The British colonies in North America that would go on to be United States were provinciae, or dominions, of the British Empire; they were commensurate with occupied kingdoms rather than with intra-kingdom provinces such as principalities (“provinces”) or domestic companies. In other words, the colonies were kingdom-level members of the British Empire rather than “provinces” akin to Wales or Kent. They were colonies in the Greek rather than the Roman sense of the word. Reaching this thesis is not as clean-cut as this initial statement may suggest. The colonies were “works-in-progress”; moreover, both medieval and early-modern polity-scales seem to have gone into their design. In other words, they emerged in a period of political transition and are thus difficult to classify.
For help in the classification, I draw on Althusius’ political theory, which emphasizes political completeness and territorial scale as the principal factors in a multi-level framework.[i] Both factors have complicating elements when applied to the North American colonies. Beyond Althusius’ theory, that the terms province and colony, which were applied to the colonies, had more than one possible political meaning each contributes to the ambiguity. To work through these complications, I draw on Bancroft’s theory on the colonies and primary sources.[ii]
The thesis has profound implications for whether the ex-colonies are currently equivalent to European countries or their sub-units; even an approximate answer could potentially help clear up any confusion or category mistakes that have hitherto been undetected or even taken as the default. To suppose that a term’s elasticity implies that everything to which it has referred is equivalent is a fallacy that permits or accommodates category mistakes wherein two different categories are treated as equivalent. To treat provinciae of an empire as though they were equivalent to “provinces” (i.e., domestic principalities) within a kingdom is perhaps the epitome of the modern political category mistake. In the case of the British colonies in North America that went on as independent states to construct a Union, this error involves taking the colonies (and states) as being commensurate with principalities in contemporary European states of another Union. Correcting such an ahistoric error is apt to provoke reactions similar to that predicted of the European kings upon realizing that a new empire consisting of former British colonies existed across the Atlantic. Thomas Pownall, a member of the British Parliament, stated in January, 1780, “the sovereigns of Europe…shall find this new empire crossing all their settled maxims and accustomed measures.”[iii] Similarly, uncovering the basis of a mistaken equivalency is apt to contradict acquired habits of thought and assumed truths. To point to a contemporary category mistake that is generally presumed valid is, in other words, to swim against the current of established neuro-pathways in the modern mind.
The first step to in confronting category mistakes in comparative politics is to construct a framework in which the work of comparative restoration can be done. I construct such a framework here by appropriating from Althusius’ theory.
Althusius’ Theory: Associations of Associations
Althusius’s theory is hierarchical. As such, it can be viewed in medieval terms, as though Aquinas’ chain of being were reflected in there being lower and higher levels of political association. The emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, for instance, was the majestas imperiis crowned ideally by the Pope. In incorporating such a framework to situate the colonies for comparative purposes, I am rejecting the modern proclivity to treat countries of vastly different scales (and composition) as equivalent simply because they have an attribute—namely, sovereignty—in common. As semi-sovereign Unions proliferate around the world, using sovereignty as the definitive basis of equivalence will become increasingly difficult and therefore less useful. Althusius’ theory of human association provides the basis of an alternative from another era.
Althusius presents us with a system of associations of associations, with individuals being the members only of the lowest level: the guild and family. These associations are the members of the village, town, or city association, which represent the lowest level of public association. These local federations are in turn members of province associations, which are the members of kingdom associations. The kingdom level is the minimum scale of political association that is reckoned as normatively sufficient for political completeness. Althusius uses “universal association” to denote being assumed “politically self-sufficient and complete,” and therefore capable of enjoying the rights of sovereignty.[iv] Associations at the empire level are also politically complete, or universal, because they consist of kingdoms and therefore exceed the minimum scale.[v] The local and province association-levels, however, must be politically insufficient, or partial, as they do not meet the minimum—the province associations being members of kingdom associations. While a step-wise leap in scale distinguishes associations of every level from those of the next-smaller, the distinction of political completeness occurs only between the province and kingdom scales.
Also, as members of empire associations, kingdom-level associations are imperial dominions, or provinciae (the Roman term for dominion provinces). Bancroft observes it was by “heaping up conquests, adding island to continent, crushing nationalities, offering a shrine to strange gods, and citizenship to every vanquished people” that the Roman empire “extended over a larger empire the benefits of fixed principles of law.”[vi] The kingdom-level polities were, as dependencies, generally reconstituted as provinciae in the empire.
Provinciae are distinct from “provinces” within a kingdom both in being a leap in scale larger (because “provinces” are the units of kingdoms) and in being deemed politically complete, even as dependencies in an empire. The “contract” of imperial protection in exchange for tribute, even if involuntary for the provinciae, does not render such a kingdom equivalent to a “province” of another kingdom. In the case of the British colonies in North America, these two different senses of province have been conflated, and the elastic historic usage of colony has only enabled the ambiguity. I turn now to discuss the two terms in relation to the colonies, after which I turn to Althusius’ two variables to classify the colonies in general terms as provinciae rather than “provinces.”
The North America Colonies as Provinces
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word province was generally applied to the North American colonies of Great Britain.[vii] As of the early twenty-first century, the term is still being used in reference to the former colonies that are part of the Canadian federation. Addressing people living in the United States, Freeman wrote, “(t)he word “provincial” was, with a near approach to accuracy, often applied to your Thirteen Colonies, while they were still dependencies of Great Britain.”[viii] A dependency is “a country or province subject to the control of another of which it does not form an integral part”[ix] Freeman points out that as dependencies, the colonies were under the jurisdiction of Great Britain without forming integral parts of it. This statement is still rather vague because colony has historically applied both to “province” dependencies akin to domestic principalities and to provinciae dependencies (i.e., dominions, or occupied kingdoms).
