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Colonial Political Parties

The first national political parties in British America, the Loyalists, or Tories, and the Patriots, [ Whigs, later the Federalists] arose from the friction that naturally resulted when a more or less traditional form of government attempted to impose its customary methods and long established precedents upon the American colonies.

In England the principles of self government inherited from the more primitive Anglo Saxons and developed thru centuries of strife with a centralizing monarchy had at last taken on a form which was fairly satisfactory to the upper and middle classes. That profitable partnership entered into as early as 1485 between the Tudors and the English middle class had worked well. The ill advised attempt to overthrow it during the rule of the Stuarts had failed utterly. The Hanoverian dynasty of the 18th century was a repetition of the Tudor without its higher qualities of statesmanship, and, until 1760, with hardly a trace of autocratic self-will.

Quite otherwise was the case in the American colonies of England. In those colonies where the newcomers were largely of English stock, namely, in Virginia and Maryland, and in New England, certain favoring circumstances had given them leadership in the struggle for local self government. The principal New England colony, Massachusetts, was settled in the period of the personal rule of Charles I, when liberty loving Englishmen were turning to America for that freedom denied them at home.

The settlers in this colony, mostly of the non-conforming conservative wing of the radical Puritan party of the time, obtained a charter so entirely favorable to their ideas of local self government and so completely at variance with the theories of the king that it raises a question as to the nature of the influence used to secure such a document. Two other New England colonies, Connecticut and Rhode Island, ultimately procured very liberal charters from Charles II, and a later attempt to undo the mischief and revoke all three of these New England charters came to nothing on account of the expulsion of the Stuart line from England.

The net result of this intelligent and concerted effort on the part of the Puritans in England was the migration of over 20,000 progressive Englishmen of that party to New England, and by 1640 the successful establishment of three self governing commonwealths there. The fourth, New Hampshire, tho later a royal colony, had been long enough under the tutelage of Massachusetts to be thoroly imbued with Puritan principles and her people belonged, of course, very largely to that party.

The important migration to Virginia, however, did not take place until after the victory of the Puritans in England. Between the years 1649 and 1660, over 30,000 Englishmen of the middle class, who sympathized with the king and who were especially opposed to the military despotism of Cromwell, migrated to Virginia, giving this colony thereafter the leadership in America. This migration, far from making Virginia monarchic in tendency or laying the foundation for a feudal aristocracy, established at this focal region in America the English middle class theory of government, which the Stuarts had risked everything to overthrow.

Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 is an excellent proof of the existence of these ideas in Virginia at this early date and of the presence of a large class ready to defend them even by force of arms. Maryland, too, by the peculiar circumstances attending the granting of her charter, had deemed it politic to adopt a liberal and conciliatory policy and by the invasion of Puritans and the constant aggressions of her stronger neighbor, Virginia, she had become in the course of time quite affiliated with the rest of the liberal self-governing colonies of pure English stock.

By 1760, when George III came to the throne, every one of the English colonies had some form of representative assembly and the process of holding an irresponsible executive in check by legislative control over taxation had been quite completely worked out and was being applied with marked effect in such representative colonies as Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The imperial size of Virginia's original land grant, which had been in no wise diminished by later events, had placed upon her shoulders the responsibility for trans-Alleghany settlement in the face of the opposition of France and her Indian allies. Shenandoah Valley, the greatest natural highway in America, and Cumberland Gap opened the west to the Virginians, and the cost of keeping the way open fell upon them alone. The stirring events of the French and Indian War furnished abundant evidence that Virginia had men capable of leadership, and public spirited citizens fully alive to the gravity of the situation.

When George III summoned his Tory cohorts from their long retirement outside English public life and attempted to reorganize the government on the lines of centralized rule and irresponsible monarchy, long established colonial interests, vitally involving every one of the thirteen colonies, were clearly jeopardized.

The various colonial factions or parties, that had sprung naturally from the local clash of executive and legislative power, now coalesced into two parties. The party with a program and a fighting plan was, of course, the Patriot. The Loyalist party lacked organization, a definite goal, and aggressive leaders.

The geographical distribution of the parties is very suggestive. The Patriot party was found largely in the purely English colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and New England, while the Loyalists were distributed chiefly in the more or less non-English middle colonies, the Carolinas, and Georgia. The Loyalist area may be described, also, as including those colonies in which were carried on the most extensive military operations of the British armies, and consequently where the country suffered most from the devastation of war.

It was an unfortunate tendency of early American historians to minimize the size and importance of the Loyalist party, just as it was for the English writers of the Revolutionary era to decry and ridicule the Patriot party. Of these two national parties, the Loyalists were unquestionably the larger up to the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence. The shifting of issues that took place at that date and the adoption by the Patriots of a definitely national program gave them a great moral advantage and very soon changed their evident minority into an increasingly large and effective majority of the American people.

The rise of these two parties is contemporaneous with the birth of the American nation and thus there will always be associated with this portion of political history the added interest connected with this important event. The unrelenting proscription of the defeated Loyalists by their radical opponents, which continued even after the treaty of peace had obliterated the party issues, led to their elimination from all participation in public affairs for a considerable interval of time, depending upon the state of feeling in particular communities or states.

The whole effect was to give the complete control of all governmental matters into the hands of those who, as a rule, were not fitted by nature or experience to decide wisely upon the multifarious details involved in the choice of future policies. Not a little of the very evident financial blundering and administrative weakness of the whole period came as a direct consequence of this complete change in ruling classes at a critical time. No one was better aware of this deficiency than the best of the Patriot leaders themselves, who, nevertheless, found themselves for a time quite powerless to oppose any effective check on the course of popular fallacies.

The colonial conflict between legislative and executive functions had been focused by the British policy after 1760 into a conflict of arms with the supreme executive, and this found expression in the two permanent documents of the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. It became painfully apparent, however, after 1781, that neither of these documents contained the constructive principles for national growth. The commanding influence of Virginia at this critical time has been somewhat slurred over by the advocates of rival sections.

It should always be borne in mind that up to 1825, Virginian presidents held place thirty-two years out of thirty-six years of national life, that the commander-in-chief during the Revolution, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the most important contributors to the Federalist were all Virginians, and that a Virginian chief justice laid the constitutional foundations for our national growth. This was the result of no mere party intrigue, nor was it the outcome of fortuitous circumstances. Virginia had an unequalled English stock which it received in the 17th century, and, from the opportunities afforded by its central position between north and south and east and west, it was the first of the colonies to exemplify in its broad policy and far-sighted men of affairs, the nascent national aspirations and possibilities in colonial life.

On the other hand, the individualistic tendencies and the early development of local government in New England offered the strongest possible contrast to the direction of political evolution in Virginia. This section contributed nothing which will at all compare in breadth of vision or comprehensive statesmanship with the work of the Virginia leaders. Its genius lay in other fields and along lines quite divergent from those of its English compatriot at the south.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:29:13 ZULU