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Influences on the Emergence of Colonial Government Video

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  • 00:00 Documents that…
  • 00:33 Iroquois Confederation
  • 1:30 Magna Carta
  • 2:11 Mayflower Compact
  • 2:49 Massachusetts Body of…
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were revolutionary documents, their ideas were not pulled out of thin air. This lesson shows some of the earlier documents that helped guide those important texts.

Documents that Influenced the Colonies

As the first colonists in what would become the United States created their various systems of government, they did not do so in a vacuum! Instead, they relied on a rather substantial group of earlier documents and philosophies to guide their way. Some of these were not even written at all, but instead came from oral traditions. Famously, we know that Thomas Jefferson all but plagiarized his 'life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness' from Mill's 'life, liberty, and property,' but other documents played an important role, too.

In this lesson, we will look at four of those documents. We'll learn not only about the history of each document, but also how it influenced the colonies.

Iroquois Confederation

One of the first groups that the colonists would have encountered as they pushed west from places like New York were the Iroquois, a confederacy of Native American tribes based around what is now upstate New York. The Iroquois were famous even then for their Iroquois Confederation, an agreement of six tribes that mandated that members not raid each other's villages, that treaties be made as a collective unit, and that stability was maintained across the tribes.

Another huge part of being in the Iroquois Confederation was that members pledged to defend one another if attacked. For the colonies, this was a great idea. After all, few could afford the military necessary to defend against a full attack on their own. Further, the Confederation placed emphasis on ceremony and rituals, not individuals. For the governments that would become the United States, this emphasis on institutions was a big inspiration.

Magna Carta

The idea of valuing institutions over individuals goes back even further, to 1215. Obviously, this was nearly 400 years before the first colonists arrived at Jamestown, but the effects of that date were still in play. This is because this was the year that the Magna Carta was signed. The Magna Carta was signed by King John to guarantee certain rights to the nobility of England.

While historians typically overplay its importance in comparing it to an early Constitution, the fact is that the Magna Carta actually only affected 10% of the English population. That said, the central point of the Magna Carta, that no one person was above the law, resonated with the colonists.

Mayflower Compact

That idea that everyone should agree to follow one code of laws was featured in the founding of one of the most famous colonies in British North America: Plymouth. Started by the pilgrims, a group of religious outcasts from the mainline Anglican Church, this group settled in Massachusetts in 1620.

Before landfall, the men of the group all signed the Mayflower Compact, a document that set forth the basic rules of the colony. In short, the philosophy was simple: play by the rules and have the same chance of survival in the new society as anyone else, or disagree and be thrown out of the colony.

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