The Roman colonies were garrisons or commercial enterprises to be ruled as provinces within the host kingdom.[x] This conception, which prevailed during the medieval period, is distinct from the Greek sense of a colony. The Greeks understood a state to be inherently small. Hence when one reached a certain point in size, it would form, or colonize, another. In other words, “a new Greek colony brought the world a new Greek State.”[xi] Whereas Roman colonies were politically incomplete, and thus inferior to the kingdom-level, those of the Greeks were complete as states, and therefore commensurate to the kingdom-level. The Greek colonies, in other words, could be provinciae, or dominion-members, of an empire. The latter sense is a better fit with the British colonies being analyzed here.
In July, 1749, the governor of New York responded to the reticence of the Assembly to be taxed by Britain by likening the European powers’ colonies to those of the ancient Romans. Defending Britain’s treatment of its colonies, he noted that “(t)he Romans did not allow the same privileges to their colonies, which the other citizens enjoyed.”[xii] The “other citizens” would have included those of the Roman dominions, which the Romans distinguished from their colonies. He was therefore implying that the British colonies were so in the Roman sense of the word—meaning politically incomplete “provinces” rather than complete states on the kingdom-level.
Arnold, too, has the Roman sense in mind where he argues that “a wide difference” exists between a dominion and a colony. He asserts that whereas a British colony is held by the imperial government “in trust,” a dominion is “in absolute fee-simple.”[xiii] He goes on to define “fee-simple”: “We say that a man has an estate in fee simple in those lands with which he is himself free to deal unreservedly, and in order to establish free land, we must put all owners of land, as far as possible, into that position.”[xiv] In the case of dominions, the safeguarding of owners’ freedom over their land is on account of their land-claim existing before the occupation. Arnold points to India as a dominion of Great Britain, meaning that the British government held the land in trust while recognizing that the native people still had rights to the land because they had held the land prior to the British. Arnold argues that this did not apply to the North American colonies because the British regarded them as created ex nihilo. The British government recognized no residual stakeholder claims, such as by the Indians, the colonists, or their colonial assemblies. The land was claimed ultimately by the Crown as a right of first possession.
Arnold’s narrow property-rights argument falls short in that he does not consider the element of political completeness and the related matter of scale. In other words, he does not consider that dominions are treated as occupied kingdoms. In the case of the British colonies in North America, the “creation ex nihilo” element does not exclude the kingdom-elements of political completeness and scale.
Most English jurists of the time considered the colonies in North America to be occupied countries (i.e., dominions). Blackstone’s famous Commentaries states that the North American colonies are “conquered or ceded countries” and therefore that “the common law of England, as such, has no authority there; they being no part of the mother country, but distinct (though dependent) dominions.”[xv] John Holt, Chief Justice of King’s Bench at the end of the seventeenth century, wrote “Virginia, being a conquered country, their law is what the king pleases.”[xvi] Indeed, the British Crown functioned throughout the empire as “the fountain of sovereignty.”[xvii] The king functions here in his imperial capacity (i.e., as an emperor) over political territories commensurate with his (host) kingdom because they are deemed politically complete (i.e., kingdom-level). It is an indication of the colonies’ dominion-status that those having a royal governor (i.e., highlighting the direct relationship to the Crown) generally though not universally, were known as provinces.[xviii] In other words, province here is in the Roman sense of provincia, or dominion, rather than their rendering of colony. I support this point by applying Bancroft’s rendering of the colonies to Althusius’ variables of political development and scale. I argue that Bancroft treats the colonies as essentially occupied nation-states generally-speaking, even though a few of the smaller ones struggled on account of their principality, or “province,” scale to be reckoned as distinct and commensurate.
Seeds of States
As seeds of states, or even de facto states already, the British colonies in North America came far closer to political completeness than the Crown’s label of “plantations” could allow. Even so, the complex nature of their actual and expected completeness complicates their classification as dominions. I turn first to the insufficiency of the commercial status of the proprietary companies, after which I discuss the developmental nature of the colonies as politically complete polities, or states.
Charles I esteemed Virginia precisely “as the country producing tobacco. … Its inhabitants were valued at court as planters, and prized according to the revenue derived from the staple of their industry.” [xix] It did not occur to the king that “there could be in an American province anything like established privileges or vigorous political life.”[xx] His principle was simply “to monopolize the profits of their industry,”[xxi] which he could apply just as well to a company operating in Britain. The problem with viewing the colonies from an exclusively economic standpoint, as if they were simply company plantations is that any political or public element is excluded. Whether by design or necessity, a colony that includes domiciled human beings inevitably involves at least some germinal political association. It follows that a company running a colony such as Massachusetts Bay or Virginia must needs involve governing the colony beyond applying a business calculus.
