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Road to Democracy
Beginning in the early 1600’s, America received a flood of emigrants seeking religious freedom, an escape from political oppression and economic gains. The emergence of Democracy in colonial America can be attributed to the coming about of several institutions and documents. During this time there were governing bodies, which presided over certain colonies, but no unified system. Many of the laws and freedoms that we possess in America today were established based on the trials and the statutes that were created because of them. The John Peter Zenger trial is a prime example of how a trial established a well-known statute of freedom of the press. The General School Act of 1647 was the origin of modern education laws and the Maryland Toleration Act was the basis for freedom of religion. These, however, were not the first step towards democracy. The Virginia House of Burgesses, the Mayflower Compact, New England town meetings, and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut were all early stepping-stones toward a truly democratic government.
The early governing bodies in the colonies such as the House of Burgesses were all based on a written constitution. The Virginia House of Burgesses, established in 1619, was the first representative assembly in Colonial America, and was established with permission from the Virginia Company. The Mayflower Compact was the constitution for the Massachusetts Bay colony. It was written in 1620 while still on the Mayflower by the Puritans aboard to make sure that the non-puritans who sailed with them would not try to take over the colony. The Mayflower had landed farther north than expected so the non-puritans were unsure if the puritans had claim to this new area. In Connecticut, in 1639 the Fundamental Orders were established as the plan of government. New England towns also began to grow larger, and so most of them began to hold town meetings in which local issues could be discussed, which is very similar to our modern local governments. Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut all had very similar governments, each with a constitution, a governor, and a representative assembly, much like the US Government today.
Our government also guarantees many rights and freedoms, which had their origins in colonial America. Some first amendment rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of religion were first established during colonial America. The John Peter Zenger trial in the 1730’s helped foster the idea of freedom of the press. Zenger was the publisher of a New York Newspaper, in which he published articles criticizing the governor of New York. He went to trial, but was acquitted based on the fact that what he printed was true. This case also helped form the political belief in the United States that citizens have the right to criticize the government. The Maryland Toleration Act of 1649, although it did not bring about complete religious freedom, did establish a basis for today’s first amendment right of freedom of religion. It was created by the politically powerful Catholics in Maryland to provide protection from the non-Catholic majority of the population. Another act, which is the basis for a fundamental principle in the United States, was the General School Act of 1647 in Massachusetts. Also known as the “ye olde deluder Satan” act, it required towns with 50 families to establish a grammar school and towns with 100 families, to establish a grammar school that will prepare it’s students for the university.
Democracy in America did not appear out of nowhere. It has its roots in Colonial America, where early governing bodies ruled the colonies democratically, with an elected governor and a representative assembly. The Virginia House of Burgesses, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, New England Town Meetings and the Mayflower Compact were all important aspects of colonial democracy, which is where our modern government has its roots. Congress or a State Assembly could be compared to the assembly of those times, and the president or even a state governor could be compared to the colonial governors of that era. The laws and precedents established during that time such as freedom of the press from the Zenger trial, freedom to practice religion from the Maryland Toleration act, and government guaranteed schools from the General School Act of Massachusetts.
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English colonization of the Americas, Colonial Maryland, Dominion of New England, Political charters, John Peter Zenger, Maryland Toleration Act, Colonial history of the United States, House of Burgesses, Freedom of religion, Democracy, Puritans, Freedom of the press
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