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An engraving titled The Federalist Pillars. Six pillars are shown representing states, with the sixth pillar falling over. Below the pillars reads United they stand - divided fall.

Early English Colonial Political Institutions and Events

This eLesson was written by Kathy Hagee, a member of BRI’s teacher council. During the time of British colonial rule in North America, the American colonists experienced various opportunities of limited self-rule that would ultimately influence later constitutional ideals during the Founding Era. Self-rule led to the founding principles of representative governance, majority rule, separation of church and state, and revolution. This activity should be used as a review for Period 2 (College Board – AP US History).

Objective: (College Board – AP US History)

Explain how ideas like democracy, freedom, and individualism found expression in the development of cultural values, political intuitions, and the American identity. Colonists’ resistance to imperial control drew on local experiences of self-government, evolving ideas of liberty, the political thought of the Enlightenment, greater religious independence, and diversity.

Resources section:

Handout A Handout B Directions: Read the background for each source below. Then, read each source in Handout A and use it to fill out the table in Handout B. 1619:   House of Burgesses (representative) Established in 1619, the House of Burgesses was the first representative assembly in colonial British North American. The membership was tightly restricted to certain families of wealthy landowners. The House of Burgesses was one of the earliest examples of colonial limited self-government. 1620:   Mayflower Compact (majority rule & Separation of Church and State) After receiving permission to settle in British North America, William Bradford and a group of Separatists left Leiden, Holland for North America in 1619. This group, known as the Pilgrims, signed a governing document called the Mayflower Compact prior to disembarking their ship at modern day Massachusetts. Access our annotated version of the Mayflower Compact here. 1639:   Fundamental Orders of 1639 (constitution) Religious dissenters from Massachusetts founded the colony of Hartford in 1636. These settlers, led by Reverend Thomas Hooker, drew up the first written constitution in American history. This document laid out the provisions for a representative government consisting of a legislature elected by popular vote and a governor chosen by that legislature. 1643:   New England Confederation (colonial unity) Four New England colonies joined together in a military alliance known as the New England Confederation in response to the growing threat of attack from American Indians, the Dutch, and French. Two representatives from each state sat on a board which had limited powers to act on boundary disputes, the return of runaway servants, and dealing with Americans Indians. 1676:   Nathaniel Bacon’s Declaration (colonial revolt) Nathaniel Bacon was a wealthy Virginia planter who led an uprising of poor workers and servants against Governor William Berkeley. Bacon and his followers were angry that royal officials did little to defend the frontier against American Indian attacks despite collecting large amounts of taxes. Bacon released this document to state the reasons for his rebellion.

Activity plan

  • Teacher should ask the following Warm-up question: What were some colonial experiences in limited-self-rule and how did those experiences help formulate Founding Era principles of liberty? (5 minutes) Teacher should list words like “salutary neglect,” “self-government,” and “local rule” on the board to refer back to throughout the lesson.
  • In pairs, students should read each primary source on Handout A and use it to complete Handout B. (20 minutes)
  • Teacher will lead a discussion based on the students’ responses and compare it to the list created during the opening discussion.