British Empire and American Colonies Essay

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regulate the American colonies and establish an imperial system. A colonial office was finally created, and agents were dispatched to America to enforce the Navigation Acts. In the 1680s, energetic royal governors with military experience pressured the legislative assemblies of Virginia and Jamaica into granting permanent tax revenues, and Massachusetts lost its chartered powers of self-government.

The trend toward centralized authority accelerated under James II (1685-1688), who aimed at a Spanish style of viceregal colonial administration. His most spectacular innovation was to combine seven colonies into a single unit, the Dominion of New England, which was ruled by a royal governor backed by troops and unimpeded by a representative assembly. James's authoritarian style, however, proved to be as unpopular and ineffectual in the colonies as at home. The Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 spread to America in 1689. The colonists in Boston and New York City dismantled the Dominion of New England and asked the new king William III to restore their lost privileges.

The postrevolutionary reorganization of the American colonies in the 1690s proved to be of great importance. It established a new imperial formula that for sixty years satisfied all interested parties reasonably well but then failed disastrously in the 1760s and 1770s. The royal policymakers under William III (1689-1702) and Anne (1702-1714) abandoned James II's autocratic mode while retaining his policy of central planning and administration. They were much influenced by strategic considerations. From 1689 to 1713, Britain was almost continuously at war with France, and the Crown invested heavily for the first time in American military and naval operations, particularly in the Caribbean. Many of the royal governors in America during these years were military men, who tried zealously to enforce orders from home. A number of previously self-governing or proprietary colonies, including Massachusetts and Maryland, were brought under direct royal rule. A new supervisory body, the Board of Trade and Plantations, was created in 1696, and in this same year Parliament legislated the most comprehensive of its Navigation Acts, which effectually tied colonial commerce to the mother country.

London was now the acknowledged imperial entrepôt. On the fringes of the empire the North American and Caribbean colonies settled into a mutually beneficial trading partnership, in which merchants in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia supplied food and timber to the sugar islands in exchange for molasses and rum. In 1707 England entered into political union with Scotland, which further strengthened the empire by opening the colonies to Scottish talent; by the 1760s, Glasgow merchants were surpassing London merchants in the Chesapeake tobacco trade.

Yet the reorganized British imperial system represented a compromise. The colonists accepted their dependent and provincial status while preserving a great deal of local autonomy. Although the Board of Trade wanted to abolish all proprietary governments in America, it failed to do so. And mutual jealousies between Crown and Parliament discouraged the Crown from initiating any policies in America that required legislative enforcement, beyond the strictly commercial regulations established by the Navigation Acts.

During the reigns of George I (1714-1727) and George II (1727-1760), the home authorities administered the American colonies in a deliberately low-key style until the renewal of war with France in the 1740s and 1750s. The Board of Trade instituted no policy changes. The royal ministers who made colonial appointments were more interested in exercising patronage than in rewarding talent. The governors they sent to America were hard-pressed to combat colonial assemblies with rising pretensions to power. These were years of enormous population growth and economic expansion in America and of self-conscious efforts by the…