The question of a proprietary company’s nature, and, ultimately, the colony’s place relative to the host kingdom and the empire, were at issue in 1646 when the democratic resistance in Massachusetts Bay’s Calvinist theocracy appealed to the commissioners in Britain. Robert Childe of the resistance construed the company in a narrow, commercial sense, which implied that it, and therefore the colony as well, were subject to domestic law in England. “The charter,” he stated, “does but create a corporation within the realm, subject to English laws.”[xxii] The colony is within the kingdom and thus subject to the British parliament. Differing from his view, the Massachusetts’ colonial government, seeking to protect its de facto liberties from Parliamentary usurpation, answered that “Plantations are above the rank of an ordinary corporation; they have been esteemed other than towns, yea, than many cities. Colonies are the foundations of great commonwealths.”[xxiii] As an incubator of a state, a “plantation” has a political function that places the company beyond the kingdom’s domestic realm because the state is not within the kingdom. In line with the view of Massachusetts’ General Court, Bancroft asserts, “when the company in England consented in 1629 that “the government and patent should be settled in New England,…the commercial corporation became the germ of an independent commonwealth.”[xxiv] The colony was independent of the kingdom while it was still in the empire. Because the “charter plainly gave legislative power to the whole body of the freemen,…the trading corporation was unconsciously become a representative democracy.”[xxv] That is to say, the company was not simply a commercial enterprise, and it was not operating domestically. Rather, it was the governance structure of a provincia of the empire. It follows that the imperial Crown had a special superintending role to play— supreme legislative authority over the colonies being expressly reserved to the monarch.[xxvi] So the proprietary companies had a rather contingent existence between the imperium and the nescient commonwealth.
Throughout the seventeenth century, for instance, the Ancient Dominion went between proprietary and royal charters. In October, 1623, the king reverted the colony to its original royal charter. Demonstrating its inability to incorporate the political dimension of colonial rule, the proprietary corporation was inflexible. Not surprisingly, in June of the following year, judges appointed by the king ruled that the London Company’s patents were cancelled and the company was dissolved.[xxvii] In 1684, the Crown was able to simply announce that Virginia was yet again a royal province.[xxviii] According to Bancroft, “The canceling of the Virginia patents had restored the monarch the ample authority of his prerogative over the soil.”[xxix] The Crown’s unique authority over the governance of the colony was owing to the soil being beyond Britain.
Even without the royal prerogative concerning provinciae, Childe’s sort of proprietary company would have been ill-equipped to found a commonwealth; the actual ventures were pushed by the people on the ground to go well beyond their cost-benefit calculations. “A corporation, whether commercial or proprietary, is,” according to Bancroft, “perhaps, the worst of sovereigns. Gain is the object which leads to the formation of those companies, and which constitutes the interest most likely to be fostered.”[xxx] Especially where political responsibilities run up against the human instinct for liberty, a commercial mechanism is utterly feckless and impotent. Not surprisingly, none of the proprietary companies lasted through the American colonial period.
In short, the commercial plantation interpretation of the colonies as akin to domestic companies is dubious and ultimately unsustainable. Admitting the existence of a political element is, however, only a first step to realizing the complexity of the colonies’ place in the British Empire. Complicating the matter, the colonies were described on both sides of the Atlantic as embryo states and even occasionally as actual states or commonwealths, which implies political completeness, even if their actual settlements fell short in terms of infrastructure. In general terms, an Aristotelian teleological approach best captures the ambiguity involved. The “already/not yet”—acorn is the tree—element is evident even in the initial aims of the colonial proprietaries.
The desire to create a state or commonwealth was among the rationales in founding a colony in North America. Regarding the founding of Quebec by the French, for example, Bancroft claims Champlain “aimed not at the profits of trade, but at the glory of founding a state,” and that, further south, Raleigh sought to “lay the foundation of states” in his huge expanse of territory known as Virginia.[xxxi] Upon being granted a charter by Charles II, William Penn wrote of his “country” that God might make it “the seed of a nation.”[xxxii] Bancroft asserts that Roger Williams “chose to found a commonwealth” in Providence.[xxxiii] The extent of the land involved and the sheer distance from Britain provided fertile ground for such designs from daring imaginations with long purse-strings.
In a reply to a speech by Governor Hutchinson in which he asserted the impossibility of “two independent Legislatures in one and the same state,” the Massachusetts House of Representatives suggested it had been intended “that the colonies were, by their charters, made distinct states from the mother country”—the two legislative bodies making the two governments “as distinct as the kingdom of England and Scotland, before their union.”[xxxiv] The intention to create states distant from the host kingdom was to plant kingdoms in the empire: that is, dominions, or provinciae.
Upon consideration of the colonial charters and ‘the whole conduct of the crown and nation” toward the colonies until the Parliamentary usurpation from the restoration onward, Benjamin Franklin had the conviction, “that the Colonies originally were constituted distinct states, and intended to be continued such.”[xxxv] Bancroft refers to Rhode Island at its inception as a new state, as though it were already a fait accompli. [xxxvi] He adds that even by 1634, “a nation was already planted in New England; a commonwealth was matured.”[xxxvii] Rather than viewing subjects in the empire’s host kingdom as having sovereignty through their parliament over “their fellow subjects in another part of his dominions,” Franklin viewed the colonial assemblies and the king as the “true legislative authority” in the colonies.[xxxviii] The assemblies, in other words, were in his view comparable to the British Parliament. In a Boston newspaper in 1767, a writer made the point as follows: “Advancing the powers of the Parliament of England, by breaking the rights of the Parliaments of America, may in time have its effects.”[xxxix]
In a debate in Lords on February 3, 1766 over the right of Britain to tax its North American colonies, Camden dwelt “particularly” on the case of Ireland, [xl] which implies an equivalence. Making a similar comparison, Franklin wrote that the colonies “became distinct states, under the same prince, united as Ireland is to the crown, but not to the realm, of England, and governed each by its own laws, though with the same sovereign.”[xli] Accordingly, in his plan for confederating the colonies considered in the second continental congress on July 22, 1775, Franklin specifies that Ireland may join the proposed Union as a member.[xlii] The colonies were essentially kingdoms in the empire. They were thus equivalent to European kingdoms.
