Governing the American Colonies (1620)

I recently posted about an astronomy book from 1777 that I discovered while helping a friend clean out his dad’s house. That same day I found another old book. Like the astronomy book, it was in bad shape so I had it rebound.

The title is Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, In 1620 and 1621, Vol. I. It was published in 1766 in England. One of its previous owners, Samuel Hunter, signed his name on the title page in 1827. Like the Bode astronomy book, the paper has tanned with age, but at least it’s not printed in German with Fraktur Gothic script. It’s in English, and the hardest (!) part about reading it is mentally replacing an “s” for an “f,” as in this line on the title page: “In which fome Paffages are illuftrated from other Manufcripts.”

For reference, 1620 was the year the Puritans landed in New England. Jamestown, in Virginia, had been founded in 1607, and in 1619, the first Africans were brought to America on a captured Portuguese slave ship.

The British Parliament includes the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Proceedings and Debates is an interesting transcript of matters, both mundane and monumental, taken up by the House of Commons. Flipping through the book, one particular item caught my eye. On April 25, 1621, the House of Commons took up the regulation of fishing in Virginia. At first blush, this would seem about as interesting as a dead mackerel. But the Secretary of the House of Commons had this to say on the subject:

“… Virginia, New England, Newfoundland, and those other foreign Parts of America, are not yet annexed to the Crown of England, but are the King’s as gotten by Conquest; and therefore he [the Secretary] thinketh it worth the Consideration of the House, whether we shall here make Laws for the Government of those Parts; for he taketh it, that in such new Plantations the King [James I] is to govern it only [by] his Prerogative, and as his Majesty shall think fit …”

This may be the earliest mention of British law as it pertained to governing the American colonies. Governance of the colonies would progress through many stages and permutations over the next 150 years before the colonists would revolt and achieve their independence in the American Revolutionary War.