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Origins of American
The Colonial Period
English colonists brought with them a heritage of
freedom and principles of government that
helped shape the development of the United
The American government was founded on five
basic principles from English government.
Limited Government
Petition of Right
English Bill of Rights
Representative Government
New Political Ideas
The concept of limited government, dating
from the Magna Carta in 1215, was an
accepted part of the English system.
◦ Limited government: a system in which the power
of the government is limited, not absolute
The rights in the Magna Carta originally
applied only to the nobility.
Over time the document set a precedent for
more political liberties and support for the
idea of constitutional government.
In 1625 Charles I took the throne of England,
dissolved Parliament, lodged troops in private
homes, and placed some areas under martial
When Parliament was reinstated in 1628, they
forced Charles to sign the Petition of Right
which severely limited the power of the
English monarch.
The English monarch could not:
◦ collect taxes without Parliament’s consent,
◦ imprison people without just cause,
◦ house troops in private homes without owner
◦ or declare martial law unless the country was at
The colonists believed in limits on the ruler’s
power and the freedom protected in the
English Bill of Rights, passed by Parliament in
The English Bill of Rights set clear limits on
what a ruler could and could not do.
Key ideas of the English bill of Rights:
◦ Monarch do not have absolute authority.
◦ The monarch must have Parliament’s consent to
suspend laws, levy taxes, or maintain an army.
◦ The monarch cannot interfere with parliamentary
elections and debates.
◦ The people have a right to petition the government
and to have a fair and speedy trial by a jury of their
◦ The people should not be subjected to cruel and
unusual punishments or excessive fines and bails.
The colonists firmly believed in representative
government, following the model of
◦ Representative government: a government in which
people elect delegates to make laws and conduct
English Parliament was a bicameral (two
house) body.
◦ House of Lords included members of aristocracy
appointed to their position.
◦ House of Commons included mostly merchants or
property owners elected by other property owners.
The ideas of 17th century English philosopher
John Locke deeply influenced the American
Locke spelled out his ideas in Two Treatises
of Government that was published in 1690.
Locke’s writings were widely read and
influenced American leaders such as
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and
James Madison.
Locke insisted that government was
legitimate only as long as people continued
to consent to it.
The present system of American government
evolved largely from colonial governments
and their practices.
Chief among these practices were:
◦ A written constitution that guaranteed basic
liberties and limited the power of government.
◦ A legislature of elected representatives
◦ The separation of powers between the governor
(the chief executive) and the legislature.
Written plans of government were a key
feature of the colonial period.
The Mayflower Compact (1620)
◦ 41 men (the heads of every family on board) met in
the cabin of the Mayflower to lay out their
◦ The Pilgrims agreed to choose their own leaders
and to make their own laws, which would be
designed for their benefit.
The Great Fundamentals (1629)
◦ After the Massachusetts Bay Colony added more
towns, the settlers adopted the Great Fundamentals
as the first basic system of laws in the English
Fundamentals Orders of Connecticut (1639)
◦ Puritans who had left the Massachusetts Bay colony
to colonize Connecticut drew up America’s first
formal constitution, or charter.
◦ Allowed citizens to elect the governor, judges, and
representatives to make laws.
Representative assemblies elected by the
people helped establish the tradition of
representative government in America.
The Virginia House of Burgesses (1619)
◦ The first legislature in America
Massachusetts General Court (1636)
◦ Massachusetts reorganized government so that
each town elected two representatives to the
colony’s legislative assembly, the General Court.
The division of government powers among
the governor, the colonial legislatures, and
colonial courts helped establish the principle
of the separation of powers.
◦ Separation of Powers: the division of power among
the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of
Colonial governments were usually divided
three ways◦ The governor was the king’s agent and held
executive power.
◦ The legislatures were elected and had the power to
pass laws
◦ The courts heard cases.
Uniting for Independence
Although Britain regarded the American
colonies largely as a source of economic
benefits, it allowed them limited selfgovernment.
The British government tightened its control
over the colonies after the French and Indian
King George III and his ministers had the
colonies assist in paying for the war by
levying new taxes on the colonists.
Harsh British policies and taxes helped unite
the colonies.
To protest British policies, the colonists sent
petitions to the king and also organized
committees of correspondence.
◦ The committees consisted of colonists who wanted
to keep in touch with one another as events
The First Continental Congress held in
Philadelphia in 1774 debated what the
colonies should do about their relationship
with Britain.
◦ The congress imposed an embargo on Britain and
agreed not to use British goods.
◦ Embargo: an agreement prohibiting trade
The Second Continental Congress convened
after the fighting had begun and acted as a
central government during the Revolution.