Were the colonists overreaching in their claims of being states in the empire, we would not expect to find any such claims from the British. However, there were such claims before the colonies declared themselves to be independent states. Northington, for example, said in Lords on February 3, 1766, that the Americans “have sent deputies to a meeting of their states, at New-York.”[xliii] Furthermore, the Earl of Buckinghamshire said in Lords on February 1, 1774 that Franklin was there “not as the Agent of a Province, but as an Ambassador from the States of America.”[xliv]
The de facto independence that several of the colonies enjoyed for substantial periods contributed to the perception of political completeness in Britain. Burdett wrote from New England to Laud in 1637 against the Massachusetts government, stating that it “was not discipline that was no so much aimed at as sovereignty.”[xlv] Hillsborough warned to W. S. Johnson of Connecticut: “You are in danger of being too much a separate, independent State.”[xlvi]
According to Bancroft, “contests in which…Charles became engaged, and the republican revolution that followed, left the colonists for the space of twenty years, nearly unmolested in the enjoyment of virtual independence.”[xlvii] Colonial documents wre written in an attempt to capture the experience. In 1641, for instance, the Massachusetts Bay colony adopted “the body of liberties” as a written constitution of government. Bancroft asserts that the colony embraced “the freedom of the commonwealth, of municipalities, of persons, and of churches according to the principles of Independency.”[xlviii] The terms “commonwealth,” “independence” and “state” tended to be thought of together. Bancroft likens New England to ancient Israel in terms of settling in a wilderness in virtual independence.[xlix] Meanwhile, Virginia “enjoyed liberties as large as the favored New England.” [l] The Virginians displayed “an equal degree of fondness for popular sovereignty, and fearlessly exercised political independence.”[li] In particular, war was levied, and peace concluded, and territory acquired, all “in conformity to the acts of the representatives of the people…and, practically, all the rights of an independent state, having England for its guardian against foreign oppression, rather than its ruler.”[lii] Of the central provinces, Pennsylvania approached most nearly towards establishing independent power.[liii] Even so, in exchange for imperial protection, these colonies were not de jure independent; as dominions, or provinciae, they were dependencies with respect to the empire even if they could have operated with political completeness. Their de facto independence was significant, however, and served in fact as a precedent of sorts for the establishment of aspiring republics claiming independence in the western expanse of Virginia and North Carolina. The implication was that the colonies had been formed in a Hobbesian state of nature.
In May, 1775, for instance, seventeen representatives met in what is today Kentucky from “a right as a political body…to frame rules for the government of [their] little society,” which they called Transylvania. Describing it as an “infant country,” Bancroft stresses its presumption of independence.[liv] In 1768, W. S. Johnson referred to Connecticut as an infant country.[lv] All of the colonies were infant countries. The span of their growth not only politically, but also in terms of population and settled area, complicates there being a definitive snap-shot of the colonies as states before July 2, 1776.
On March 22, 1775, Edmund Burke gave his speech on conciliation with America. Stressing the implications for British governance of the colonies, he stressed their rapid growth in population as spreading from “families to communities, and from villages to nations.”[lvi] Even though the British could point back to the communities qua plantations of a sort, the colonies’ population growth became difficult for them to ignore, and it was generally known to intimate eventual independence. Northington said in Lords on February 3, 1766, that “the colonies [have] become too big to be governed by the law they at first set out with. They have, therefore, run into confusion…”[lvii] William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, answered with the supposition that the “offspring” had become “too grown and too resolute to obey the parent.”[lviii] Turgot remarked that the colonies were like fruit, “When they are ripe they will drop from the stem.”[lix] Given the statehood implicit in their de facto independence, the colonies were ripe well before they severed themselves from the imperial stem of the mother country.
Bancroft writes that the “infant republics resembled living plants,” which “without effort or consciousness of will unfold simultaneously their whole existence and the rudiments of all their parts, harmonious, beautiful and complete in every period of their growth.”[lx] An Aristotelian element can be gleemed here in the acorn being the tree.
“In civil affairs, as much as in husbandry,” Bancroft continues, “seed-time goes before the harvest, and the harvest may be seen in the seed, the seed in the harvest.”[lxi] He cites Lord Bolingbroke, who in his Idea of a Patriot King translates from Bacon’s de Augmentis Scientiarum: “Nature throws out altogether and at once the whole system of every being, and the rudiments of all the parts.”[lxii] In the case of the infant countries, they were already the tree not only in terms of political completeness, but also in terms of formal territory, which in most cases was commensurate with the sizes of the European countries at the time. In other words, the colonies were provinciae in the sense of being dominions recognized as akin to occupied kingdoms with respect not only to their political completeness as de facto states, but also to their formal size.
Colonial Scale in North America
With respect to scale as well, Althusius’ theory is useful. In addition to being distinguished by political completeness, Althusius’ kingdom-level provincia differs from the “province” member of a kingdom by a leap in scale because one is a unit in the other. This is not to say that a certain amount of land has always counted as sufficient for either one; calibrations have shifted over time. In an given epoch, a territorial threshold scale exists that is normative (in the West) as sufficient for a polity to be deemed a politically complete kingdom, and thus as legitimately an actual or potential provincia of an empire. Because the vast majority of their North American colonies were designed on par with (or exceeding) the European kingdoms of the day scalewise, the colonies could claim to have satisfied the scale litmus-test for being reckoned as provinciae. The British may have designed their colonies territorially with a normative standard in mind for what would count as sufficient for constituting a provincia in its empire.
