Understanding the history of England in the 1600's is critical for understanding the history of the English colonies in America in the 1700's. Much of the legal and philosophical groundwork for the American Revolution was laid during the English Civil War and subsequent Glorious Revolution in the 17th Century. The concepts of limited government, of inalienable rights, of consent of the governed were all brought to new heights by the English in the 1600's.

The English Civil War (also known as the “Great Rebellion”) occurred when supporters of the King, Charles I (known as “Cavaliers”) fought against the supporters of Parliament. At stake was practical control over the government of England. At the heart of the dispute was taxation. The King needed the cooperation of Parliament to collect his taxes – but in return, the elected representatives wanted more control in how their tax money was spent and how their government was run. For over a decade, Charles I refused to summon or consult with Parliament. When the Parliament was finally called, they refused to be disbanded by order of the King (the “Long Parliament”). Another issue was religion – Charles I was thought to be sympathetic to Catholics (his wife, the Queen, was Catholic) and this was very unpopular with the Parliamentarians.

Oliver Cromwell is the leader of the Parliamentarians and he is the one that signs that order to execute Charles I. Cromwell becomes “Lord Protector” of England, a quasi-kinglike position that he will occupy until his death in 1658. Cromwell had a religious conversion as a younger man and became a devout Puritan. This makes him popular in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts and very unpopular in the southern colonies, where the Church of England is dominant. Virginia will gladly receive thousands of Cavalier exiles after the Civil War is over. Cromwell focuses on healing and rebuilding England and leaves the American colonies to their typical condition of salutary neglect.

Charles II is brought back as King after the Cavaliers regain power from the Puritans after the death of Cromwell. Charles II literally “retcons” away all evidence of the English Republic under the Lord Protector Cromwell and throws out all laws passed after the death of his father, Charles I. All is again as t once was. For our story, one critical thing happens because of the Restoration – the Province of Carolina is given as a gift to eight wealthy nobleman who suported the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England. The name “Carolina” comes from the Latin “Carolus”, meaning “Charles”.

Puritan New England had been a natural ally of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. When Charles II came to power in 1660, he set about rewarding his friends (the Province of Carolina) and punishing his enemies, as much as he was able. The execution of Mary Dwyer in Puritan New England in 1660 for the crime of being a Quaker was unpopular in England and influential Quakers protested her execution directly to the King himself. As a result, Charles II took more control over the Northern colonies consolidating them into one large administrative unit. Puritans were no longer allowed to persecute others based on religion.

Born in 1588, Hobbes is influenced by the early empiricist Francis Bacon. Hobbes rejects the Aristotelian belief that man is naturally made to live cooperatively in a government. Hobbes believes that man is naturally solitary and predatory and that in a state of nature, there is a “war of every man against every man”. The only way to maintain peace is for a powerful sovereign to take over and enforce peace through threat of force. The king says: “If you submit, I will not kill you.” These ideas, set forth in his book Leviathan (1651), advocate for a strong monarchy as the best form of government. Hobbes supported Charles I but then switched to Cromwell, when Cromwell proved himself more powerful. When Charles II was restored, Hobbes stayed out of favor until his death.

In 1689 and 1690, Locke releases two Treatises on Government. In the first, he argues against the Divine Right of Kings, seen by many as a normal, reasonable position on the nature of government. The argument put forward was that monarchs were like fathers, who had the same power over their subjects as a father would have over his children. It was connected to religion by pointing out that such patriarchal power was first given by God to Adam. Locke attacked the hereditary aspect of monarchy, which again, is something we find repugnant today. But - are we being hypocrites?. We find hereditary power in government to be wrong-headed - but have no problem with hereditary power in business. Politically, we don’t let children inherit their parent’s power - but economically, we not only let it happen, we encourage it and think it normal.

Locke carries on the idea of the social contract from Hobbes. This is the belief that government exists because people have banded together and given up some of their own power and self-control to a government to improve their condition. For Hobbes, the people were giving up that power to a sovereign who had not taken part in this negotiation. So the king owed the people nothing and was not part of the contract. For Locke, the people gave their consent to be governed - and that consent could be withdrawn if the government failed to respect the rights of the people it governed. For Locke, this usually meant confiscation of property without permission. Locke believed that people were born with inherent natural rights that, contrasted with legal rights, could never be taken from them. The phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence is taken from Locke’s ideas about natural rights.

