<Standard 5.8..................................................................................................................................Standard 5.10>

Explain the reasons that the language, political institutions, and political principles of what became the United States of America were largely shaped by English colonists even though other major European nations also explored the New World.

Topics on the Page

A. the relatively small number of colonists who came from other nations besides England
B. long experience with self-government
C. the high rates of literacy and education among the English colonial leaders
D. England’s strong economic, intellectual, and military position

Focus Question: How were the political institutions and philosophies of the United States shaped predominantly by English colonists?

Though also colonized by the Dutch, French, Spanish, and other nations, the culture of colonies which were to become the United States were predominantly shaped by English. This is evident in the language, political institutions and principles of the colonies. There are a few reasons why the English were dominant.
  • Population-wise, the English were the clear majority. Many of these English settlers were Puritans who stressed literacy and education in order to properly read and understand the Bible. The descendants of Puritans maintained this literacy and thus developed a culture of participation and unity based on the English language.
    • This participatory culture was further evident in the politics of the English colonists. Many of these colonists had participated in government at home in England and designed a similar system of representative government in America.
      • The British policy of "salutory neglect" further encouraged self-government in the English colonies.
        • Prior to the Revolution, the British military was far mightier than their colonial rivals. New Amsterdam was surrendered to the English by the Dutch, and became New York. In the French and Indian War, the British defeated the French and cemented their control over the eastern part of North America.
  • For an overview of Britain's dominion over North America, as well as to learn more about the role of women, check out this video.

How the Americas were colonized in 1763.

USA map National_park_quarters_map.pngFor more, see United States History I.2

A. Relatively small number of colonists who came from other nations besides England

Great Britain, with England in dark orange
Great Britain, with England in dark orange

  • New England settlement occurred in 1629 and lasted till 1641, at this time about 20,000 Puritans settled. Through out the next 150 years, their “Yankee” descendants would immigrate.
  • The colonies consisted of about 60% British and 33% of German immigrants by 1680. By 1780 about 17% of the New York’s population was of Dutch settlers. The rest consisted of mostly English with a wide mixture of other Europeans and about 6% Blacks.
  • From 1717 to 1775, the colonial western frontier was mostly Presbyterian settlers from northern England border lands including Scotland and Northern Ireland.
    • For more information on colonial life of British settlers, click here to read about gender roles.

British colones are shown in pink

B. Long experience with self-government

Self-government can be described as a people or group that can exercise all the functions of power without the aid of an outside authority.

1. The Glorious Revolution occured in England in 1688, replacing absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy ruled by parliament. This revolution produced a ripple effect in American colonies, leading them to establish new governments.
  • For more on the Glorious Revolution, check out this video.

2. Though not sovereign, colonies in American demonstrated self-governance and independence. Many colonists who came from England participated in government at home, and carried this tradition to America.
  • The colonies elected representatives and created assemblies. In the Virginia Colony, the House of Burgesses was established, which was the first democratically-elected legislative body in the colonies.
  • The was modeled after British Parliament, and members would meet annually to vote on taxation and local law.
  • The Massachusetts Bay Colony provides another example. There, Puritan leaders created a representative government which was basically free of English control.

3. The early Puritan settlers of Massachusetts had strong political leaders, notably John Winthrop, who helped lead to the formation of a distinct society in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  • While the political philosophy of Winthrop was more authoritarian and less tolerant than the eventual political philosophy of the founding fathers of the United States, his leadership helped establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony as an independent political entity.
  • Roger Williams, who was banished from Massachusetts, helped establish Rhode Island as a politically distinct state and establish the principle of the separation of church and state that would later become so influential in the formation of the United States government. His concept of the 'Wall of Separation' inspired the later work of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in ensuring religious freedom.
  • John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" was an early example of American exceptionalism, calling for New Englanders to strive to be a "city upon a hill," and advanced the idea of a covenant between god and the settlers of the of the colonies. For more on Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay colony, click here.

Massachusetts_state_seal.pngMore on the Massachusetts Bay Colony

3. Town meetings:

  • In the early colonies, white males of the town discussed issues with other community members and voted on them.
  • This is one of the earliest examples of direct democracy.
A town meetinghouse in Marlboro, Massachusetts

lessonplan.jpgA lesson plan simulating a town hall meeting.

For more about town meeting form of government, see

4. The American Revolution:

The colonists' break from British control showed their desire for self-governance and independence

Multimedia.pngThis link leads to a great video about the American Revolution

primary_sources.PNGThe Mayflower Compact was the first written doctrine asserting self-government in what is now the United States.

The signing of the Mayflower Compact by Jean Leon Jerome Farris. PD-Art

external image Holy_Bible.JPG

C. The high rates of literacy and education among the English colonial leaders

a. By 1710 the literacy rate rose to 70%. By the time of the American Revolution, the literacy of North America was 90%. A lot of this arose because of the Puritan stress on Bible reading.
b. Other institutions had colony leaders and teach Puritans how to read and write and cement their Puritan beliefs. The fear of limited or no education would result in a barbarous lifestyle.

D. England’s strong economic, intellectual, and military position

1) The British conquest hurt the indigenous civilizations in America dramatically. Through military force and European diseases, the indigenous people were not able to withstand British force.
  • For more information about the treatment of Native Americans, read this essay and watch this video.

2) The Virginia settlements were a huge source of labor filled by many indentured servants who were looking for a new life in the colonies. Most indentured servants were English farmers who were pushed out of their land due to overcrowding and enclosure of land.

3) The Industrial Revolution centered itself in New England, and the advancements from the period can still be seen today.

4) The surrender of New Amsterdam to England (thus becoming New York) gave the English control of the powerful harbor and trading hub and ended Dutch colonial interests in the New World.

Multimedia.pngA video on the takeover of New Amsterdam with discussion questions and information on Dutch influences on American government

Multimedia.pngThis link is a great link that clearly describes the relations that the English had with the Natives they encountered in the New World

5) The French and Indian War resulted in the virtual expulsion of the French from the colonies while confining the Spanish to the south and west. This gave the English control of the eastern part and cemented their dominance.

6) New England holds some of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States, notably Harvard University, which was founded in 1636. In total, there were nine colleges and universities founded in the British Colonies in the Americas prior to the American Revolution.


For an overview of Puritan settlement, check out this lecture.
Check out this abridged timeline of Colonial America.
To learn more about silenced voices, read Carol Berkin's First Generations or Brandon Marie Miller's Women of Colonial America

Works Cited

[1] English Colonies In North America. (2007). In Wikipedia [Web]. Retrieved April 16, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_colonies_in_North_America.
[2] History of the Americas. (2007). In Wikipedia [Web]. Retrieved April 16, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Americas.
[3] New England. (2007). In Wikipedia [Web]. Retrieved April 16, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_England.
[4] Puritan Beliefs. (2007). In Wikipedia [Web]. Retrieved April 16, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puritan#Beliefs.
[5] United States Population and Immigration. (2007). In Wikipedia i> [Web]. Retrieved April 16, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Immigrants_to_the_United_States#Population_and_immigration_1600-1790_AD

Image IDs from left to right

1. Map of England Wikimedia Commons, "Europe location ENG2".
2. British Army in Concord Wikimedia Commons, "British Army in Concord Detail".
3. Holy Bible Wikimedia Commons, "Holy Bible".
4. Slatersville Mill Wikimedia Commons, "Slatersville mill".