Such a standard could have been a factor in the British decision to make the separate East and West New Jerseys provinces of New York and finally to reunite the two divisions back into New Jersey. Separately, the two divisions may have been viewed as too small territorially to be members of the empire. The commission to Bernard, a royal governor, states in part: “The Division of East and West New Jersey in America, which we have thought fit to reunite into one Province and settle under one entire Government…”[lxiii] Here divisions—a word suggestive of being partial—is contrasted with “one entire government.” Similarly, a minimum threshold may have been involved in the British acceptance of the New England confederacy on account of the small territories of Province, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine.
I submit that the threshold for provinciae corresponds to the extant default scale for kingdoms, or European nation-states more generally because dominions are traditionally occupied kingdoms. At the very least, the British would have viewed their Provinciae as needing to be of sufficient size to defend themselves against Indian attack. Even if such a scale was bound to increase the likelihood that the colonies would eventually separate from the empire, pride in there being a requisite threshold for membership in the empire could outweigh concerns of future resistance. To be sure, the matter of the North American colonies’ provincia scale suffers from complications.
In most cases, the colonies’ extent of formal territory dwarfed their settled areas, and the growth in population makes this qualification a moving target. However, if the harvest was in the seeds, and the harvest was indeed expected, the design can be taken as decisive in terms of commensurability with European countries of the day. As a caveat, a few of the colonies were formed out of larger ones and were commensurate in their respective territories with European principalities, even as those colonies—unlike their European counterparts—were politically complete by virtue of experiencing de facto independence and building the related governmental machinery. Just as a few independent duchies were extant in Europe at the time, not all of the republics in British North America were comparable to the early-modern kingdoms.
Prima facie, individual proprietors such as William Penn, Roger Williams, and Lord Baltimore, who were granted colonial charters as though fiefdoms, resembled dukes in Britain in that the Crown gave the proprietors title to substantial land that they were to rule in his stead. Suggestive of such a likeness, the original Pennsylvania charter states: “We do hereby erect the aforesaid Country and Islands into a Province and Seigniore, and doe call itt Pensilvania.”[lxiv] “Seigniore” in particular points to the proprietor’s place as a feudal lord of sorts, as though in the hierarchy of rulers within a kingdom. Indeed, having a settled area of six counties prior to the separation of Delaware (and three immediately afterward) likens Pennsylvania as actually inhabited at the time to the scale of a duchy (or to a medieval kingdom). In terms of its formal extent of territory, however, Pennsylvania was at the time on the scale of the early-modern European kingdoms.
In 1635, for example, some of Virginia’s territory was given to Lord Baltimore, “his heirs and assigns, as to its absolute lord and propriety, to be holden by the tenure of fealty only.”[lxv] The feudal nature of “fealty” likened Maryland to a European principality, or “province.” In fact, the colony initially consisted of a number of feudal manors. According to Bancroft, the colony “possessed no considerable village; its inhabitants were scattered among the woods,” each plantation being “a little world within itself.”[lxvi] Even though Virginia did so as well at the time, it had an extent of de jure territory far outstripping those of the consolidated kingdoms in Europe. In utter contrast, Maryland’s territory had been but a part of Virginia (i.e., comparable to a kingdom’s sub-unit) and had boundaries commensurate with a domestic duchy in Britain. The British could legitimately treat Maryland as being on par with one of its domestic principalities in terms of its origins and related scale.
Even so, the colony developed a degree of political completeness not enjoyed by principalities of a kingdom. According to Bancroft, the first assembly of Maryland had “vindicated the jurisdiction of the colony;” the second had asserted its claims to original legislation; and the third framed a declaration of rights.[lxvii] Maryland would stress its equivalency with the other colonies in terms of its political completeness—even holding up the Articles of Confederation after formal independence in order to ensure its place in the new order.
Delaware, too, was a colony that had broken off from a larger one and whose territory was commensurate with a duchy at the time. The colony had been just three of the six settled counties in Pennsylvania before it broke off in 1691. Unlike Maryland, Delaware had a tradition of political incompleteness that complemented its “province” scale. In separating from Pennsylvania, Delaware had its own legislature and tribunals, but only subordinate executive offices before finally getting a governor. This points to the colony’s initial association with political insufficiency or adjunctcy. Going even further back, Bancroft maintains that Delaware’s separate existence is owed to its having been a proprietary in New Netherland, as though the colony were one of the lordships in the Netherlands.[lxviii] Both in terms of its formal territory and beginnings, Delaware bears likenesses to a duchy rather than an early-modern kingdom. In general terms, the colony had questionable legitimacy with respect to scale as a provincia of the British Empire. Moderating this conclusion, however, Delaware constituted a separate government from an act of its own citizens.[lxix] Bancroft refers to Delaware colony as a commonwealth that begin an independent existence.[lxx] It would thus assert its political equality with the larger colonies, even though it was incommensurate with them in its beginnings and size. In respect to both Maryland and Delaware, the territorial extent did not far outstrip the early settlements, hence both colonies fell short of the provincia-scale threshold. These colonies were not the only two to fall short, though the others to the north were of such proximity to each other and to Massachusetts Bay that the problem of those anomalies was handled differently—namely, by being incorporated by kingdom-level provinciae or forming an alliance with one.
