Colonization of the New World began in 1492 with Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. It was not until 1607 that the English gained a permanent foothold in the New World with the establishment of Jamestown. As the English began to settle the North American continent, conflict among settlers, war with the Native Americans, and conflict with the Spanish and French for control occurred. English colonies began to develop a distinct American colonial identity as they developed early forms of representative government and unified against outside European forces. The conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, set the stage for the next steps for the American colonies.


William Blackstone was an English Jurist, a professor of law at Oxford, and Solicitor General to the Queen. Before Blackstone joined the faculty, English universities had focused exclusively on the study of Roman law. Blackstone authored Commentaries on the Laws of England widely regarded as the most complete and readable commentary on English law. The Supreme Court often references Blackstone’s writing as a source for determining the intent of the Founders when interpreting the Constitution.
Born in England in 1586, Thomas Hooker was raised in an ultra-conservative period in English history. After receiving degrees at Cambridge University, Thomas Hooker became a preacher whose sermons clashed with the established Church of England. He was eventually forced to leave England. He lived in Massachusetts and later founded the colony of Connecticut where he established a highly successful church in what is now Hartford, Connecticut. He aided in the adoption of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639. Believing in the principle of equality for all mankind, Hooker is sometimes called “the father of American democracy.” Hooker advanced a more democratic view, favoring the vote for all men, regardless of any religious or property qualifications.
Anne Hutchinson stood up to a religious theocracy (where the church and the government are the same) in defense of religious liberty. A well-educated minister’s daughter, Hutchinson was born in England in 1591 and came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. She became a midwife, and she made friends. Soon she began to invite women to her home for Bible study. Over the years, Hutchinson attracted a following. Almost sixty people, both men and women, joined her group. The discussions at her home soon became more like sermons where she criticized the teachings of the colony’s ministers. For anyone—and especially a woman—to go against the official religion of the colony was a crime. Colony ministers charged Hutchinson with eighty-two “erroneous opinions.” But she did not keep silent. She courageously defended her beliefs. In the end, Hutchinson was convicted and banished to the colony of Rhode Island. Hutchinson’s struggle affirmed the values of respect and religious liberty. In 1789, the Constitution banned religious tests for public office; the First Amendment, adopted in 1791, stopped the federal government from establishing a national church; finally, all the states ended their official churches by the early 19th century. Hutchinson’s early struggle helped lay the foundation for religious liberty.
William Penn was born in England to a prominent Anglican family, and endured persecution when he came a Quaker. He was arrested and imprisoned for expressing his beliefs. Penn was determined to found a new Quaker settlement in America where religious toleration would flourish. With land given to him by the King as payment for debts owed his father, Penn founded Pennsylvania (named after his father) in 1681. Writing the colonial charter and making plans from across the Atlantic in England, Penn wrote to the colony’s residents about his belief that just government relies on the consent of the governed: “You shall be governed by laws of your own making…” He ensured rights such as jury trials, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion for all Christians were included in the charter. Penn’s commitment to moderation was evident in the colony’s criminal code. At a time when other colonies punished religious dissenters with death and English law provided the death penalty for offenses like robbery, Pennsylvania reserved the death penalty for the crimes of murder and treason only. The government also included precursors to the Constitution including separation of powers and republican government. On his first visit to Pennsylvania in 1682, Penn founded the city of Philadelphia. In negotiating with Indians, he always treated them with respect and paid a fair price for land. On his second visit in 1701, a new constitution for the colony was written that endured until the Revolutionary War. A bell was cast in 1751 for the 50th anniversary of that document, on which was inscribed a Biblical verse: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This bell, now known as the Liberty Bell, hangs in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson called Penn “the greatest law-giver the world has produced.”
John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who settled in New York and became a publisher. He printed the first political newspaper in the country called the New York Weekly Journal. Its pages contained criticism of the New York governor, charging that he was threatening the “liberties and properties” of the people, and that he had violated the rules of his office. In response, the governor ordered the newspapers burned and had Zenger arrested for “seditious libel.” Zenger’s bail was set extremely high and he spent nine months in jail. At his trial, Zenger complained that the three judges on the bench had all been appointed by the governor. In response, the judges disbarred (or disqualified) Zenger’s lawyers. Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton then took the case. Hamilton argued that the law defining “seditious libel” was unjust, because it was irrelevant whether the objectionable printed statements were true or false. Since what Zenger printed was true, Hamilton argued, the jury should set him free. He asserted the importance of a free press in society, which ought to have “a liberty both of exposing and opposing tyrannical power by speaking and writing truth.” The jury agreed and set aside the law, acquitting Zenger. In addition to the principles of press freedom expressed by Hamilton, the Zenger case illustrates the importance of protections such as jury trials, due process, and prohibitions on excessive bail.
In 1620, Pilgrims seeking religious freedom travelled from England to the New World aboard the Mayflower. They landed off the coast of Cape Cod well outside the limits of the Virginia Company Charter. As a result, before they left the ship, the men drafted and signed an agreement called the Mayflower Compact. This document was an agreement among the men to create a government. The Mayflower Compact helped establish the idea that the people create government based on consent of the governed. As a result, the Mayflower Compact served as a precedent to the creation of the government for the United States.
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut was adopted in 1639 and was the first written constitution in North America. Thomas Hooker was the author of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. This document created a “General Court” that had legislative, executive, and judicial authority. It helped to advance the idea of representative government. It provided that all freemen elect their representatives, and it put some limits on government’s power. Consequently, it set the example of a written constitution as the basis for government.