Mary was the daughter of King James II. She was the heir presumptive to the English throne and she was married to a Dutch nobleman, William of Orange. When James II had a son, Mary was no longer directly in line for the throne. This, combined with popular resentment towards the Catholic-leaning James II caused many prominent English politicians and nobles to reach out to William and invite him to make his claim on the English throne, promising him the support of the nobles and Parliament. This nearly-bloodless Revolution is an excellent example of consent pf the governed. The English withdrew their consent from James II and for all practical purposes, hired another King, more to their liking.

To protect themselves against the power of the King, Parliament made William (and Mary, pictured here) agree to a Bill of Rights. This limited the power of the monarchy and identified certain natural rights that could not be taken away from the English people. The English Bill of Rights was heavily influenced by the ideas of John Locke and this belief in a government of limited powers and of the people possessing inalienable natural rights would heavily influence the Founding Fathers during the American Revolution a century later.

Andros was widely hated by the Puritan colonists because he enforced laws regarding religious toleration and as a representative of the King, he was seen as a Cavalier in a land of Puritans who sympathized with Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. Andros soon realized that most of the criticism directed at him came from town meetings, a traditional form of self-government in the Massachusetts Colony. Andros refused to acknowledge the validity of these town meetings and then passed a law that restricted the towns to one meeting per year. This was deeply unpopular in New England.

When word got to the colonies regarding the Glorious Revolution and the replacement of James II with William and Mary, the New England colonists organized a militia and captured Andros. They held him prisoner and set up their own government, reverting back to the forms of self government they had enjoyed under the Massachusetts Bay Company charter. At the same time in New York, another group of colonists captured the Lieutenant Governor of the Dominion and established their own government.

By the mid-1690’s, the provinces of Massachusetts and New York took form from the old Dominion of New England as the colonists renegotiated their charters with William and Mary. The Massachusetts colonists agreed to tolerate other religions as long as the King left them alone and guaranteed them the right to some self-government (town councils).

It is instructive to compare the government of England in 1700 with that of the other leading European power, France. In France, the King was the absolute ruler of his empire. His signature on a document could imprison or execute any of his subjects without a trial. The King of France at this time, Louis the Fourteenth, was known as the “Sun King” and he had centralized all power in France under his personal control. He famously said: l'état, c'est moi – meaning “I AM the State”. Contrast this to England where the King’s power is not absolute, but restrained by Parliament and the English Bill of Rights. England had a worldwide reputation in 1700 for being the only country where the ideas of Locke regarding consent of the governed and natural rights were being honored and folllowed.

In the 1650’s, England passed a set of laws known as the “Navigation Acts” that made it illegal for the American colonies to buy or sell anything that wasn’t transported by an English ship. This basically forced the colonists to do all their trading with England and gave English ships a monopoly on American trade (and kept out competition from the Dutch, French and Spanish). These laws were unpopular but they were rarely enforced by the English. The English government was focused on a series of massive wars in Europe against the Spanish and the French during the late 1600’s and early 1700’s and thus, left the colonies alone. This period of a “laid-back” attitude to the colonies on the part of the English government is known as “salutary neglect” – salutary in the sense that the colonists got used to and came to enjoy being left alone. Pictured here is the Duke of Marlborough, one of the leading English generals in the War of Spanish Succession.

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Colonial Life Day 1 Resources

ActivityThe English Bill of Rights

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Primary SourceJohn Locke's Two Treatises on Government

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TextsLeviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651) and Two Treatises on Government by John Locke (1689)

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Recommended BookRebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution by Peter Ackroyd

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Colonial Life Day 1 Vocabulary

Consent of the governed: a belief that government should only exist through the agreement of the majority of the people. Governments that are formed without the people's consent are not legitimate.Idea was popularized through the writings of John Locke.

Divine Right of Kings: the belief that Kings get their power to rule directly from God. The consent of the people is not required.

Natural Rights: These are rights everyone has that cannot be taken away from them without due process of law. Also known as human rights or inalienable rights.

Navigation Acts: A set of laws passed in England in the 1650's that required the colonies to buy and sell things only from English ships and English companies. These laws gave England a monopoly on trade in the colonies. The Acts were generally poorly enforced and ignored by the colonists.