◦ The congress purchased supplies, negotiated
treaties, and rallied support for the colonists cause.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense strengthened
the independence movement.
Paine argued that monarchy was a corrupt
form of government and that George III was
an enemy to liberty.
A committee of delegates to the Philadelphia
Congress, headed by Thomas Jefferson,
drafted the Declaration of Independence in
By the end of 1776, 10 states had adopted
written constitutions, which were based on
consent of the governed, limited government,
and the protection of individual rights.
The Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation were designed
to continue the structure of government as
established under the Second Continental
The Articles set up a “league of friendship”
among the states with each state receiving
one vote in congress.
Congress had a single-chamber (unicameral)
with limited powers.
The government had no executive branch or
court system.
The Congress had to depend on the states for
money and had no power to collect taxes,
regulate trade, or enforce the laws.
Amending the Articles required the approval
of all states.
The central government had no president or
executive branch and carried out much of its
work through congressional committees.
There was no system of national courts,
instead state courts enforced and interpreted
national laws.
Despite its weaknesses, the confederation
government established a fair policy for
developing western land.
◦ Congress enacted two land ordinances that
provided for the organization of western territories.
The Confederation government signed the
peace treaty with England.
The Confederation government set up several
departments establishing the precedent for
cabinet departments later mentioned in the
◦ Congress set up departments for Foreign Affairs,
War, Marine, and Treasury each under its own
Soon after the war, disputes broke out among
the states and the government’s debt left the
soldiers unpaid.
Many were alarmed when an economic
depression in 1786 led to Shays’s Rebellion,
an armed uprising by Massachusetts farmers
who could not pay their debts.
Leaders who favored a stronger government
failed to accomplish much at the 1786
Annapolis Convention, but persuaded the
Confederation Congress to call a convention
in Philadelphia to revise the Articles.
This convention would eventually reorder the
American political system.
The Constitutional
The delegates to the Constitutional
Convention had great practical experience in
politics and government and included many
of the signers of the Declaration of
Independence and the Articles of
◦ The delegates held their meetings in secret,
deciding each state would have one vote, all
decisions would be by majority vote and a quorum
of seven states was required for all meetings.
The delegates decided to give up the idea of
revising the Articles of Confederation and to
draft a new plan of government.
The Virginia Plan
◦ Proposed a strong executive, a national judiciary,
and a strong two-house legislature.
◦ The lower house would be chosen by citizens and
the upper house would be chosen by the lower
◦ This plan favored the large, more populous states.
The New Jersey Plan
◦ Proposed a weak executive of more than one
person, a national judiciary with limited powers,
and a one house legislature.
◦ The executive committee would be elected by
◦ State’s legislative power would be the same with
each state having one vote.
◦ This plan favored the small, less populous states.
The Connecticut Compromise
◦ A special committee devised the Connecticut
◦ Proposed a legislative branch with two parts- a
House of Representatives with state representation
based on population, and a Senate with two
members from each state.
◦ This plan gave large states an advantage in the
House and protected the smaller states in the
The Three-Fifths Compromise
◦ Settled a disagreement over how to determine how many
delegates each state would have in the House of
◦ Almost one-third of people in the South were slaves.
 Southern states wanted slaves to count toward their
population for the purposes of representation but did not
want slaves to count at all for the purpose of levying taxes
since the north had a very small number of slaves.
◦ In the end, northern and southern states decided that
slaves would count as 3/5 for both representation and
Compromise on Commerce and the Slave
◦ Allowed the slave trade to continue until 1808.
◦ Congress was forbidden to tax exports.
◦ Congress was granted power to regulate both
interstate commerce and trade with other nations.
The Slavery Question
◦ Many northern delegates wanted to end slavery
◦ If they insisted on ending slavery, the southern
states would not accept the Constitution and the
nation would face an uncertain future.
◦ The founders compromised and refused to deal
with slavery in the constitution.
The delegates agreed to other compromises
as well, including a four year term for the
president and an Electoral College rather than
a direct election of the president.
Supporters and opponents of the Constitution
began a great debate over whether to accept
or reject it.
◦ Supported ratification of the Constitution.
◦ Argued that a strong national government would
help solve the nation’s problem with foreign affairs.
◦ Opposed ratification.
◦ Argued that the delegates had been given no power
to replace the Articles making the Constitution an
illegal document.
◦ Argued that the Constitution took important powers
away from the states and lacked a bill of rights.
Federalists promised to add a Bill of Rights
and small states learned more about the
Connecticut Compromise.
The new national government was launched
in March, 1789 when Congress met for the
first time in New York City.
George Washington took the oath of office as
president of the United States in April, 1789.