Background and Emergence of Democracy in the British North American Colonies Beginning in the early 1600’s, North America experienced a flood of emigrants from England who were searching for religious freedom, an escape from political oppression, and economic opportunity. Their emigration from England was not forced upon them by the government, but offered by private groups whose chief motive was profit. The emergence of Democracy in colonial America can be attributed to the coming about of several institutions and documents filled with new and “unconventional” ideas that were brought about by a people tired of bickering among themselves and being torn apart by strife. The Anglo-American political thought in the eighteenth century contained notions of right and freedom, which fueled their passion for a better way of life. .
The Virginia House of Burgesses, the Mayflower Compact, New England town meetings, and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut were all early stepping stones toward a truly democratic government. These documents and organizations may not have been what we perceive, today, as being democratic, but they were a start. The first permanent English settlement was a trading post founded in 1607 at Jamestown in the Old Dominion of Virginia. Virginian colonists had the right, granted to them by The Virginia Company, to elect a colonial legislature, called the House of Burgesses. Since Virginia was the first royal colony, it was only fitting that they should lead the way with the first representative government in the New World. Other lawmaking bodies, not that dissimilar to the House of Burgesses, would soon pop up in other colonies. The Pilgrims also pioneered the way to democracy. If the Pilgrims had settled in Virginia, where they had originally planned, they would have been subject to the authority of the Virginia Company. In their own colony of Plymouth, they were beyond any governmental jurisdiction, so established their own political organization “to combine ourselves together into a civil body politic for out better ordering and preservation and by virtue hereof (to) enact, constitute, and frame much just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices as shall be though most meet convenient for the general good of the colony”. This quote, from the unprecedented compact, the Mayflower Compact, displays their want and willingness to strive for an independent and fair government.
This document made plans for self- government in Plymouth. The compact enacted a direct democracy, in which the citizens, not elected representatives, were the lawmakers. The ideas of majority rule and ! equal justice under the law were also employed in this compact. As New England towns grew, there became a typical layout for the towns, which included a church/meeting house at the center of town. While church and state were, in theory, separate, they were, in fact, one.
A system of government that was theocratic and authoritarian had evolved. These churches/meeting houses were home to many aspects of town life including the place where town meetings were held. Town meetings provided the settlers with an opportunity to discuss public problems. Civil obligations became a shared responsibility. If one was a free man who belonged to the town church and owned property, he could then take part in these hearings.
The meetings had an elected colonial assembly, which over saw the meetings, and practiced direct democracy. These meetings were essential in providing colonists with a taste of self-government and self-determination. In “Federalist No. 10”, James Madison described a pure democracy as “a Society, consisting of a small number of! citizens, who assemble and administer Government in person”. A November 2, 1772 Boston town meeting initiated the first revolutionary Committees of Correspondence “to state the rights of the colonists.” The practice where local committees began to exercise governmental functions eventually lead to the committee system still used by all governmental organizations.
Paragraph nine of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639), known as the first written constitution in North America, makes reference to town meetings. The towns of Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfiled adopted the Fundamental Orders on January 14, 1639. They formed, in the opinion of some historians, the first modern written constitution. The purpose was to limit governmental (British) powers. It was the first American constitution of government.
All colonies contained elements of a complete democracy. Their experience in self-government evolved and grew. From these seeds, as Alexis de Toqueville stated, “A democracy, more perfect than any in which antiquity had dreamt of, started full-size”.