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A Catholic Haven in Maryland

The use of joint-stock companies enabled investors to raise the capital needed for a colonial venture in the New World, but it also revealed several problems to the political standing of the King. In Virginia, the joint-stock system contributed to wars with Native Americans, exploitation of indentured servants, high death rates, and financial losses. Business charters could be bought on the open market by forces unfriendly to the king and turned into government charters that practically ruled independent of royal authority. The King, as a limited monarch, could only cancel such corporate or joint-stock charters if the corporation violated the rather general provisions of the charters themselves.

To protect against any possible challenge to his royal authority, the King devised a new form of colonial charter, the proprietary colony. According to this system, the King would grant charters directly to his friends and supporters, who would in turn serve as proprietors (something akin to a manager or administrator), running the colony in the King’s name. This system enabled the King to reward those loyal to him with large grants of land, but it also meant that his friends and supporters could have almost absolute control over the colony. The only legal limits placed on the proprietor’s powers were that he must obtain the consent of the colony’s freemen (generally taxpaying property owners) for all laws passed, and that these laws for the colony must be consistent with those of England. The proprietor owned of all the land, so he could keep it for himself or rent it out, sell it, or grant it to whomever he wished. Generally, however, the proprietors found that the only way to make money was to give the land free to immigrants as a headright, and then charge a “quitrent” (a feudal tribute, something between a tax and rent) of a penny an acre per year.

The first proprietary charter was given to Cecil Calvert, whose title was Lord Baltimore, and the charter established the colony of Maryland. Lord Baltimore had two goals in establishing Maryland: to make money and to provide a haven for Roman Catholics within the English dominion. He first tried to set up a feudal manorial system with lands farmed by tenants but soon found that, to make money, he had to give away the lands to all who would immigrate and bring over family members, servants, slaves, and charge them all quitrents. Although Catholics were no longer officially persecuted in England, they were still sometimes treated as second-class citizens in England. They could not always freely worship or immigrate to other American colonies (especially New England, which was dominated by Puritans and Separatists) to take advantage of the opportunities there. Lord Baltimore wanted to be sure that Catholics could do so in his colony of Maryland, so in 1634, Cecil Calvert sent the first 200 settlers to Maryland. He did not go himself, but members of his family did, and his younger sons served as some of the early governors of the colony. Benefiting from the experience and proximity of earlier colonies, Maryland did not suffer the high death rates of Virginia or Plymouth, and it built its economy around tobacco and other cash crops.

As the experience of Virginia had proven, the consent of the governed was a necessary precondition to a functioning colony. But at first, the governor of Maryland was appointed by the proprietor and enjoyed almost dictatorial powers. He could command the militia, regulate commerce, and serve as the chief judicial officer. He also appointed all county officials directly, including sheriffs and justices of the peace, as well as the council, or upper house of the legislature. However, because the proprietor was required to have the consent of the people, he directed the governor to allow freeholders to elect the lower house of the legislature beginning in 1635.

Despite Lord Baltimore’s best intentions, his Catholic haven was quickly filled with Protestant settlers, and conflicts soon arose between the Catholic leadership of the colony and the Protestant majority. The situation was particularly tense during the English Civil War. A power struggle between the King and Parliament, the Civil War lasted from 1642 to 1649 and resulted in the overthrow of the King and the establishment of a commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell and his son from 1649 through 1660. The turmoil abroad led to the passage of the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649, which guaranteed freedom of worship to all Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike. Nonetheless, religious quarrels continued during the colonial period and, at times, the rights of the Catholic minority were restricted.

A Feudal Utopia in the Carolinas

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles II, son of Charles I, resumed the chartering of proprietary colonies. In terms of government, the same basic rules applied, but the immigrants began coming not directly from England but from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, France, the German provinces, and the other English colonies in America. The area near Albemarle Sound and Cape Fear River already had some settlers, but it was not included in any existing charter. Although claimed by Spain, the lands further south, as far as the Spanish outpost of Saint Augustine in Florida, were also unorganized by European powers. To both expand his political influence and prevent the Spanish from settling any further north, King Charles II granted a charter to a group of powerful supporters and investors; they called themselves the “Lords Proprietors” and named their settlement Carolina after the King. Setting out from England in 1669, the Lords Proprietors stopped first in Barbados to pick up more settlers. The island had originally been settled by English immigrants and owners of small farms, but the introduction of African slaves had resulted in most of Barbados being absorbed into large plantations. English farmers, pushed off the land by the plantation owners, looked to the Lords Proprietors for a new chance in Carolina. Curiously, the very farmers who had been displaced by slavery in Barbados became the first major slave owners in the Carolinas. Soon, slaves made up a large part of the population and, by 1708, they represented more than half the population. The economy of the Carolinas was based on slaves and the goods they were compelled to produce. Considered the center of the American slave trade, the Carolinas attracted sellers and buyers from throughout the New World, and many made their fortunes in the slave markets. Once sold, slaves sent to Carolina farms typically worked fields to produce staple crops that helped the colony flourish. Some tobacco was grown, but settlers found that they were able to make the most money using slave labor to grow rice and indigo and to cultivate the production of naval stores. The success of the Carolina colony convinced more settlers from England and Barbados, as well as Virginia and New England, to migrate there. As a result, the settlement at Charles Towne (later shortened to Charleston) soon became the largest city in the English colonies.

