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Systems of Government in the Thirteen Colonies

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  • 0:01 Thirteen Colonies
  • 0:41 Setting up Colonial…
  • 2:08 Colonial Administration
  • 3:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The 13 colonies each had their own systems of government, but all of them worked in similar ways. Explore the various systems of colonial government, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Thirteen Colonies

Today, if you want to learn about the American government, it's pretty simple. Ok, simple may not be the right word, but my point is that the federal government works the same way no matter where you are in the country. Things in Georgia are run pretty much the same way they are in Massachusetts. This was not always the case. Georgia, Massachusetts, and the rest of the original 13 colonies were all under the control of the British Empire, but were operated as independent colonies. This means that each one was set up a little bit different, with different systems of government. And, you thought it was hard to figure out our government now.

Setting up Colonial Governments

So like I said, each colonial government was a bit different, but this doesn't mean that there weren't some basic trends. For example, colonies were set up in one of three ways, and this determined the sort of government that each had. The first style of colonial government was the royal colony. This is also the most basic. In these colonies, the King was in direct control and appointed a governor to be the actual administrator. Pretty easy, right? New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia were all under this form of government.

So what about the other six colonies? Well, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were proprietary colonies. In this system, an individual person or small group controlled the colony. To be clear, the king still owned the land and was in control, but in a proprietary colony, a private investor controlled the entire local government and was given a fair amount of independence by the king.

The last kind of colonial government was found in charter colonies, in which the king essentially allowed the colonists to govern themselves, under a set of rules called the 'charter'. Connecticut and Rhode Island were charter colonies, which meant that they had more political rights and freedoms than most other colonists. Massachusetts also had a charter, although it was still mostly operated as a royal colony.

Colonial Administration

Now, no matter which type of colony you were in, things still had to get done. Laws needed to be enforced, taxes had to be collected, and administration still needed to be…administered. So regardless of who held the power in the colony, most colonial governments consisted of similar parts. At the very top, you had a governor, the appointed official or proprietor who answered directly to the king. There was also a governor's council in most colonies, which consisted of appointed officials who advised the governor. Everything that happened at this level technically had to be approved by the king, but since the Atlantic Ocean is kind of hard to send messages across all the time, this step was often skipped.

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