What is it?

The Body of Liberties is a document originally published in 1641 containing 100 liberties intended for use as guidance for the General Court of the time. This document is considered by many as the precursor to the General Laws of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Constitution. It incorporates rights that were later judged to be ahead of their time, with some of these rights eventually appearing in the Bill of Rights. Scholars do not agree as to whether these liberties were ever adopted, adopted provisionally or approved of by the General Court (they would then have been "codified" and become law).

Authors Jarnis and Racheotes describe the 1649 version of the Liberties as follows:

"The Body of Liberties was heavily influenced by the Magna Carta and blended the English legal tradition into the colonial legal system. However, it extended much further than the mere codification of statutory law. The codification contained fundamental concepts upon which the Massachusetts Constitution would eventually be based. The Body of Liberties incorporated the notion of equal justice, the right of appeal, prohibitions against double jeopardy (being repeatedly tried for the same offense), and banned cruel punishment. The rights to counsel and jury trials were affirmed. The new codification protected personal property and declared that when an individual's goods were taken for public use, the owner had to be compensated. Children and servants were given certain rights, and slavery was outlawed. Women, too, were granted a few safeguards. For example, if a man did not leave his wife a sufficient part of his estate, she could apply to the General Court for remedy. Citizens were given the right to inspect public records, and towns were permitted to pass ordinances of a non-criminal nature. The General Court was entitled to dissolve itself." (p.6-7)

They also note the limits of this document, that "The Body of Liberties was established under a charter and could be repealed at any time [and] It only pertained to those governmental officials over whom the freemen had elective control." (p. 7)

"The freemen in Massachusetts ... had a generalized statement of rights with the enactment of the Body of Liberties. They were looking for a refinement of these rights. The quest produced the General Laws of 1649. Unlike the Body of Liberties, the General laws of 1649 contained the very statutes under which Massachusetts was governed. They were the nucleus of colonial law until the Revolution (p. 7-8)."

Partial Timeline

May 25, 1636. "Another General Court assembled; and "the Governor [Vane], Deputy-Governor [Winthrop], Thomas Dudley, John Haynes, Richard Bellingham, Esq., Mr. Cotton, Mr. Peter, and Mr. Shepard were entreated ... to make a draft of laws ..." (Palfrey: p.278)

March 12, 1638. The General Court "... ordered that the freemen of every town (or some part therof chosen by the rest) within this jurisdiction shall assemble together in their several townes, and collect the heads of such necessary and fundamental laws as may be suitable ... [The] Governor, together with the rest of the Standing Council, and Richard Bellingham, Esq., Mr. Bulkley, Mr. Phillips, Mr. Peter, and Mr. Shepard, elders of several churches, Mr. Nathaniel Ward, Mr. William Spencer, and Mr. William Hathorne, or the major part of them, may, upon the survey of such heads of laws, make a compendious abridgement of the same ...."(Palfrey: p.278)

Mr. Cotton and a "Mr. Nathaniel Warde" were two who did draft laws (as far as we know). Ward's draft seemed to be the preferred model, according to Governor John Winthrop in his Journal (Farrand; Palfrey: p. 279-280). But author Edgar J. McManus states that the two versions were compiled and that the criminal provisions of the Body of Liberties "...owed their form and most of their content to his [Cotton's] proposals" (McManus: p.9). (Please see below for lists of copies at the State Library).

December 1641. The General Court "established the hundred laws which were called the Body of Liberties. They...had been revised and altered by the Court, and sent forth into every town to be further considered of, and now again in this Court they were revised, amended, and presented." (Winthrop, II. 55; Palfrey: p. 280)

Nathaniel Ward

Nathaniel Ward (or Warde) is named as the person who drafted, collected or compiled the Body of Liberties, depending on the source. He was born about 1578 at Haverhill in England and was the son of a Puritan minister. He was graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1603, studied law and became a barrister and later entered the ministry. He came to New England in 1634 and resided at Ipswich, where he wrote the Body of Liberties. He returned to England in 1647 and died there in 1652.

Select Bibliography

Allis, Frederick S., Jr.
Nathaniel Ward: constitutional draftsman with the Body of Liberties.
Ipswich, Mass.: Ipswich Historical Society, 1984.
Call Number KFM2801.5 .A4 1984

Aspinwall, William
An Address to the reader, by the publisher of the forgoing Abstract of Laws." In Peter Force [collected by], Tracts and other papers relating principally to the origin, settlement, and progress of the Colonies in North America, from the discovery of the country to the year 1776
Washington, D.C.: Wm. Q. Force, 1844, v. III, Chapter IX.
Call Number 973.031 F69t (Special Collections) [re: Cotton's draft]

Barnes, Thomas G.
Introduction" In The Book of the general lawes and libertyes concerning the inhabitants of the Massachusetts : reproduced in facsimile from the unique 1648 edition in the Huntington Library / edited with an introd. by Thomas G. Barnes.
San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1975, p. 5-10.
Call Number KFM 2430 1648.A223

Child, Robert et al.
A Remonstrance and petition of Robert Child, and others." In The Hutchinson Papers Vol. I, The Publications of the Prince Society.
Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1865, p. 214-223.Call Number 973.2 P96p v.2
(Special Collections)

Corey, Deloraine P.
Joseph Hills and the Massachusetts laws of 1648. Reprinted from the History of Malden, Mass. 1633-1785.
Boston: William Sanford Hills, 1899.

