The Acts of Union in 1707, also referred to as the Union of the Parliaments, had a significant impact on the governmental and political structure of both England and Scotland. The two acts served to join the two countries into a single kingdom with a single Parliament. Passage of the Acts created the nation of Great Britain from the previous separate states of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland. While England and Scotland were merging into a single country, additional impacts from the Acts were felt across the globe, including in the American colonies.
Acts of Union
The Parliament of England passed the Union with Scotland Act in 1706 and the Parliament of Scotland passed the Union with England Act in 1707. The two Acts implemented the terms of the Treaty of Union agreed upon in July 1706. This treaty established terms for joining the two nations under a single entity. While three previous efforts had been made to merge the two nations, both political establishments did not align on the terms and benefits until the early 18th century.
Prior to the Acts, England and Scotland shared the same monarch but had separate legislatures. On May 1, 1707, the two Acts took effect when the two legislatures merged into the Parliament of Great Britain, based in London. With this merger, the two previously independent nations became a single nation known as Great Britain. With the treaty, England’s border security improved and Scotland was positioned to reap financial benefits.
Articles of the Acts
The Treaty of Union consisted of 25 articles addressing various aspects of merging the two nations. Of the articles, 15 pertained to economic concerns while the other 10 addressed items such as the inclusion of Scottish representatives in the House of Lords and the acceptance of specific religious faiths. Under the articles, the Church of Scotland remained the recognized and official church in Scotland and a previous ban on a Roman Catholic taking the throne was reinforced.
Additional components of the Treaty and subsequent Acts of Union revolved around the union of monetary and customs systems and reinforced the validity of existing Scottish law. While many of the articles focused on financial components of the relationship, the articles affirming Scottish law and religion had an even greater impact on the success of the Acts. Originally, the Church of Scotland opposed the treaty, but the articles affirming the Presbyterian establishment addressed the overt hostility. While lower levels of the clergy continued to oppose the treaty, the higher authorities agreed to the terms.
Impact on Colonial America
While the Acts of Union served primarily to unite Scotland and England into a single nation, they also impacted the colonies in North America. The English colonies had been primarily self-governing for some time, but the merger of Scottish and English legislatures into a single representative form of Parliament led to even greater relaxation of control over the colonies. Most of the English colonies had been established for economic purposes. As long as the colonies continued to be profitable and trade continued to grow, royal oversight remained minimal.
The representative assemblies in the colonies took advantage of the relaxation of oversight and increased their power over internal matters. Before this period, appointed governors commanded local militias and had significant influence in the appointment of various legal officials. With the decrease of oversight, the colonial assemblies were able to achieve greater influence in local government. Using some of the same methods as members of the English parliament, assembly members demanded the power to control taxes and provide input into public office appointments.
Following the passage of the Acts, political power in the colonies continued to shift from the appointed governors and councils to the representative, elected assemblies. When British officials resisted, several colonies flexed their new powers by refusing to pay appointed governors for several years. Despite resistance from British officials, little action was taken. Instead, most of England’s focus during this time remained on conflicts and expansion efforts in other areas. Little effort was put into enforcing British law as long as the colonies adhered to tax regulations.
The Acts of Union also served to enable Scottish settlers to immigrate to the colonies. Before the nations merged, Scotland had limited opportunities to trade with the colonies or establish commercial relations. With the passage of the Acts, colonial markets opened up to Scottish companies and the colonies were able to increase trade with Scotland. As a result of the Acts, Scotland benefited financially from the opening of American markets.
Setting the Stage
The American colonies enjoyed greater freedom from royal oversight during the period surrounding the Acts of Union. Colonial assemblies and governments continued to expand their influence and came to expect having power in decisions affecting the colonies. At the same time, with Scotland merged into Great Britain, England enjoyed greater border security and sought to further expand the British Empire. As a result, England engaged in several wars and battles around the world and continued to expand and strengthen colonization efforts.
To fund expansion efforts, the government imposed numerous taxes on the citizens of the empire, including the colonies. While initial increases in taxes were accepted, following the passage of the Acts, American resistance to growing taxation began to fester. Scotland enjoyed representation in the government of Great Britain, but the colonies helping to fund expansion did not have the same voice.
The combination of greater freedom from oversight and increasing tax burdens set the stage for dissatisfaction in the American colonies. Having enjoyed self-government for some time, the assemblies governing the colonies considered increasing taxes burdensome. While the dissatisfaction would not spark a full-scale rebellion for some time, the seeds of dissent were planted and the stage was set for the growing independence of the American colonies.
While the Acts of Union stabilized the governments of England and Scotland and led to significant changes in Europe, the effects on American colonies were more subtle and long-ranging. With English attention focused on relationships at home and on other expansion efforts, the colonies began to grow more and more self-sufficient and self-governing. As a result, colonial America became less tolerant of English demands and began to think of itself as an independent nation.