In many ways, the European colonies in America became a laboratory for testing some of the new ideas about government evolving in Europe, where political theories flourished but the monarchical status quo did not allow many of them to be put into practice. In Europe, serious challenges to the status quo resulted in violent, some would say catastrophic, social upheavals like the English Civil War of the seventeenth century and the French Revolution of the eighteenth—both, in different ways, attempts to replace a monarchy with a republic, and both only temporarily successful.
But while the colonies in America were also nominally under the control of monarchies—mainly the British, Spanish, and French—the Atlantic Ocean stood between the colonists and their crowns, and as a result they had a high degree of autonomy, and were left to organize their own affairs, so long as they produced a steady stream of trade to the home country. What this meant in practice is that Europe’s age-old social hierarchies had less meaning, and were not found to be conducive to the success of the colonial project.
It also meant that the ideas concerning representative government and civil liberties articulated by thinkers like John Locke found fertile soil in the New World, where they animated many of the crafters of colonial constitutions (and ultimately the United States Constitution). Perhaps the most effective popularization of Locke’s ideas appeared in the pseudonymous Cato’s Letters, first published in newspapers in Britain, but far more influential in the British colonies. Such works forcefully advanced the notion that the purpose of government was to serve the needs of the governed, and not the other way around.
These ideas regarding civil government also influenced and were influenced by parallel ideas about church government that came out of the Protestant Reformation and later the Great Awakening—again, European phenomena whose implications were perhaps most clearly played out in America. In Puritan New England, for example, where civil and church government were virtually the same thing, arguments about centralized versus decentralized church leadership were eventually decided in favor of the latter, with Congregationalists championing the notion of each congregation governing its own affairs—a very democratic model. Despite this, the Puritans were no supporters of religious toleration—more famous for that were the Quakers and William Penn, whose 1682 Frame of Government of Pennsylvania famously contained specific provisions protecting freedom of religion in the colony.
Uniting both Massachusetts Puritans and Pennsylvania Quakers, however—along with the leaders of most of the other colonies—was the idea of equality before the law, specifically recognized in many colonial governing documents. This equality was extremely limited by today’s standards—the typical definition of a person with full legal standing being a white male—but it was nonetheless highly notable for not recognizing orders of rank between men, as had existed for centuries in Europe, with its legal distinctions between commoners and members of the aristocracy. A number of European thinkers were able to imagine a world where these distinctions held no sway, but it was in the American colonies that this idea first began to be put into practice.