Government Illustration

Colonial Government
for Kids

For Kids

Each of the 13 colonies had a charter. A charter was a written agreement between the colony and the king of England or Parliament. There were three forms of charters - Royal Colonies, Charter Colonies, and Proprietary Colonies.

Charter Colonies: The Charter Colonies were granted to businesses. The colonists did not have the right to a voice in how they were ruled. The business owners created laws and punishments. The colonies of Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay began as charter colonies.

Proprietary Colonies had charters that granted ownership of a colony to a person or family. That person or family could make laws and appoint officials as he or they pleased.  Like the Charter Colonies, the colonists did not have the right to a voice in how they were ruled. The colonies of New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina began as proprietary colonies. Later on they became royal colonies by choice.

Royal Colonies: In the royal colonies, a colonial legislature was elected by adult men who owned property in the colony. This type of colony had a governor appointed by the king. The legislature could pass laws, but the governor could reject those laws if he felt they did not reflect the laws the king wanted enforced. The governor had British soldiers to help him enforce the king's laws. But the colonial legislature did have a weapon of their own - per the terms of the royal charters, they controlled the governor's salary. That helped them get laws passed that might not have passed otherwise.

As each colony grew, whatever their original charter stated, they each developed some form of democratic representative government to rule their colony. England was too far away to understand the needs of the colonists. Messages back and forth between the colonies and England took months by boat. The first legislature to be formed was the famous Virginia House of Burgesses. The other colonies soon followed.

The Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact:  One colony was formed in a unique way. When the first pilgrims voyaged to the New World, they got lost. They were headed for the Virginia colony, but ended up in what is present day Massachusetts instead. Virginia did not control that part of the New World. No one did. Since there was no official charter to obey, the Pilgrims created their own government. They drafted the Mayflower Compact, which basically stated they would rule themselves. Their system of town meetings remained the form of government in the New England Colonies. But town meetings, where every adult citizen in town had a voice and a vote, never became popular in the middle or southern colonies. Their governments were based on written charters of agreement with the king or with parliament, and their governments were based on elected representatives.

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Three forms of colonial government: Royal Colonies, Charter Colonies, Proprietary Colonies

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