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Constitutional Understandings: America


Thomas Hutchinson
Thomas Hutchinson

British officials believed that the British government—and Parliament in particular—had the constitutional power to tax and govern the American colonies. The rulers of Parliament assumed what they called parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament, they insisted, was dominant within the British constitution. Parliament was a brake against arbitrary monarchs; Parliament alone could tax or write legislation, and Parliament could not consent to divide that authority with any other body. As Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts, put it, there could be no compromise “between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the colonies. It is impossible there should be two independent legislatures in one and the same state.”

The Americans, however, had developed a very different opinion of how they should be governed. By the 1720s all but two colonies had an elected assembly and an appointed governor. Contests between the two were common, with governors generally exercising greater power in the northern colonies and assemblies wielding more power in the south.

Governors technically had great power. Most were appointed by the king and stood for him in colonial government. Governors also had the power to make appointments, and thus to pack the government with their followers.

The assemblies, however, had the “power of the purse”: Only they could pass revenue (tax) bills. Assemblies often used that power to gain control over appointments, and sometimes to coerce the governor himself. This was particularly true during the French and Indian War, when governors often asked assemblies to approve revenue bills and requisitions to fund the fighting. Assemblies used their influence over finances to gain power in relation to governors. Colonists tended to view their elected assemblies as defenders against the king, against Parliament, and against colonial governors, who were attempting to increase their power at the expense of popular liberty. Thus when the British Parliament asserted its right to tax and govern the colonies (something it had never done before), ideals clashed. The British elite’s idea of the power that its Parliament had gained since 1689 collided with the American elite’s idea of the sovereignty of its own parliaments.

The British assumed that their Parliament legislated for the whole empire. The Americans assumed that while the parts of the empire shared British liberties and the British king, the colonies could be taxed and governed only by their own elected representatives. The British attempt to tax the colonies was certain to start a fight. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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