With respect to colonial New England, the stories of the colonies of Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire demonstrate that a duchy- or county-scale colony is tenuous as a provincia among others in an empire. Roger William’s Providence colony, begun in 1638 as bastion of religious tolerance, is another such case. His colony is particularly noteworthy for its extent of political completeness relative to all of the other North American colonies excepting Connecticut, the other “little republic.” Whereas few city-states had by then remained independent in Europe, Providence was a virtual city-state in North America. According to Bancroft, Williams “chose to found a commonwealth in the unmixed forms of pure democracy…”[lxxi] It had a constitution specifying a democracy, or popular government, and “a free and absolute charter of civil government for those parts of his abode” on the Narragansett Bay, incorporated “’with full power and authority to rule themselves.’”[lxxii] In spite of its scale, its de facto independence was due to William’s popularity with British politicians. In fact, he could count on imperial protection against the encroachments of larger nearby colonies that considered Providence (and then its merger with Rhode Island) as at the “province,” or principality, scale, regardless of its democratic political completeness. In other words, the colony was vulnerable precisely because a threshold notion was operative for kingdom, and thus provincia, status. For the same reason, so too were the colonies of New Hampshire and Maine. Both were initially formed significantly smaller than they would become as United States. Their formal territories were commensurate with domestic British principalities—perhaps even as small as a large county such as Cornwall.
The 1622 patent establishing Maine between the Merrimack and Kennebec rivers was granted to Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason by the Plymouth Council for New England, which had been granted a royal patent by James I for the huge expanse of land between the 40th and 48th parallels and extending de jure to the Pacific. That earlier settlements had failed on account of the harsh winter may have been behind the decision to delimit the territory. The province of Maine was itself split in 1629 at the Piscataqua river, with the province of New Hampshire forming the small southern part and New Somersetshire forming the northern portion. This process could perhaps be likened in European terms at the time to a duchy being split into a large and small county. Likely sensing the vulnerability in their small size not only in terms of defending against Indian attack, but also in being incorporated by a larger colony, the colonists in New Hampshire voluntarily decided in 1642 to be annexed to Massachusetts Bay colony “not as a province, but on equal terms, as an integral portion of the state.”[lxxiii] This stated preference demonstrates that the colonists saw their colony in the Greek sense re-calibrated to the scale of the early-modern kingdoms of the day.
Maine, too, was vulnerable on account of its size. In 1664, Charles II granted what had been the colony of Maine and the Territory of Sagadahoch (i.e., the eastern portion of the state of Maine) to James, Duke of York, to be incorporated into Cornwall County in the colony of New York. Not even a full county, Maine was hardly commensurate with the early-modern European kingdoms, hence its status as a provincia of the empire was inherently weak.
In 1677, a committee of the privy council denied to Massachusetts the right of jurisdiction over Maine and New Hampshire. Massachusetts got around this obstacle by purchasing the proprietary claim of Gorges of the district between the Kennebeck and the Piscataqua. According to Bancroft, “a novel form of political institution ensued. Massachusetts, in her corporate capacity, was become the lord proprietary of Maine; the little republic on the banks of the Charles was the feudal sovereign of this eastern lordship.”[lxxiv] If Massachusetts Bay was at the time a “little republic” whose own extent of settled area fell short of the kingdom/provincia threshold of the day, Maine (as it was then) fell far short. Indeed, the Roman sense of colony was implicitly applied when in 1680 Maine was to be governed as a province, according to the charter to Gorges, whereas it had been represented in the Massachusetts house of representatives.[lxxv] Two years later, New Hampshire was separated from Massachusetts, and organized as a royal province.
Even if it was in the interest of the British that the power of Massachusetts Bay be checked by limiting its acquired “provinces,” New Hampshire’s status as a member of the empire was not secure. Less than a century later, in 1764, the king in council gave the country north of Massachusetts and west of Connecticut river to New York. Bancroft points to the king’s explicit rationale based on his assumption of superior loyalty in New York.[lxxvi] I submit additionally the contribution of the implicit reckoning that New Hampshire’s small extent of territory did not satisfy the normative threshold for the kingdom/provincia scale of the time.
In contrast, even if Massachusetts Bay’s extent of settlements made it a “little republic,” its formal territory was at the very least commensurate with the European early-modern kingdoms, hence qualifying it as a provincia. Even by 1670, the colony was large enough territorially to have a “widely-extended trade” within its borders.[lxxvii] By the end of 1691, the colony had incorporated not only Maine, but New Plymouth, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Nova Scotia as well.[lxxviii] Massachusetts Bay could solidify its provincia legitimacy while taking care of several of the free-standing “province” anomalies. When Bernard, Governor of Massachusetts Bay, planned in 1764 to dissolve Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire were to be dissolved under the plan of Bernard, Governor of Mass, in 1764, he noted that the plan would afford Massachusetts “a more perfect form of government for a mature American province.” [lxxix] By “more perfect,” he meant placing the king’s authority “upon a rock.” [lxxx] However, the added reference to it being a “mature American province” could point to it satisfying the threshold of a full-fledged provincia of the empire.
The picture of a kingdom-scale republic incorporating “provinces” in its vicinity is complicated by the Connecticut colony, which was in some respects commensurate with European kingdoms scalewise, while in others equivalent to a duchy. The colony’s status as a provincial was therefore not stable.
