The Differences Between the New England Confederation and the Dominion of New England

The colonies were very much separate in terms of their governance and operation regardless of our discussion of similarities in culture and beliefs among the Chesapeake and New England. However, there were some definite disadvantages to too much independence, especially when it came to matters of defense.

One of the earliest attempts at colonial unity (a theme that runs throughout the development of America to the present day) was the New England Confederation, which was formed in 1643. This was an invitation-only alliance among the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth, and the two colonies that eventually made up Connecticut. Only those who were orthodox Puritans were welcomed– Rhode Island didn’t make the cut. The main goal of the Confederation was, first of all, mutual defense against attacks from Native tribes or other European colonial powers. The Confederation also dealt with the extradition of runaway criminals or servants.

The Confederation was seen as necessary due to the salutary neglect from the mother country. As you may have noticed, there is always tension between liberty or freedom and security in making decisions about how much power to surrender to government or other outside groups. The Confederation is an example of this in a very mild way– the colonies in the Confederation were willing to give up a limited amount of autonomy (your text notes that the Confederation was very weak) in order to improve security. But note that each individual colony still retained much of its independence– which may have doomed the chances of success of this enterprise. Confederation by its very name implies cooperation.

Why were the colonists so leery of unity? The problem is, unity takes away autonomy. That is one of the reasons why England attempted to impose unity on the New England colonies to enhance control.

Just before the Glorious Revolution, the English government realized that its colonies had been given far too much leeway, particularly when it came to obedience to the Navigation Laws. These laws restricted the colonists to trade only with the mother country or other English possessions. The laws also listed, or enumerated, goods that colonists were not allowed to manufacture– usually goods produced in the mother country. This kind of law would create an artificial monopoly and prevent competition from developing manufactures in the colonies. Lack of enforcement of these laws was costing the mother country money in the form of taxes and higher prices.

Therefore, the Dominion of New England was created in 1686 by the English government under James II and was imposed upon the colonies. The use of the term “Dominion” is indicative of the desire of England to — rightfully in its view– dominate colonial affairs and trade. Amalgamating the several colonies into one organizational struction would enhance English control. In this much more powerful structure, town meetings– a staple of New England’s political landscape– were sharply limited and civil rights, such as freedom of the press and colonial courts (as in a “jury of one’s peers”) were limited to enhance English authority over its colonial subjects. Under the direction of the autocratic Sir Edmund Andros, enforcement of the Navigation Laws– and severe restrictions on smuggling– ensued.

Naturally, intense resentment arose on the part of many colonists at this new attempt to restrain their independence and liberty. Thus when the Glorious Revolution of 1688 produced a massive upheaval of English political structures, the colonists utilized the chaos to run Andros out of town– in a dress, no less. The Dominion of New England then collapsed again, and salutary neglect resumed.

The ultimate difference between the New England Confederation and the Dominion of New England is that the Confederation was imposed upon the member colonies at their own instigation, and was only as powerful as the colonists were willing to allow it to be. The Dominion of New England was imposed from without, and was an attempt to strip the colonies of autonomy and independence that was seen as a threat to the interests of the mother country. The Dominion left the colonists ever more leery of ceding their autonomy to anyone– a fear that would make their dealings with England much more complex.

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