Salutary neglect: a situation in which things improve (become salutary) if you leave them alone (neglect). This is how the English government treated their American colonies in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries (1650 to 1750)

State of Nature: what life would be like for early humans, before there was any kind of government. Hobbes thought our natural state was the war of man against every other man. Locke thought our natural state was to be cooperative. 

Explorers Timeline

15,000 BCE: Evidence of earliest humans in the New World at Monte Verde in South America

13,000 BCE: The Clovis culture is evidence of the earliest humans in North America

200-900 CE: The Golden Age of the Mayan culture in Central America (the Yucatan)

900-1400 CE: The height of the Mound Builder culture in North America (MIssissippi River)

1350's: Black Death in Europe

1400's: Renaissance begins in Italy then spreads to Europe

1450's: The printing press is invented and spreads through Europe

1453: Constantinople is conquered by the Turks

1488: Bartolomeu Dias becomes the first European to sail past the southern tip of Africa

1492: Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella completes the Reconquista

1492: Columbus makes first contact with Native Americans in the New World

1517: A German priest (Martin Luther) begins a protest against the Roman Catholic Church, as the Protestant Reformation begins in northern Europe.

1519-21: The Spanish led by Cortez, conquer the Aztec Empire.

1519-21: The Spanish led by Pizarro begin a war of conquest against the Incan Empire.

1535: Jacques Cartier explores and claims the shores of eastern Canada for France, while searching for a Northwest Passage to the Pacific

1539: De Soto begins his expedition to the interior of America

1542: The Spanish implement the New Laws that make it illegal for Spanish landowners in the New World to use the Natives as slaves.

1552: The Valladolid Debates are held, one of the earliest attempts to end slavery and improve treatment of Native Americans.

1558-1603: The reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who will expand the power of England and fund the first English explorations of the New World

1565: Spanish permanently settle at Saint Augustine, which becomes the capital of Spanish Florida

1568: The Netherlands rebel against the Spanish king, beginning the Eighty Years War a long and expensive conflict that will nearly bankrupt the Spanish crown.

1585: Sir Walter Raleigh founds a colony on Roanoke Island, near present-day Manteo in North Carolina

1589: Henry IV begins his reign, unifying France and ending the religious wars

1605: Samuel de Champlain founds the first permanent European settlements in Canada (Port Royal in 1605, Quebec City in 1608)

1607: Jamestown is founded by English settlers on the coast of Virginia, in the territory of the Powhatan tribe

1614: Pocahontas marries John Rolfe and they travel to England (along with the very first shipment of Virginia tobacco) where she dies of disease in 1617

1619: The first Africans are brought to Virginia, originally as indentured servants but by the 1650's, as slaves

1620: Puritans seeking religious freedom found the Plymouth Colony in what will become Massachusetts

1630: Puritan leader John Winthrop creates the Massachusetts Bay Company and brings thousands of Puritan colonists with him to America. The city of Boston is founded.

1640's and 50's: The English Civil War pits Royalists who support the King against Parliamentarians who support democratic government

1650's: With the publication of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, the Enlightenment begins in England as science begins to challenge religion

1660: Charles II becomes King of England and the Restoration begins

1663: Parliament passes the Navigation Acts requiring most colonial trade to pass through English ports on English ships and pay English taxes

1675-78: Native leader Metacom fights a war of extermination against the English in the Northern colonies. Ten percent of all English men are killed in this conflict called "King Phillip's War" but the Natives are finally defeated .

1680: The Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico temporarily ends Spanish control of that region

1688: The Glorious Revolution begins in England replaces James II with William and Mary, who agree to a limited monarchy and the English Bill of Rights

1689: John Locke publishes his Two Treatises on Government, which introduces the concept of "consent of the governed"

1689: The Boston Revolt occurs as angry colonists revolt and capture Edmond Andros, the governor of the Dominion of New England

1690's: Spanish colonists found permanent settlements at Santa Fe in New Mexico and at San Antonio in Texas

1692: The Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts demonstrate to the Puritans the need to separate their religion from their government

1701-14: The War of the Spanish Succession focuses the attention of England on Europe and the American colonies are left alone to solve their own problems. This is known as salutary neglect

1730's: Led by charismatic preachers, the First Great Awakening moves American Protestants towards a more personal sense of spirituality

1739: One of the largest slave revolts in the English colonies, the Stono Rebellion, takes place and is violently suppresed in South Carolina, near Charleston