Call Number 974 M31 6:C79j (History of Malden Call Number 974 M31:2 M241:4 C79h

Dunn, Richard S. et al. (eds).
The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Call Number F67.W784 1996

Edmonds, John Henry.
Remarks by John Henry Edmonds, on a rough draft of legislation relating to the Massachusetts laws of 1660" In Transactions 1927-1930.
Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, v. 27. Boston: The Society, 1932.
Call Number 906.2 C4:M3 P97 v. 27

Farrand, Max.
Introduction In The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts: reprinted from the copy of the 1648 edition in the Henry E. Huntington Library.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929, p. v-ix.
Call Number KFM2430 1648 .A222

General Court.
A Declaration of the General Court holden at Boston 4 (9) 1646, concerning a remonstrance and petition exhibited at last session of this Court by Doctor Child, Thomas Fowle, Samuel Maverick, Thomas Burton, John Smith, David Yale, and John Dand.
In The Hutchinson Papers Vol. I, The Publications of the Prince Society. Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1865, p.223-247.
Call Number 973.2 P96p v.2 (Special Collections)

Gray, F.C.
Remarks on the early laws of Massachusetts Bay; with the code adopted in 1641, and called the Body of Liberties, now first printed.
In Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Third Series, v. 8, 1843, p. 191-237.
Call Number 906 M41c (Special Collections)

Hosmer, James Kendall.
Winthrop's journal, "History of New England," 1630-1649.
New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1908.
Call Number 974M31 6:W79h 1908

Jarnis, George M., and Nicholas S. Racheotes.
The Massachusetts Constitution: a citizen's guide.
Newton Centre, Mass.: Government Research Publications, 1987, p.6-8.
Call Number KFM2801 1780.A6 J37 1987

McManus, Edgar J.
Law and liberty in early New England.
Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Shurtleff, Nathaniel B. (ed).
Records of the governor and company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England: printed by order of the legislature.
Boston: William White, 1853-54.
Call Number F67.R43

Palfrey.
[Commentary printed with] The Body of Liberties." In Old South Leaflets, v.7, 1905. Boston, Mass.: The Directors of the Old South Work, pp.278-280. Old South Leaflets [General Series v.7], No. 164.
Call Number 973 044 v. 7

Stebbins, Howard L.
Outline of Massachusetts statute law publications.
Law Library Journal, v.20: 72-84.
Call Number Subject File: Statutes - Mass. - History

William H. Whitmore.
Bibliographical introduction." In William H. Whitmore. Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1672, with the supplements through 1686. Containing also, a Bibliographical preface and introduction, treating all of the printed laws from 1649 to 1686. Together with the Body of liberties of 1641, and the records of the Court of Assistants, 1641-1644. [facsimile].
Boston, Mass.: City Council of Boston, 1890. pp. 1-138.
Call Number KFM 2430 1672.A223

The Body of Liberties (copies)

1641:

  • "The Body of Liberties [or] The Liberties of the Massachusetts Collonie in New England." In Allis, Frederick S., Jr. Nathaniel Ward: constitutional draftsman with the Body of Liberties. Ipswich, Mass.: Ipswich Historical Society, 1984, pp.24-41.
    Call Number KFM2801.5 .A4 1984
  • " The Body of Liberties." In Old South Leaflets. Boston, Mass.: Directors of the Old South Work, 1905, pp.261-280. Old South Leaflets [General Series v.7] No. 164, 1905.
    Call Number 973 O44 v. 7
  • "A Coppie of The Liberties of the Massachusets Colonie in New England [facsimile]." In William H. Whitmore. Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1672, with the supplements through 1686. Containing also, a Bibliographical preface and introduction, treating all of the printed laws from 1649 to 1686. Together with the Body of liberties of 1641, and the records of the Court of Assistants, 1641-1644. Boston, Mass.: City Council of Boston, 1890.
    Call Number KFM 2430 1672.A223
  • "The Earliest New England code of laws, 1641." In Hart, Albert Bushnell and Edward Channing (eds). American History Leaflets. Colonial and Constitutional. No. 1-36. New York: S.n., 1892-1910. No. 25 - January, 1896.
    Call Number 973.031 A512
  • Gray, F.C. "Remarks on the early laws of Massachusetts Bay; with the code adopted in 1641, and called the Body of Liberties, now first printed." In Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Third Series, v. 8, 1843, pp. 191-237.
    Call Number 906 M41c (Special Collections)
  • Hanover Historical Texts Project. "The Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641) [online]." Hanover, Indiana: Hanover College. Department of History [cited 4 June, 2003]. Available from the World Wide Web: http://history.hanover.edu/texts/masslib.html
  • "The Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641) [online]." In Eliot, Charles W. American Historical Documents, 1000-1904. The Harvard Classics.New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14; Bartleby.com, 2001 [cited 4 June 2003]. Available from the World Wide Web: http://www.bartleby.com/43/
  • The Massachusetts Body of Liberties [online]. Desert Hot Springs, Calif.: The Winthrop Society [cited 4 June 2003]. Available from the World Wide Web: http://www.winthropsociety.com/liberties.php

