Strike up a conversation that touches on religion or politics and the sparks of division fly out almost spontaneously. This is nothing new in American culture. It was present even before it found its way into the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Many of the American Colonists were happy with the benefits accorded them by the Parliament and King George III. This included the right of Merchants to trade with other English colonies including those in Canada; protection from piracy at sea; protection from foreign invasion by enemies of England; and a reliable means of transportation between England and the Colonies for both people and merchandise. A hidden value that is often overlooked in the study of Colonial America is the role that divisiveness played in uniting the 13 Colonies against the rule of King George III.
In royal colonies, governors were appointed by the Crown to represent its interests. Before 1689, governors were the dominant political figures in the colonies. They possessed royal authority transmitted through their commissions and instructions. Among their powers was the right to summon and dissolve the elected assembly. Governors could also veto any bill proposed by the colonial legislature.
Gradually, the assembly successfully restricted the governor’s power by asserting control over budgets, including the salaries of the governor and other officials. A governor could find his salary withheld by an uncooperative legislature. Governors were often placed in an untenable position. Their official instructions from London demanded that they protect the Crown’s power from usurpation by the assembly; at the same time, they were also ordered to collect more colonial funding for Britain’s wars against France. In return for military funding, the assemblies often demanded more power.
To gain support for his agenda, the governor could reward supporters by appointing them to various offices such as attorney general, surveyor-general or as a local sheriff. These offices were sought after as sources of prestige and income. He could also reward supporters with land grants. As a result of this strategy, colonial politics was often divided between a governor’s faction (the court party) and his opposition (the country party). So the seeds of divisiveness were sown on American soil long before it became politically acceptable..
Divisiveness Within the Councils
The executive branch included an advisory council to the governor that varied in size ranging from ten to thirty members. In royal colonies, the Crown appointed a mix of placemen (paid officeholders in the government) and members of the upper class within colonial society. Members served at the pleasure of the King. When there was an absentee governor or an interval between governors, the council ran the government.
The governor’s council also functioned as the upper house of the colonial legislature. In most colonies, the council could introduce bills, pass resolutions, and consider and act upon petitions. In addition to being both an executive and legislative body, the council also had judicial authority. It was the final court of appeal within the colony. The combined roles promoted the divisiveness that arises when there were disagreements over legislation that affected wealth or status in the colony.
Divisiveness Within the Assemblies
The lower house of a colonial legislature was a representative assembly. Members were elected annually by the propertied citizens of the towns or counties. Usually they met for a single, short session; but the council or governor could call a special session when needed.
As in Britain, the right to vote was limited to men with real estate holdings sufficient to ensure they had a vested interest in the welfare of their communities”. Six colonies allowed alternatives to land ownership such as personal property or tax payment that extended voting rights to owners of urban property and prosperous farmers who rented their land. Groups excluded from voting included laborers, tenant farmers, unskilled workers and indentured servants and anyone who lacked a “stake in society”making them vulnerable to corruption.
Tax issues and budget decisions originated in the assembly. Part of the budget went toward the cost of raising and equipping the colonial militia. As the American Revolution drew near, this subject was a divisive topic between the provincial assemblies and their respective governors.The perennial division between the colonial governors and the assemblies are viewed, by some historians, as signs of a rising democratic spirit. However, those assemblies generally represented the privileged classes, and were protecting the colony against unreasonable executive encroachments. Legally, the crown governor’s authority was unassailable. In resisting that authority, assemblies resorted to arguments based upon natural rights and the common welfare. This supported the notion that governments derived their authority from the consent of the governed. This belief became the tipping point when the Continental Congress met to consider the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Without a belief in consent of the governed, no British Citizen of that era could contemplate Independence because that would violate the Covenant between the king and his subjects — a covenant blessed by God. Fortunately most of those chosen to represent their respective Colony in this matter were more inclined toward the consent view than to the covenant view.
Reunification and Resolve
In May 1776, the Continental Congress called for the creation of new governments “where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established” and “that the exercise of every kind of authority under the … Crown should be totally suppressed”. The Declaration of Independence in July further encouraged the states to form new governments, and most states had adopted new constitutions by the end of 1776. By tradition and the political protocol of that era, the revolt against King George III should never have taken place. We can speculate that the other colonies under English rule in the 18th Century, including Canada, Australia, and India, were not divided in their belief in the covenant so they never reached the tipping point at which they withdrew their consent to be governed by the Crown. And that is the hidden value we can find in the divisiveness that still agitates Americans.
“Geography divides people only if the people allow it — faith divides people only if the people allow it — intellect divides people only if the people allow it — politics divides people only if the people allow it. So, unless the people allow it, nothing can tear our world apart. Unless you allow it, nothing can tear our society apart.”
― Abhijit Naskar, Aşkanjali: The Sufi Sermon