The Rise of the Representative
Prof. Peverill Squire’s latest book, The Rise of the Representative, explores the 157-year history of representative institutions in Colonial America up to Independence.
The first representative assembly in Colonial America was created in Virginia in 1619, by the corporation that created the colony, in order to serve the needs of the corporation. Peverill Squire, an MU political science professor, says the colony was not flourishing, and the corporation, the Virginia Company of London, believed that if the stakeholders—the colonists—had a say in things, colonial life might improve. The corporation established a general assembly composed of representatives sent from each of the plantations or communities. Although the Virginia Company failed in 1624, the seeds of self-government had taken root. Squire’s latest book, The Rise of the Representative, explores the 157-year history of representative institutions in Colonial America up to Independence.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
“Each of these colonies has its own history and got settled at different times by different kinds of people—not all of them were English—and they had different political cultures and different political problems to solve,” Squire says.
For example, Squire says in New England, especially in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, representatives were elected by the town and were expected to speak on behalf of the town, rather than the colony at large.
“The trend you see over this 157-year history is that in those places where initially you were supposed to be focused on the good of the larger colony, elected officials got pulled towards representing their constituents and looking out for their local interests simply because they wanted to get elected and reelected,” he says. “There was this strong push that we still see today where we expect our elected officials to represent our local concerns and priorities, so that’s rooted very deeply in American political history.”
In fact, Squire says if you took a current American state legislator and plunked him or her down into a colonial assembly, the rules and the way they conducted business would seem familiar.
On Their Own
Squire says it’s important to remember that the parent country, England, was too far away to exert much control over the colonies, so the colonies were left to devise their own solutions to governing. He says those solutions were practical responses to the issues facing the colonies, rather than attempts to translate philosophy into reality.
Squire says the creation and evolution of representative assemblies in colonial America has not received much attention from historians, and certainly not from political scientists. He hopes his new book appeals to academics as well as anyone interested in American political history.
“It’s not written to deal with a lot of abstract concepts; it’s pretty direct in terms of the argument, which is—you had these two basic approaches to representation and one became dominant because of the behavior we expected from people who run for office, and it’s the same kind of behavior we expect today,” he says. “They were juggling this notion of the larger community good versus the interests of their constituents and the idea that constituent concerns were paramount took hold in most colonies over time.”