American Colonies: Despite What You Learn In School, It Was Mostly Private Enterprise

Published December 7, 2016

Too many of us who are enthusiastic about space exploration and colonization expect the federal government to lead the way. We should learn from the founding of British colonies in America.

In his notes to the ninth volume of English Historical Documents, the distinguished historian Merrill Jensen explained how much the English settlement of America relied on private enterprise rather than government. The British crown granted permission by issuing charters, but otherwise contributed very little.

Before 1660, most colonies were founded by merchants operating through joint stock companies—the predecessors of modern corporations. Virginia was created by a private consortium. What really got the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock was not just the desire to practice their religion, but hard-headed merchant-investors willing to pay for the trip. (Did you learn that in public school? I didn’t.)

After 1660, the crown continued to grant charters to private individuals and groups. Unfortunately, most of these were “proprietary charters” given to royal cronies who wanted to re-create feudalism in America. The exception was William Penn, who obtained a proprietary charter but instituted a government based on freedom and other liberal ideas. 

What then happened was the typical law of the market: People interested in coming to the New World “voted with their feet”—or boats. Most of them went to the freer places, such as Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and avoided the feudal colonies, such as the Carolinas.

The populations of Connecticut and Pennsylvania exploded; the feudal colonies stagnated—at least for a while. Because most settlers who moved to the feudal colonies were Englishmen, they were used to being free people, and they intended to remain so. They largely ignored the proprietors’ rules and governed themselves. Because the proprietors were not really governments, they couldn’t force their settlers to obey. So, even in those colonies, white settlers eventually won English-style freedom and self-government.

Thomas Jefferson alluded to the private-enterprise background of the British colonies in the Declaration of Independence, when he wrote: “Nor have we been wanting in our attentions to our British brethren. … We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.” He was pointing out that neither the king nor Parliament contributed all that much to the creation and growth of the 13 colonies. The work was done mostly by private enterprise.

By 1763, the American colonists had achieved an unprecedented amount of freedom and a great deal of autonomy. Beginning in 1763, policymakers in London tried to take it away. You know what happened then.

In space exploration, as in colonization, we would be far better off to look to the private sector, leaving to government those things it does best—like encumbering us with debt.

[Originally Published at RedState]