Body of Liberties

“The [Governors] … were entreated to make a draft of laws agreable to the word of God, which might be the fundamentals of this Commonwealth, and to present the same to the next General Court.”—May 25, 1636, Mass. Rec., I. 174. (New England, during the Stuard Dynasty, Vol. II by John Gorham Palfrey)

Twenty-three years had passed since the first plantation at Plymouth, and thirteen since Massachusetts had  become the basis of government of the league of the four Colonies (Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Haven). At the length, with the growth of interests and of the community, some uniformity was required. In a session which “continued three weeks,” (ibid. p. 23) the General Court established one hundred fundamental laws, called the Body of Liberties that “no man shall infringe… without due punishment.” (Body of Liberties, Art. 98)

These laws had been composed by Nathaniel Ward, who had studied at Cambridge and afterwards came to Massachusetts in 1634. Under ninety eight heads, it lays down fundamental principles related to the sacredness of life, liberty, property and reputation. It also provides for justice to woman, children, servants, and foreigners.

“No man’s life shall be taken away; no man’s honour or good name shall be stained”…”no man shall be deprived of his wife or children; no man’s goods or estate shall be taken away, nor any way endangered”…”unless it be by virtue or equity of some express law of the country warranting the same, established by the General Court and sufficiently published, or, in case of the defect of the law in any particular case, by the word of God” (First paragraph of the code, Body of Liberties ).

For the people the Scriptures were considered a universal statute-book, the building block of their community and administration.

“There is no higher, and no other just conception of human law, than was theirs, when they recognized it as an embodiment of the will—in other words, of the law—of God.” (New England, p. 27)

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