The Lords Proprietors hoped to make money from the settlement of Carolina, but they also sought to establish a society that blended the best of medieval Europe and the Enlightenment. Under the “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina,” the Lords Proprietors and their families would constitute a hereditary nobility that would control two-fifths of the property. The nobles would serve in the upper house of colonial government, and the Proprietors would appoint the governor. The upper house would have the sole right to initiate legislation, but it would have to be approved by the lower house. Three-fifths of the property would be available to ordinary settlers who would pay a quitrent and elect the lower house.

The Fundamental Constitutions were not popular. The primary purpose of the proprietors was to make a profit, and the hereditary nobility and governmental aspects of the “constitutions” discouraged immigration; settlers could find better land deals, have more say in government, and avoid the artificial Carolina nobility by settling in other colonies. The lower house soon demanded and got the right to initiate legislation but quarrels continued and, by 1700, the Fundamental Constitutions were a dead letter. In 1715, a war with the Yemassee tribe broke out, and, in 1718, pirates attacked, and the Proprietors proved unable to defend adequately their own colony. As a result, a rebellion broke out in Charleston, overthrowing proprietary rule and organizing a provisional government. The situation was so chaotic that, in 1729, the British government bought out the rights of the Proprietors, and split Carolina into two royal colonies. The division greatly benefited those settlers living in the northern part of Carolina, because suddenly they were able to create their very own government instead of being dominated by southern landowners living near Charleston. However, the creation of two colonies did not do much to settle the old east-west rivalries. In North Carolina, western settlers continually felt underrepresented in colonial assemblies, a fact that contributed to the conflicts of the Regulator Movement in the eighteenth century.

Although the Church of England was the established and preferred church in the Carolinas, religious rivalries persisted, especially between the Church, French Huguenots and New England dissenters (including Puritans, Baptists and others). Eventually, harmony was restored by a series of compromises that extended limited religious freedom to most settlers. The Huguenots were considered members of the Anglican Church and allowed to use a French-language prayer book. Dissenters were allowed to vote and hold office despite their refusal to take communion as part of the Church of England.

The proximity of the Carolinas to Spanish Florida and the frequent wars fought between England and Spain caused considerable unease to southern settlers. Raids by Spanish troops and Native American allies were not uncommon and, in 1739, the Spanish tried to weaken the King’s power in America by promising freedom to any South Carolina slave who could reach Florida. Some individual slaves were able to make their way to Florida and gain their freedom as a result of this ploy, but the major impact was that it sparked the Stono Slave Rebellion of 1739. The insurrection cost the lives of twenty white settlers and a much larger number of slaves. When it was finally put down, South Carolina not only tightened its control over slaves but also realized that the colony needed more protection from the Spanish. That protection, they hoped, would come from a “buffer” colony called Georgia.

A Second Chance for Wayward Souls in Georgia

By 1732, momentum grew to establish a new settlement between South Carolina and Spanish Florida. After all, Spanish Florida served as a base for Native American raids and provided a refuge for runaway slaves; in addition, Saint Augustine was a major Spanish outpost from which to launch attacks on British America. Furthermore, as England (now united with Scotland and Wales and called Great Britain) continued to change from a feudal and agricultural economy to a commercial economy, large numbers of people were displaced and thrown out of work. As more and more destitute Englishmen congregated in cities with few prospects for employment, concerned people worried that these conditions would lead to lives of poverty, indebtedness, alcohol abuse, and crime. British General James Oglethorpe, leading a group of twenty-one philanthropic “trustees,” was determined to improve England’s urban situation and removed the Spanish threat in the New World by establishing a new colony named after King George II.

The colony of Georgia would serve as a military buffer between South Carolina and Florida. Because stationing regular troops in the New World was a major expense for the government, a militia force of private citizens usually defended the colonies. To ensure a large militia, the trustees of Georgia allotted land to farmers in plots of fifty acres or less. Because slaves were not often trusted with weapons, and they might also join the Spanish, slavery was outlawed in Georgia. Also, the philanthropists also wanted Georgia to be a haven for those who had fallen on hard times in England and needed a new start. If slaves did all the work, then these white settlers might never become useful and contributing citizens and, worse yet, might fall into the bad habits of sloth and drink. And so rum was outlawed as well. The trustees’ dream of a “debtor’s utopia” would soon come face to face with reality.

