Oct. 2-4, 2001
Liberalism and Neglect:
The 18th-Century Origins of U.S. Politics
I. The Confused Political Legacy of English Colonization
A. Spain subcontracted colonization, too, but integrated
its colonies with home government.
B. England allowed its colonists to live under
self-created, largely independent governments.
6 of 12 early mainland colonies lived under charters,
that could be used like contracts or constitutions to limit power of
5 more were proprietary, with similar result.
Crown took back charters when it could, but even most
royal colonies had strong local governments with own rights:
Bicameral legislatures with elected lower houses
(assemblies) and appointed upper houses (councils).
Governors appointed by king or proprietor, or
Town meetings (NE) and county courts (S) ran local
C. Result: English power heavily diluted in America.
D. Early effort to change this (The Dominion of New
England) failed in 1688-89, in “Glorious Revolution” that overthrew the
II. The Era of “Salutary Neglect” (1689-1763)
A. America in British theory: ruled by royal “prerogative”
and economically dependent.
1. Powers of colonial governors and London government
greater in colonies than King's powers in England after Glorious Revolution.
Disallowance of colonial laws and “instruction”
of governors & assemblies by London.
Governors had powers to veto laws and dissolve
assemblies, lost by the King after Glorious Revolution.
2. “King-in-Parliament” possessed complete
sovereignty over colonies, regardless of local institutions.
3. Economy: subordinated by Navigation Acts and other
B. America in fact: accidental home rule and growth due to
“salutary neglect” by British.
1. In all colonies, local elites arose who controlled
their colony's affairs: planters in South, merchants, lawyers & manor
lords (NY) in North.
2. Modelled themselves after English gentry by building big
houses & buying English goods. Portraits of Boston merchants.
3. Colonial assemblies representing these elites gained
key powers over taxation and government spending. Representation more real
than in Great Britain, where MPs often represented no one.
4. Lax enforcement of British trade regulations before
1760s allowed semi-independent economy and wealth to grow.
5. Examples: Middle Colonies wheat; New England
merchants, West Indies sugar (an “enumerated” commodity), Molasses Act,
and smuggling. Trade patterns.
C. Primary cause of neglect: Britain distracted by
18th-century world wars, needed colonial help fighting them because North
America was a major place where the great powers competed.
D. Result: Accidentally federal system of government and de
facto division of British sovereignty over the colonies.
1. Colonists came to see themselves as enjoying same
liberties under British constitution as the British people did. Colonial
assemblies were seen as little Parliaments.
2. British government never adopted or even fully
understood this view. As they saw it, sovereignty could not divide.
Colonists did not have all “rights of Englishmen.”
3. Disagreements were easy to miss because British
constitution was unwritten.
4. Colonists resented it when British did try to use
their power & soaked up radical political ideas from Britain only weakly
III. The Rise of Lockean Liberalism
A. One source of radical ideas: “Liberalism” of English
physician & philosopher John
1. One of the founders of the “Enlightenment.”
2. Locke wrote his key works while working for Anthony
Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury, politician & conspirator against
Stuarts, partly to justify overthrow of King James II.
3. Key work was Two
Treatises of Government (1690), published just after the Glorious
Revolution. Responded to Filmer. Ideas:
Divine rights of kings was wrong on all levels.
Revised view of “nature” as not so bad: People
were naturally free.
Government was not ordained by God, but that
something that people had invented for their own benefit, to protect
their rights (esp. property).
Thus rulers and governments had their power only as
trustees of the people, or under “social contract” with people,
leading to “right of revolution.”
Purpose of government was preserving liberty, not
exercising authority; source of power/location of sovereignty was “people,”
not God or the King.
B. Locke’s ideas were embraced by British, but only in
limited fashion: sovereignty remained strong, popular consent largely “virtual,”
terms of “social contract” loose and unwritten.
C. Lockean Liberalism and America
1. Key American ideas coming from Locke: individualism,
rights, government by consent, constitutionalism & contractualism
(limited government), right of revolution, sanctity of private property. One
of Jefferson’s 3 greatest men.
2. Americans became strong Lockeans almost naturally,
based on their own experience of living distant from royal authority, of
having contact with “state of nature,” local practice of actual
representation and popular consent, example of Indians (“Iroquois
3. End result: American were prepared to exercise their
rights of revolution more quickly and often than Locke had expected.