, and the king therefore appointed their governors, the British Parliament had no more right to legislate for America the the Virginia House of Burgesses had to legislate for England. So a question is: before the tax acts, how extensive was legislation by Parliament that was intended to be enforced in America, and how effective was the enforcement?

Added somewhat later: Another instance of governing from England was the order-in-council signed by King George III on July 20, 1764, stating that the disputed territory claimed by both New York and New Hampshire belonged to New York. That disputed territory is what later became the state of Vermont. The ruling followed an ex-parte hearing, i.e. the king and council heard from only one side: the province of New York. Then in 1767 a further order was issued in response to a petition from the inhabitants of the "New Hampshire Grants", as that territory was then called, saying the province of New York ought to recognize New Hampshire land grants issued before the order-in-council of 1764. However, this was clearly not routine governance.

  • 1
    Given that British law fully extended to the Australian and Canadian colonies until their federations and independence, I'd say that it was the same in the American colonies. Enforcement, obviously, was an issue, and you can see that the outcome was a complete overthrow of British rule.
    – user13123
    Aug 17, 2016 at 23:54
  • Prior to the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the British government did not raise direct taxes from the colonies - only the colonial legislatures raised direct taxes. After the war the government in power decided that the colonies should help to "carry the burdens of empire", but without any say as to policy. What had been a gentle yoke became an ill-fitting suit of clothes -- and the rest is history. Aug 18, 2016 at 0:11

2 Answers 2


Britain governed the 13 colonies through trading companies that were much like the East India Company. The one for Virginia was called the Virginia Company. The one for Massachusetts was the Massachusetts Bay Company.

In order to secure the cooperation of the colonists, the trading companies often granted them unusual powers. For instance, the Virginia Company allowed Virginians to have a legislative assembly called the House of Burgesses in 1619. Likewise, the Massachusetts Bay Company also allowed the "Puritans" a great deal of self rule, including the right to choose their own leaders.

Sometimes the King would get concerned, and try to take back liberties that were granted to the colonists. For instance, in Virginia, executive officers (governors, county commissioners, sheriffs, etc.) were appointed by the King, through the Virginia Company. The House of Burgesses, however, made most (local) laws; except for rules governing the prices and practices of tobacco exports, Virginia's largest cash crop. Notably absent, until the 1760s, were attempts by Britain to tax the colonists in America.

Colonial liberties would wax and wane based on England's internal politics. The rise of Oliver Cromwell in England led to a relaxation of royal rules, as did the Glorious Revolution. On the other hand, the rules tightened after the "third" generation King George inherited the throne. He used the burden of defending the colonies during the French and Indian War as an excuse, as did a predecessor, King James II vis-a-vis Massachusetts, after King Philip's War.

  • I was planning my answer when I saw this - I'm not sure that I have much else to say. Well done.
    – MCW
    Aug 18, 2016 at 12:49
  • Didn't the colonial legislatures raise funds (aka: tax) locally? So it wasn't that the colonists were untaxed, but when they were it was by their own elected representatives.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 18, 2016 at 15:42
  • @T.E.D.: I added the term "by Britain" to the line of "notably absent until the 1760s... "This incorporates your point. An oversight on my part.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 18, 2016 at 16:19
  • @MarkC.Wallace: Many thanks. Coming from you, much appreciated.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 18, 2016 at 16:20
  • @TomAu Hi, Tom. I suggested an edit and please review it.
    – Rathony
    Aug 18, 2016 at 20:29

By the seat of their pants.

Couple of points that are vital to remember.

  1. As Jack Rakove points out, British colonial possessions were unique in that the colonists expected to settle and displace the natives. Other colonial powers had different philosophies. Since the colonists were permanent residents and owned real property (land), governance was required.

  2. The British Empire (arguably) dates from the end of the Seven Years War. Even if you disagree, I would assert that the British Empire changes in nature at that point - Britain was catapulted to a superpower with effective dominance over the seas and extensive overseas holding. They hadn't planned for this and their government was certainly not designed for it.

  3. The British government was still in evolution; not all the implications of the Glorious Revolution had been worked out. For example, the concept of the Loyal Opposition hadn't been formed yet, and they simply didn't have the concepts to understand and work with multiple groups of people who agreed on the ends, but vehemently disagreed on the means.

  4. Everyone agreed that Parliament was supreme, but they didn't know what that really meant. Parliament was clearly incapable of exercising executive function, and the horde of bureaucrats (placemen) remained the province of the Crown. (Aside: One of the great mysteries is why the Crown failed to effectively exercise the placemen system - for example, there were very few Church of England appointments to the colonies)

  5. Landholders in Britain were represented in Parliament, but there was no mechanism to represent landholders in the colonies. The rotten borough system inhibited any attempt to change representation.

  6. The effect of the prior two points is that the de jure supreme branch of government didn't know how to exercise power in the colonies (There secretary of state for the colonies was a powerless position with no bureaucrats, little or no staff, etc.) There were no precedents (remember that precedent is vital in the British system), no bureaucrats, no way to tell what is happening and no mechanism to exercise policy. The branch of government that was inferior (the Crown) had bureaucrats, and had an excess of military officers (one of the policies was to settle half pay officers in the colony), but didn't really have a mandate. Neither branch had a plan or a goal for the colonies, except for mercantilistic exploitation (which we now know is a dumb plan)

So how did Britain govern the colonies? ad hoc, seat of the pants, incoherently, pick your favorite derogatory adjective. I think all parties would agree that they did it badly.

Unfortunately there were some serious stresses on the system.

  1. The need to retire military officers to half pay. The Seven Years War was effectively the first world war, and the British Military grew to the task. Once the war was over, Britain had to shrink the military to control the budget. (remember that one of the key policy goals of Parliament was opposition to a standing military).

  2. Treaties with Native American Powers. Britain had promised to prevent settlement in Native lands. The American colonists didn't just ignore that policy, they conspicuously flouted it. George Washington raffled off land across the Mississippi in a way that was probably treasonous. (Directly opposed to the policy of the King and Parliament). Colonists kept forming companies to exploit lands that were - by treaty with Britain - not colonial lands.

  3. Much of the buildup to the Revolutionary war was formed around exactly how Parliament could govern colonies - could they levy taxes? Must they consult with local councils? (they didn't in Britain).

  • 1
    I think the Mississippi Company was to encourage settlement along the river in the Illinois country: mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/…. Based on the repeated requests to the government, it hardly seems treasonous. Aug 18, 2016 at 22:01
  • 1
    Very good answer. Adds a lot to mine.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 22, 2016 at 1:22
  • The government had a treaty that forbid settlement in that area; conspiring to promote settlement in opposition to the official government policy borders on treason. Undermining the government's foreign policy while submitting requests to change that policy tilts the balance. Modern day these would be RICO violations - conspiracy to commit unlawful acts. The point is arguable, but I'm trying to outline the stresses to the system.
    – MCW
    Nov 16, 2016 at 17:23

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