Charter Cities and America

The American founding offers crucial lessons for charter cities.

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On July 4th it is worth exploring America’s relationship to charter cities. We typically use foreign examples, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, and Shenzhen, as proto charter cities. America is federalist in spirit, but in practice there is little regulatory autonomy for states. While America has foreign trade zones, they are limited in scope. Nevertheless, there is much charter cities can learn from American history. 


Both Jamestown and Plymouth, two of the first colonies in America, were established with charters. A perennial human challenge is governance– who creates the rules for living together and what is the procedure to change those rules. As Jamestown and Plymouth created new societies, they needed agreement on how to govern themselves.


In Plymouth, this agreement was the Mayflower Compact. The Pilgrims, first fleeing England for religious freedom, then having decided that the Netherlands was too industrial and fast-paced for the agrarian lifestyle they wanted, set sail for America. They were originally meant to land and settle Virginia but were blown off course to modern day Provincetown Harbor, Massachusetts. Running low on supplies, they decided to disembark, but some questioned their legal right to do so. The Mayflower Compact was written while still on the Mayflower, their ship, establishing their right to establish their own government while affirming allegiance to England. 


The original text has been since lost. However, it has occupied an important cultural niche as a forerunner to the self-governance proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. President Coolidge describes it as follows:

The compact which they signed was an event of the greatest importance. It was the foundation of liberty based on law and order, and that tradition has been steadily upheld. They drew up a form of government which has been designated as the first real constitution of modern times. It was democratic, an acknowledgment of liberty under law and order and the giving to each person the right to participate in the government, while they promised to be obedient to the laws.


The First Charter of Virginia is another important document in American history. Unlike the Mayflower Compact, where the people declared the right to self-governance, the First Charter of Virginia was granted by King James I of England, assigning rights to colonists. The Charter was supposed to help propagate Christianity, and the King reserved the right to 20 percent of any profits generated, also ensuring British citizenship for anyone born in the colony. A council was established to govern the colony within the parameters outlined by the charter. It was under this charter that Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, was created. 


The Mayflower Compact and the First Charter of Virginia demonstrate that charters are a powerful tool for both people and governments to establish governing systems and create the conditions necessary for human flourishing. As we celebrate Independence Day it’s worth considering how those lessons might be applied today.