1648:

  • The Book of the General Lauues and Libertyes concerning the inhabitants of the Massachusets. [photostat facsimile] S.l.: S.n., n.d.
    Call Number KFM 2430 1648.A22
  • The Laws and liberties of Massachusetts: reprinted from the copy of the 1648 edition in the Henry E. Huntington Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929.
    Call Number KFM 2430 1648.A222
  • Barnes, Thomas G. (ed.). The Book of the general lawes and libertyes concerning the inhabitants of the Massachusetts : reproduced in facsimile from the unique 1648 edition in the Huntington Library. San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1975.
    Call Number KFM 2430 1648.A223
  • The Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of the Massachusets (1648; facsimile edition, Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1929). Lauric Henneton. Le Projet Albion/Puritan Studies on the Web/Primary Sources [cited 4 June 2003]. Available from the World Wide Web: http://puritanism.online.fr/puritanism/sources/lawslibertyes1648.html

1660 [commonly referred to as the second revision]:

  • The Book of the general lavvs and libertyes concerning the inhabitants of the Massachusets, collected out of the Records of the General Court, for the several years wherin they were made and established. And now revised by the same Court, and disposed into an alphabetical order, and published by the same authority in the General Court holden at Boston, in May 1649. Cambridge, Mass.: Printed according to the Order of the General Court, 1660. [Bound with "Several lavvs and order made at severall General Courts in the years 1661, 1662, 1664." [Boston]: printed and published by Order of the General Court held at Boston the 19th of October, 1664 by Edward Rawson.]
    Call Number KFM 2430 1660 .A22 (Special Collections)
  • " The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusets Colony: revised and re-printed. [facsimile]." In William H. Whitmore.Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672. Containing also the Body of liberties of 1641. Boston, Mass.: City Council of Boston, 1889.
    Call Number KFM 2430 1660 .A221

1672 [third revision]:

  • The General lavvs and liberties of the Massachusets colony: revised and reprinted. By order of the General Court holden at Boston May 15, 1672 Cambridge, Mass.: Printed by Order of the General Court, 1672. [Missing p. 77-80 and last three pages of index. Bound with later lavvs and orders for the years 1674, 1675, 1677.]
    Call Number KFM 2430 1672 .A22 (Special Collections)
  • "The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusets Colony: revised and re-printed. [facsimile]." In Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1672, with the supplements through 1686. Containing a new and complete index. Boston, Mass.: City Council of Boston, 1887.
    Call Number KFM 2430 1672.A222
  • " The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusets Colony: revised and re-printed. [facsimile]." In William H. Whitmore.Colonial Laws of Massachusetts. Reprinted from the edition of 1672, with the supplements through 1686. Containing also, a bibliographical preface and introduction, treating all of the printed laws from 1649 to 1686. Together with the Body of liberties of 1641, and the records of the Court of Assistants, 1641-1644. Boston, Mass.: City Council of Boston, 1890.
    Call Number KFM 2430 1672.A223

Cotton's Draft (copies)

" An Abstract of the lawes of New England as they are now established, London, printed for F. Coules, and W. Ley at Paules Chain, 1641- [20 pages.]." In Peter Force [collected by], Tracts and other papers relating principally to the origin, settlement, and progress of the Colonies in North America, from the discovery of the country to the year 1776. Washington: Wm. Q. Force, 1844, v. III, Chapter IX. [published anonymously]
Call Number 973.031 F69t (Special Collections)

"An Abstract of the laws of New-England, as they are now established. Printed in London in 1641." In Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. First series, v.5. Boston: John Eliot, 1816.
Call Number 906 M41c v.5 A (Special Collections)
 


This information is provided by The State Library of Massachusetts.