On the one hand, Connecticut was like Massachusetts in that both extended westward theoretically to the Pacific. Bancroft likens the two colonies in that “Massachusetts did not relinquish its right to an indefinite extension of its territory to the west; Connecticut, by its charter, extended to the Pacific.”[lxxxi] He maintains that Connecticut kept this particularly in mind by settling in the Wyoming Valley and more generally having learned how to claim lands to the Mississippi.[lxxxii] In having an expanse of land beyond its New England territory and in competing with Pennsylvania in “empire building” by establishing a province, Connecticut could be grouped among the larger colonies as a mature provincia.
On the other hand, Connecticut’s territory in New England was significantly less than that of Massachusetts Bay. Therefore, Connecticut was not consistently treated as a full provincia even after the New Haven and Connecticut colonies had merged in 1662. In fact, New Haven and the Connecticut river colonies had begun as de facto “provinces” of Plymouth colony, as their original proprietary grants came from the council for New England after Calvinist settlers from New Plymouth had settled in the two locales.[lxxxiii] Even after the merger, the Connecticut militia was claimed for a time by the governor of Mass, after which it was claimed as a royal prerogative and conferred on the governor of New York. The Connecticut legislature resisted on the basis that it would be to put “our persons, interests and liberties entirely into his power.” [lxxxiv] In effect, the colony met the threshold to be a distinct provincia in the empire. The king agreed, ruling in 1694 that the ordinary power of the militia in Connecticut and in Rhode Island belonged to their respective governments. His answer indicates, however, that even as he resisted placing Connecticut as a de facto “province” of New York, he was viewing Connecticut in equivalent terms to Rhode Island, which was on the “providence” scale. In recommending in February, 1773 that the Charters of Rhode Island and Connecticut be taken away so the “twins” could be “consolidated” in “one royal Government,” [lxxxv] Horsmanden was saying, in effect, that neither of the colonies met the threshold for the kingdom/provincia scale, whereas their consolidation would. Bancroft portrays Connecticut and Rhode Island in similar terms, claiming that “the little republics…their charters were never safe; absolute sovereignty being claimed in England, their freedom rested on forbearance.”[lxxxvi] That Connecticut’s western expanse could only promise potential settlements meant that the colony’s territory in New England could be decisive in terms of how its scale was generally categorized.
In general terms, Connecticut fit in some respects with being a large duchy between Massachusetts and New York, and in others with being a mature provincia competing with others. Connecticut’s ambiguous classification as a “little republic” with westward territory satisfying the provincia scale of the time can help explain the tendency of the British and New Englanders alike to view New England as though it were the colony. So too can problematic duchy (or county) “province” scale of the Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire colonies. In other words, viewing New England as the natural provincia had the advantage of ridding the empire of the anomalies of three or four “province”-scaled members. In short, the informal construction of New England may have been due to a normative kingdom/provincia scale.
Ignoring the western expanses of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay, New England can perhaps be compared to any of the German polities (less Austria) that included the medieval kingdom of Prussia and several German duchies. Bancroft refers to Massachusetts as “the mother land” and the other New England colonies as “four New England states” in discussing their condition in early 1776.[lxxxvii] Even though Massachusetts could stand on its own without respect to a broader reference to New England, the other New England colonies were sometimes portrayed as provinces of New England as though principalities in a kingdom. For example, a British appointment to a New Hampshire office ran: “We have constituted and appointed Samuel Shute, Esq. our Captain General and Governor in chief in and over our Province of New Hampshire, in New England, in America.”[lxxxviii] New Hampshire is as though a duchy, while New England is situated here as equivalent to a kingdom-level country on a continent. Maine, with its very small initial territory, was also viewed as a province of New England. Grant, for example, states: “All that part of ye maine land in New England…which the said Sr. Ferdinando Gorges and Capt. John Mason…intend to name ye Province of Maine.”[lxxxix]
Similar to the Germans who confederated to accommodate both a medieval kingdom and “province” level duchies, the New Englanders formed a confederation that included Massachusetts and the other Calvinist New England “provinces.” The United Colonies of New England, which began in 1643, was designed with the government of the Netherlands in mind.[xc] The Germans and the Dutch, as well as the Swiss, confederated medieval polities into polities that were on the scale of the early-modern kingdoms. The extent of settled land and the principality-likeness of some of the New England colonies liken colonial New England to those European confederations in transition to being early-modern nations.
Like the members of the medieval European confederations, Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven retained their separate governments, and thus reserved their respective domestic jurisdictions. Even though Massachusetts’ veto of a veto for each state deviated from international principles, the fact that any state could fail to implement a decision of the confederation meant that none of the respective governments had ceded any real power. Also, the fact that “the larger state,…superior to all the rest in territory, wealth and population, had no greater number of votes than New Haven”[xci] means that international principles were being followed. That Samuel Adams and Ben Franklin viewed a new confederation of New England as an acceptable substitute for the Articles of Confederation in January, 1776 suggests that the earlier confederation was viewed as an alliance.[xcii]
However, three of the four members of the New England confederation fell short of the kingdom-scale of the day; they were therefore not sufficient in scale to be reckoned full members of an international alliance. The New England Confederation offered Province and Rhode Island only a qualified sort of membership as a part of the jurisdiction of Plymouth. [xciii] Even though the Calvinist members were determined that all the members be Calvinist polities, that they viewed Providence and Rhode Island as potentially parts in another jurisdiction suggests that those two “states” fell short of the requisite provincia scale. It is difficult, therefore, to reckon Connecticut, Plymouth and New Haven as having met the threshold either. Accordingly, New England was thought of not only as an alliance, but as a country, or nation, as well—and in terms commensurate with the other provinciae-scale colonies.
