Democracy In Early U.S. Democratic government in the United States had its beginnings during the colonial period. The Mayflower Compact, House of Burgesses, New England Town Meetings, Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, and the Zenger trial each was an important step in the development of our democracy. For example, The Mayflower Compact was an agreement among the Pilgrims of Plymouth, to establish a body and to obey the rules of the governors they chose. The House of Burgesses was the Virginian parliament.
Other colonies had such legislative bodies, too. The Burgesses were mainly colonists who preferred democracy to monarchy. They were often in conflict with the British government and the governors. The British government didn’t accept the House of Burgesses as a legal institution. Each event had contributed to the development of democracy differently. Ten years before the Puritans landed near Boston in 1630, the Pilgrims had landed on Cape Cod.
Because they were far north of their sponsoring company’s jurisdiction, they agreed to the Mayflower Compact, a temporary set of principles about how they would govern themselves until a charter arrived. It never did. The Mayflower Compact is one of the first statements of rights and obligations made by a group of New World European migrants. It was also an effective answer to a few settlers who thought they could place their own aims above the community. English landowners had insisted on meeting with their leaders for consultation in local matters ever since the Magna Carta was signed in 1215.
Virginia settlers expected that same right. The House of Burgesses was modeled after the English Parliament and established in 1619. Members would meet at least once a year with their royal governor to decide local laws and determine local taxation. They continued to meet on a yearly basis to decide local matters. The tradition established by the House of Burgesses was extremely important to colonial development.
Each new English colony demanded its own legislature in turn. Since 1619, Americans have had 157 years to practice democracy before the Declaration of Independence was signed. By this time they were quite good at it. All over our country and throughout the world, the New England Town Meeting serves as a model of democracy. Most recently, what have been referred to as “Town Meetings” have been held by presidential candidates and others who seek to stimulate discussion about everything from issues in a campaign, to international trade agreements, to race relations in America. In South America, countries emerging from military rule and in Eastern European countries who have rid themselves of communism, “Town Meetings” have been held to demonstrate the freedom enjoyed by ordinary citizens and prove that every person’s opinion is important and should be heard.
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut was the first written constitution in the American colonies, prepared as the covenant for the new Puritan community in Connecticut, established in the 1630s. It established a precedent for written constitutions in the colonies. To the Puritans, a covenant was an agreement with God to build a holy society. Those who moved to Connecticut from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts carried with them the tradition of the commonwealth, a community of people who worked together for the good of the whole. The Fundamental Orders described a system of government for the new community, in writing. The Fundamental Orders were the first written constitution in America and marked the start of democracy in America. It is for this reason that Connecticut is known as The Constitution State. The trial of John Peter Zenger, in 1735, was a precedent setting case, in that Zenger was found not guilty of the charge of seditious libel, specifically because what he printed was true. This began a nation wide movement against the present form of government and for freedom of the press, which continued until the close of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment.
While some may take it for granted today, the creation of the Bill of Rights was by no means an undisputed issue. Public sentiment was divided as were politicians and lawmakers. In examining the Zenger trial, one can begin to understand how the first amendment rights, specifically freedom of the press, emerged as an important democratic principle. Each of these events had proven effective in being an important step in the development of democracy. After persistency and new ideas, through the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, democracy has been permanent in the United States since early colonization up through modern times.