First, the trustees, fearful of bringing over unworthy debtors who would fall back into their shiftless ways, set such high standards that only a handful of the original settlers who established Savannah, Georgia, in 1733 were debtors. The rest were middle-class immigrants who paid their own way. Moreover, the poor sandy soil along the Georgia coast made it hard for even the most industrious farmers to make a decent living on fifty or even 100 acres. Hearing tales of the tremendous fortunes being made in South Carolina, settlers began demanding the right to own larger tracts of land and to gain the advantage of the “modern” institution of slavery. Denied things in Georgia, many simply crossed over to South Carolina and settled there instead. The prohibition of rum was also problematic, because Europeans produced few products that the Native Americans wanted other than rum. Because rum was forbidden to Georgians, the Native Americans sent most of their lucrative business to the South Carolinians. Defeated and demoralized by these developments, the trustees voted in 1751 to allow both slavery and rum as well as the right to accumulate large acreages of land.

The trustees had assumed that their colony of debtors would be so grateful for the fresh start in the New World that they would not demand a voice in the government. In fact, the trustees did not trust debtors and paupers to rule themselves, and General Oglethorpe ruled with near dictatorial powers. Before long, however, the settlers were unwilling to put up with this violation of traditional English rights. Again bowing to pressure from the settlers, the trustees called the first elected assembly in 1751, although it had no real power to legislate. It could only make recommendations to the trustees and hope for the best.

When the trustees’ twenty-year charter expired in 1752, Georgia became a royal colony. Free from the strict regulations set forth by General Oglethorpe and the trustees, the colony economically and politically began to resemble the Carolinas. Producing tobacco, rice, indigo, and timber, it developed into a plantation economy of widely dispersed plantations and farms. Few roads were because there were many rivers and streams to provide abundant river transportation. Politically, Georgia established a bicameral legislature with an appointed upper house and an elected lower house. Still, the governor was appointed by the King, and his salary as well as the salary of many of his officials was paid by the crown, not the legislature. He also had a small local cavalry force and did not have to rely entirely on the militia.

In terms of religion, Georgia was a heterogeneous mix. Although the Church of England was the established religion, religious minorities came to the colony in large numbers as early as 1733. From the beginning, freedom of worship was guaranteed to all except the Catholics, who were forbidden to immigrate in the early days for fear that they might join their Catholic brethren in Spanish Florida. The relative religious freedom contributed to the fact that non-Anglican Protestant groups (or “dissenters” including Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians) constituted the majority in the colony.

The Southern Colonies in Context

Despite the different motivations by the various proprietors, certain common themes or trends had developed in the southern colonies by 1750. Attempts to either set up a feudal or hereditary system or to rule without a legislative assembly had failed. The southern colonies had adopted the English tradition of a colonial assembly, which attached voting rights to property ownership, not birth. Moreover, although as the House of Commons had not redrawn its own districts to include the colonies (resulting in no direct representation in Parliament), the east-west struggles of settlers convinced colonists that new districts should be created in colonial assemblies to include the large group of people who had migrated westward. As a result, the assemblies came to represent geographic districts, not the entire class of commoners.

All the colonies had bicameral legislatures, typically with an appointed upper house and an elected lower house. The governors were appointed by the King or Proprietor and, in theory, had unlimited veto power over the assemblies, but the lower houses had gained the right to initiate as well as approve of legislation; in effect, the legislatures had veto power over the governor and the upper houses. Control of the “purse strings” was also seen as a basic right. Moreover, except in Georgia, governors had neither a police nor military force. Generally, the only military force in the colonies was the militia. Except for Maryland, local officials, including sheriffs, were also elected. Typically, the Anglican Church controlled county governments, but without a bishop in the colonies or a central church authority, each county was usually left to its own business.

Despite the economic success and the relative political freedom, there were no large towns in the South except for Baltimore, Charleston and Savannah. The southern colonies had extensive networks of rivers and streams, and much of the population was served directly by water transportation. Most of the population lived on the farm or plantation, going to the city only for court days (a major spectator sport) or horse races. Wealthy citizens sometimes went to the provincial capital to meet in the short legislative sessions. The representatives were elected by all property owners, large and small, but southern farmers tended to defer to the wealthy and successful.

Although positioned at the very edge of the British Empire, inhabitants of the southern colonies still considered themselves to be British citizens or citizens of their individual colonies. However, by creating a society based on slave labor and agricultrual production, these colonies established a way of life, distinct from that of England and even from its colonial neighbors to the north.

Chapter II Vocabulary Terms

Proprietary Colony

Toleration Act of 1649

Fundamental Constitutions


Church of England

Stono Slave Rebellion

James Oglethorpe

Bicameral Legislature

Chapter II Review Questions

1. Why was Maryland founded?

2. Discuss the major crops and industries in Maryland?

3. Opinion: Why do you suppose attempts to set up a feudal society in America failed?

4. Why was Carolina founded? Why did the King buy back Carolina’s charter, and why was the colony dividend in two?

5. In what ways was the population of the Carolinas different from earlier English colonies?

6. Why was Georgia established? To what extent were the ideals of the founders realized? Why?

7. Why did proprietors typically give in to settlers’ demands for certain property and political rights?

8. Why was it important that southern colonies had bicameral colonial legislatures?

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