Bancroft refers to New England as both “a nation” and “a commonwealth.”[xciv] He states that in the war with the Indians [1675-8], the “defense of New England had been made by its own resources.”[xcv] He writes of “the New England army” that became a continental army under Washington.[xcvi] However, he also notes that “the New England colonies had from their beginning been defended by their own militia.”[xcvii] So when Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut came to the support of Massachusetts in April, 1775, “the men from other colonies…appeared as independent corps from their respective provinces under leaders of their own.”[xcviii] To be an army rather than an alliance, common military leaders would be necessary.
The likeness of New England to a country or nation involved its having a distinctive and shared culture. For example, that all of the colonies in New England had the same structure as aggregates of organized democracies[xcix] points to a political culture that distinguishes New England as an entity even though it had no government of its own. Furthermore, the salience of the Calvinist theocracy in the seventeenth century (except for Rhode Island) gave New Englanders a sense of distinctiveness. Cotton Mather, for example, referred to New England as “a country whose interests are remarkably inwrapped in ecclesiastical circumstances, ministers ought to concern themselves in politics.”[c] In the eighteenth century, New England had a sort of national coherence in the New Englanders’ resistance to British rule. In Feb, 1775, Franklin sent advice to Massachusetts, writing that “New England alone can hold out for ages” against the British.[ci] Lastly, New England was referred to as though it were commensurate with the other colonies. In the first continental congress, Patrick Henry implied that New England was equivalent to the “other” large colonies by including “New Englanders” along with “Virginians, Pennsylvanians, and New Yorkers” in paradoxically making the point that no such identifications existed.[cii]
In conclusion, the growth of the colonies’ settlements within various extents of formal territory and the development of the colonies’ capacity for (and experience of) self-governance—in some cases there from the beginning—make it difficult to situate them. I have argued that the colonies were normatively geared both politically and territorially to the early-modern European kingdom-level. They were therefore provinciae, or dominions in the empire, rather than “providences” akin to principalities. In other words, they were colonies in the Greek sense, re-calibrated upwards in size to reflect the early-modern default for the politically-complete kingdom level.
[i] C. J. Friedrich, ed. Politica Methodice Digesta of Johannes Althusius (Althaus) (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1932); F. S. Carney, The Politics of Johannes Althusius (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).
[iii]B. J. Lossing, Our Country: A Household History of the United States (New York, Amies Publishing Co., 1888), II (bk IV) 1033.
[viii] E. A. Freeman, Lecture to American Audiences (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1882), II, iv, p. 320.
[x] J. A. Woodburn, Causes of the American Revolution (Baltimore, The John Hopkins Press, 1892), 12-13.
[xv] W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (Oxford, John Hatchard & Son, 1822), I, 105-6.
[xxxii] To Robert Turner, January 5, 1681., in S. M. Janney, The Life of William Penn (Philadelphia, Lippincott, Grambo, & Co., 1853), 166.
[xxxiv] S. J. Hammond and K. R. Hardwick, Classics of American Political and Constitutional Thought (Indianapolis, Hackett, 2007), I, 243
[xxxv] Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Cooper, London, June 8, 1770, in Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin (Chicago, Townsen Mac Coun), vii, p. 476.
[xxxix] The Boston Gazette, and Country Journal (Boston, Benjamin Edes, August 24, 1767), italics added.
[xlii] Article XIII, in W. C. Ford et al, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C., US Government Printing Office, 1904-1937), II.
[xliv]I. Mauduit, ed., et al, Franklin Before the Privy Council, White Hall Chapel, London, 1774 (Philadelphia, John M. Butler, 1860) , 12, italics added.
[xlv]R. M. Sawyer, “Agamenticus, Georgiana, or York, Maine, The Congretational Quarterly, VIII, No. 2, 143, note 3.
[xlvi] I. W. Stuart, Life of Jonathan Trumbull, Sen., Governor of Connecticut (Boston, Crocker & Brewster, 1859), 99
[lvi] E. Burke, The Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq.; On Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, March 22, 1775 (London, J. Dodsley, 1775), 8, italics added.
[lviii]M.M. Miller, ed., Great Debates in American History (New York, Current Literature Publishing Co., 1913), I, 66.
[lix] J. A. Woodburn, Causes of the American Revolution (Baltimore, The John Hopkins Press, 1892), 12.
[lxiii] Commission to Francis Bernard as Governor of New Jersey, 1758, in A. Johnson, ed., Readings in American Constitutional History, 1776-1876 (New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1912),18
[lxiv] Charter (March 4, 1682), Charles II to William Penn, in B. P. Poore, The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the United States (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1878), II, 1510.
[lxxix] T. W. Bicknell, The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (New York, The American Historical Society, 1920), II, 723. See also Bernard to Halifax, Nov 8, 1764, in Bancroft, V, 225.
[lxxxviii] Commission to J. Wentworth, 1717, in E. B. Greene, The Provincial Governor in the English Colonies of North America (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1898), 264.
[lxxxix] Grant 1622 (Aug 10), in J. W. Dean and C. W. Tuttle, Capt. John Mason, The Founder of New Hampshire (Boston, Prince Society, 1887), 180.