Puritan oligarchy? A look at the 1641 Body of Liberties

Welcome to a short series on the first (but far from the last) codification of laws in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, the 1641 Body of Liberties. We’re going to look through this set of 100 laws to get a better picture of what government was really like in Puritan Massachusetts, and to counter the standard mantra that the colony was an oligarchy, with no separation of church and state. We will also disappoint most readers by showing that there is only one mention of witchcraft in the whole Body, and it is mentioned only in passing.

An oligarchy, of course, is a system of government that keeps power in the hands of a tiny minority of the people, generally the wealthiest, who basically oppress everyone else to keep themselves wealthy and in power. The last thing an oligarch wants is democracy, or the common voice helping to shape the law.

As we shall see, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not an oligarchy at all, but a proto-democracy in which the common people not only helped shape the law, but were actually recruited by the magistrates in Boston to draft the first body of laws. Let’s look at the process by which the Body was created:

The MBC had as its governing document its charter of 1629, which stated that there should be a governor, deputy governor, and 18 assistants (magistrates). The assistants were to be chosen from the freemen of the colony. (One of the first acts of John Winthrop was to expand the definition of freeman to include basically all adult males in the colony.) The assistants would elect the governor and deputy governor from amongst themselves. The charter also stipulated that the assistants hold a court every month (to hear cases and complaints of the people) and that a General Court be held four times a year (where the freemen from each town drafted laws).

But the General Court did not meet four times a year, and the Assistants’ Court was drafting laws without the oversight of the freemen’s deputies, so in May 1634 at a meeting of the GC the deputies asked to see the patent. They demanded that they be allowed their proper role of drafting laws, but Winthrop said the number of freemen was too large to allow meeting—the Great Migration was in full swing, and the number would indeed have been pushing 1,000. Winthrop suggested that the freemen should elect deputies to attend the GC; each town could send deputies to Boston. Winthrop pictured these deputies reviewing laws drafted by the Assistants’ Court (like the Supreme Court reviews laws made by Congress).

The freemen, however, voted on May 14 to send three deputies from each of the eight towns then existing to the General Court to vote for the assistants and to draft laws. So now the freemen of Massachusetts were voting for their representatives and drafting their own laws. This itself is fairly astonishing to the student of history, for one would be hard-pressed to find an example of this type of proto-democracy anywhere else in the world in 1634.

But the people went further, and this is where the Body of Liberties comes in. The General Court made laws on an ad-hoc basis, hearing each individual case and deciding it. But many in the Court and outside it were worried that this could lead to injustice—to deputies “proceeding according to their discretions”; that is, letting their personal opinions sway their decisions. The colony needed an objective code of law that would not change from case to case. In May 1635 the deputies at the General Court voted to draft that code of law.

It wasn’t simple, though. Who should draft it? The deputies, with their subjective opinions? The Assistants, who could possibly establish an oligarchy by writing laws that gave them more power? While these questions were ironed out, the Court voted in 1636 that any law drafted had to have the support of both the Assistants’ Court and the General Court. The General Court also voted that three clergymen—Cotton, Peters, and Shepherd—submit drafts of laws. Why clergymen? In part, because they were seen to be objective; no minister was allowed to hold a government position, and so had nothing to gain by giving the government certain powers. In part, the colony was a religious society and valued the opinion of its ministers. That said, none of the three drafts was accepted, not even John Cotton’s; as the most respectd and celebrated minister in the colony, perhaps in all New England, he might have seemed a shoo-in, but he was not.

In March 1637, the GC was at an impasse, and so it drafted a letter to the freemen of the eight towns asking them to assemble in their towns and write up a code of laws they felt was just and send it to Boston by June 5. The governor and Assistants would then review them all and create “a compendious abridgement of the same” to give to the GC, which would have final review and approve or reject it. Again, this is a pretty surprising exercise of democracy for the time, but we find in November 1639 there’s still no progress. What caused the delay? Winthrop details two main reasons in his diary, a compendious abridgement of which follows here:

1. The people felt that rather than write laws to use in the future, laws should develop naturally over time and custom, as they had done in England. England never had a written constitution, of course, and the English emigrants in Massachusetts believed their laws should develop the same way.

2. Following on from the lack of a written English body of laws, many Puritans felt they were breaking a key tenet of their charter if they wrote a body of laws. The charter said the colonists could govern themselves as necessary, but should make no laws “repugnant” to the laws of England. Even writing out a body of laws was, in a way, repugnant to English law because English law was not codified. Aside from that, the risk of codifying something that wouldn’t jibe with English law was just too great.

So while the people of the colony wanted an objective body of laws, they were worried about just creating one on the spot, and worried about the consequences of codifying laws that did not exist in England. In the end, the need for a code overcame this resistance, first for the govenrment and then for the people. In 1639, two different codes were drafted by two ministers, and each was sent to the towns to be read to the people, who could revise as they saw fit. Knowing that there would be a code of law, consequences and custom be damned, led the people to at last act. They ended up approving a draft by Rev. Ward. This was revised several times by the governor and the courts, and at last on December 10, 1641—six years after the initial request to draft a code of laws—the Body of Liberties was copied and sent to all the towns, “and voted to stand in force.”

It’s an amazing background for a body of laws in the 17th century, and just this lead-up to the Body puts the lie to claims of oligarchy or dictatorship, and poor citizens being oppressed by laws they did not support, which is the usual picture of Puritan Massachusetts. We’ll look at a few of the 100 laws in the Body over the next few posts. The original Body was given a three-year trial, after which it could be either yanked or “established to be perpetual.” It would be established, and used as the basis for later bodies of law for the colony.

Next time: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

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