Rise of the Assemblies

The upper class of the British mainland colonies increasingly identified their own collective interest with the colonial government’s representative element

after 1690. Accordingly, they strove to buttress the standing of their local assemblies with the same powerful privileges that had been confirmed as

belonging to the British House of Commons following the Revolution of 1688. This development reversed the balance of legislative power established in

the early seventeenth century, when the legislatures’ lower houses did little more than ratify measures initiated by the governors or their councilors.

Continued deference to the chief executive and his appointed advisors ultimately proved incompatible with defending local interests against outside

interference, since the Crown (or an absolute proprietor) named the governor, who then appointed his own advisers to the upper house everywhere but in

Connecticut and Rhode Island (where they were popularly elected). The lower houses of assembly increasingly asserted their own authority during the

eighteenth century as a means of checking the potential threat to local autonomy posed by royal and proprietary officials.

The assemblies simultaneously began shedding the amateurishness and inefficiency that had characterized their deliberations for much of the 1600s. The

lower houses steadily became more proficient in such areas as keeping accurate and detailed records of official activities, gaining greater mastery over

parliamentary procedure and rules of order, and making their internal organization more efficient and flexible through greater reliance upon standing

committees to conduct recurring business and by taking greater care in naming competent individuals to key leadership positions. The assemblies became

more professional and hard working, in large part through the emergence of a new generation of speakers of the house, who were more politically

sophisticated, strong-willed, and determined to elevate their assembly’s standing to a level commensurate with the status of Britain’s House of Commons.

These speakers frequently held long tenures, and they led the members in an often spirited offensive to expand their assembly’s institutional rights and


The lower houses eventually shifted the locus of constitutional power away from the governor and councilors by refusing to permit any external meddling

in their own internal proceedings, by gaining firm control over taxes and the budget, and by refusing to appropriate permanent, independent salaries or

other incomes to executive officers. By keeping governors dependent upon the passage of an annual bill for their compensation, the lower houses used

the power of the purse to ensure that governors could not allow long periods to pass without calling the legislature into session. They also generally

withheld final approval of the government’s budget until the governor had agreed to sign the major acts sought for passage by the speaker. Despite a

considerable range of gubernatorial powers (including the rights of vetoing any measure, of summoning or dismissing a legislative session at will, of calling

elections with little advance notice, and of packing the upper house with his own supporters), a determined lower house had the advantage because the

governor was dependent upon local revenues to carry out his duties not to mention receive his pay.

Because of the general inattention to colonial affairs by the Privy Council and even the Board of Trade’s members, governors rarely obtained any effective

backing from the British government that would enable them to coerce assemblies into compromising on most disputes, much less to press a lower house

into backing down on matters of constitutional principle or measures strongly demanded by the voters. Under such conditions, the lower house succeeded

in gaining the initiative in legislative proceedings, establishing itself as the dominant force in colonial government, and maintaining that position throughout

the eighteenth century.

Well before the colonial period ended, representative government had displaced imperial or proprietary institutions as the center of political power in

Anglo-America. The lower houses of assembly no longer acquiesced to the constitutional primacy of the governor and his council as they had during the

seventeenth century. They saw themselves as entitled to the same legislative privileges accorded by the British Crown to the House of Commons, and

they exercised de facto local autonomy in nearly all matters of lawmaking, except regulation of oceanic trade, issuing currency, and amending the

common law.

Thomas L. Purvis


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