In the 1650’s, the American colonies were forced to trade with England by a series of acts passed by Parliament known as the Navigation Acts. According to these laws, American colonies were required to trade mainly with Great Britain, buying Britain’s manufactured goods in exchange for the colonists selling them their raw materials. For example, the colonists sold the British lumber and the British sold the colonists furniture made from that lumber. Manufactured goods were more expensive than raw products. As a result, this mercantile trade policy allowed Great Britain to increase its wealth. These acts were not heavily enforced (salutary neglect) by the British until they needed money to pay for the French and Indian War. When they attempted to enforce these acts, colonial unrest increased.
Benjamin Franklin proposed the Albany Plan of Union in 1754. It was the first formal proposal to unite the colonies during the early months of the French and Indian War. The Albany Plan called for each of the colonies to send representatives to a Grand Council in Albany, New York. This council would be able to collect taxes, raise armies, make treaties, and start new settlements. It was not viewed as a desire on the part of the colonies to seek independence from England. However, the Articles of Confederation, the plan of government adopted by the colonies after winning independence was similar to Franklin’s plan. Seven colonies attended the Albany Congress and adopted the plan in 1754. However, the Albany Plan was never adopted by the remaining colonial governments who feared it would limit their own authority.
The “Join or Die” cartoon was the first political cartoon to appear in any newspaper in the colonies. It was published in Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette, and urged the colonists to unite and assist the British during the French and Indian War. The cartoon was a picture of a snake cut into two and based on the superstition that the snake would come to life if the pieces were joined together. The cartoon encouraged the colonies to unite with the message, “Join or Die.” It is one of the earliest examples of a call for colonial unity.
The Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian War was signed in 1763. The treaty gave land previously held by the French in North America to the British. This included Canada and their land east of the Mississippi excluding Florida which was controlled by Spain. To reward Spain for its help in the French and Indian War, France gave Spain New Orleans and all land west of the Mississippi River. The treaty effectively ended French colonial power in North America.


The Transatlantic slave trade involved capturing, transporting, and selling Africans as slaves to buyers in the Americas. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, slaves were taken from Africa to the Americas on what is called the Middle Passage, the middle leg of a three-part voyage. This Triangular Trade began in Europe where ships loaded with rum, cloth and guns sailed to Africa. Once in Africa, these goods were traded for African slaves. These slaves were then transported to the Americas where they were sold as labor for cultivating sugar into molasses and rum. These products were then returned to Europe. Eventually, African slaves became the dominant labor force on Southern plantations in the United States.
The first permanent English colony was in Jamestown, Virginia. In 1607, a group of merchants formed the Virginia Company of London and settled in Jamestown, named after King James I. Many of the settlers spent their time looking for gold and did not prepare for the winter. The first winter was very harsh and many of the settlers faced starvation and disease. This was called “The Starving Time.” Settler John Smith helped colonists survive by establishing a work ethic (“He that shall not work, shall not eat”). Thanks to John Rolfe’s cultivation of tobacco, settlers eventually discovered that Jamestown was ideal for growing tobacco because of the fertile soil. Tobacco became one of the South’s largest cash crops.
The Virginia House of Burgesses was created in 1619 and was the first representative assembly in the American colonies. Made up of free white men who were landowners, the first meeting was held in Jamestown where the House of Burgesses was empowered to enact legislation for the colony. Like the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the Virginia House of Burgesses was an early attempt at self-government in the New World. Notable members of the House of Burgesses included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry.
Mercantilism was an economic theory followed by European nations in the 16th and 17th centuries which argued that nations increased their power and wealth by obtaining gold and by creating a favorable balance of trade where they exported more than they imported. England increased its wealth by establishing colonies in North America which provided raw materials to the mother country (England). In return the mother country (England) used the raw materials to make manufactured goods that were then sold to the colonies. In the 1650’s, the American colonies were forced to trade with England by the Navigation Acts. These acts were not heavily enforced (salutary neglect) until after the French and Indian War which contributed to colonial unrest when the British tried to enforce the policies to pay for the war debt.
Bacon’s Rebellion was a revolt in 1676 led by Nathaniel Bacon against colonial authority in Jamestown. Bacon and his supporters were small farmers and frontier settlers who opposed Governor William Berkeley. They were against high taxes and Governor Berkeley’s favoritism towards large plantation owners (Tidewater gentry) as well as his Indian policy. Bacon and his group marched into Jamestown, took control of the House of Burgesses, and burned much of Jamestown. After Bacon became ill and died, the rebellion ended and Governor Berkeley hanged many of Bacon’s followers. The outcome of Bacon’s Rebellion was that the King appointed a new governor, and the House of Burgesses passed laws to prevent future royal governors from assuming too much power.
The First Great Awakening was a revival of religious feelings and beliefs in the American colonies that began in the 1730’s. To revive peoples’ religious spirit, preachers would travel from town to town delivering sermons about God at outdoor revival meetings. The sermons from preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and others emphasized that people were equal in the eyes of God. The preachers also believed strongly in religious freedom and toleration. In 1791,the importance of religious freedom and toleration became a key idea in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
The French and Indian War (1754-63) was also known as the Seven Years’ War in Europe. The French and some Native Americans fought together against the British and the colonists over control of parts of North America including the Ohio River Valley. While Britain eventually won, the war left Britain with a huge debt. Parliament responded by imposing new laws and taxes on the English colonies, which angered many colonists and eventually led to the American Revolution.