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History of the United States
Colonial America
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Do you think British colonial society was democratic?


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March 27, 2013 4:00PM

British colonial society was democratic for some colonies whilst completely undemocratic for others. British North America, including the 13 American colonies, were certainly democratic societies. Royal Charters allowed colonial governments to act largely at their own discretion. Although governors were appointed by the Crown to oversee colonial possessions, there was a large amount of leeway given to local leaders to manage their own affairs. In New England town meetings effectively ensured democratic processes at a local level. In the other American colonies such local autonomy also existed. It must be noted that the rights of colonists, like the rights of their English compatriots, were implied by convention, not expressed in a constitution. The same principles that ensured freedom to colonists also ensured freedom to citizens in the Home Nations. These principles continue to define British democracy. The American revolution was a result of the end of salutary neglect and resumed taxation, not a lack of democracy. In Quebec and Ontario, Catholics were granted religious tolerance and a similar system of local autonomy existed. After the United States gained independence, the remainder of British North America gradually became dominions, or self-governing quasi-autonomous organisms with the British Empire, although economic regulations ensured that domions would be exclusively British markets. Colonies in Australia and New Zealand conformed to the democratic dominion model. The other model of a British Colony has its roots in Company Rule in India. In India and Africa, colonial governments were totally undemocratic. These colonies existed to supply the Empire with raw materials, labour, and a market for manufactured goods. India enjoyed some degree of self-government at the regional level in the form of the Princely States, yet these entities employed the system absolute monarchies which existed on the sub-continent before the British arrived. In Africa, no effort was made to allow self-government, these colonies existed to extract what natural resources could be taken with or without the consent of the local population. White British peoples living within India or African colonies enjoyed all the right, freedom, and democratic processes as the Dominions or Britain itself, however these privileges were not extended beyond the ruling British class.