What Were Some Rights Gained or Lost in the Colonial Assembly?
- The first representative assembly convened in Virginia in 1619 at the behest of English merchants who saw it as a mechanism to promote economic stability. These assemblies soon became popular throughout the colonies as a means to settle local issues and give voice to colonists' concerns. Bicameral assemblies---based on the English parliamentary system---were a common characteristic of these governing bodies. The bicameral system sought to balance power among different political factions and settle policy disputes more efficiently. The Founding Fathers later adopted the ideals of representation and bicameralism when writing the U.S. Constitution.
Due Process Rights
- Early colonial assemblies, inspired by the English Magna Carta, developed statutes providing and protecting the legal rights of its citizens. The Body of Liberties---enacted by the Massachusetts Assembly in 1641---was one of the first codified statutes guaranteeing the right to legal counsel and trial by jury. Rhode Island in 1647 abolished convictions for crimes not expressly stated in the "letter of the law"---a unprecedented stance against specious prosecutions. Many of these rights would later be expressed in the U.S. Bill of Rights.
- Many colonies sought to protect religious freedom. The Body of Liberties granted churches the freedom to self-manage independently from political regulation. The 1649 Maryland Toleration Act took this a step further, granting all Christians in the colony "freedom of conscience and worship"---a protection similar to the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Though exclusive to Christians, there is no evidence Jews and agnostics suffered persecution in Maryland during this time. Overall, the colonial assemblies established the precedent for the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution.
- Rights gained in the colonies largely excluded women and ethnic minorities. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties, though unprecedented in securing due process and property rights, was the one of the first codes to establish slavery as a legal institution. Women were denied full legal rights in many colonies as well. The Maryland assembly famously rejected a petition in 1638 from wealthy landowner Margaret Brent asking for the right to vote. These trends continued well after the colonies achieved independence.