Massachusetts Body of Liberties

Synopsis of the history of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties

What is it?

The Body of Liberties, a document originally published in 1641, is the first legal code established by European colonists in New England and was composed of a list of liberties, rather than restrictions, and 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. On October 27, 1648, the General Court of Massachusetts would take what began as the Body of Liberties and create the first printed laws in The Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of Massachusetts which would serve as the model for statutory law in Massachusetts and other New England colonies.


May 6, 1635

The first committee for the laws comprised of Governor John Haynes, Deputy-Governor Richard Bellingham, John Winthrop, and Thomas Dudley was formed to "frame a body of grounds of laws, in resemblance to a Magna Carta" (as recorded in John Winthrop's journal)

May 25, 1636

Another General Court assembled and Governor Henry Vane, Deputy-Governor John Winthrop, Thomas Dudley, John Haynes, Richard Bellingham, John Cotton, Hugh Peter, and Thomas Shepard were entreated to make a draft of laws "agreeable to the word of God, which might be the fundamentals of this Commonwealth, and to present the same to the next General Court."

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. [A third General Court committee consisting of ] Governor [John Winthrop], together with the rest of the Standing Council, and Richard Bellingham, Peter Bulkley, George Phillips, Hugh Peter, and Thomas Shepard, elders of several churches, Nathaniel Ward, William Spencer, and William Hathorne, or the major part of them, may, upon the survey of such heads of laws, make a compendious abridgement of the same by the General Court ... adding yet to the same or detracting therefrom what in their wisdoms shall seem meet, so that, the whole work being perfected to the best of their skill, it may be presented to the General Court for confirmation or rejection, as the [General] Court shall adjudge."

John Cotton and Nathaniel Ward were the two members who submitted separate drafts of laws to the General Court. Ward's draft seemed to be the preferred model (according to what Governor John Winthrop writes in his journal). However, the criminal provisions of the revised and combined versions of both Ward's and Cotton's proposals set forth by yet a fourth General Court committee "owed their form and most of their content to [Cotton's] proposals contained in his An Abstract of the Laws of New-England, as They are Now Established." Before putting this consolidated version to a vote, the General Court sent it to the towns for further discussion and recommendations, which would end up being a year-long process.

December 10, 1641

The General Court established the hundred laws which were called the Body of Liberties. They "had been revised and altered by the [General] Court, and sent forth into every town to be further considered of, and now again in this [General] Court they were revised, amended, and presented."

Nathaniel Ward

Nathaniel Ward is named as the person who drafted, collected, or compiled the Body of Liberties. He was born about 1578 at Haverhill in England and was the son of a Puritan minister. He 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 October, 1652.


Nathaniel Ward: Constitutional Draftsman with the Body of Liberties

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

Law and Liberty in Early New England

"The Body of Liberties." In Old South Leaflets, v.7, 1905

The Body of Liberties (1641)

1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties (online transcription)

1648 [known as "The Code of 1648"]

The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts: reprinted from the copy of the 1648 edition in the Henry E. Huntington Library

1648 Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of the Massachusetts (online transcription)

1660 [Second Revision]

The Book of the General Lavves and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of the Massachusetts: Collected out of the Records of the General Court, for the Several Years Wherin they were Made and Established

The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: Reprinted from the Edition of 1660, with the Supplements to 1672: Containing also, the Body of Liberties of 1641

1672 [Third Revision]

The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: Reprinted from the Edition of 1672, with the Supplements through 1686

The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: Reprinted from the Edition of 1672 with the Supplements through 1686: containing also a Bibliographical Preface and Introduction Treating of all 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 

Additional Resources

Contact   for Massachusetts Body of Liberties


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Open M-F 9 a.m.–5 p.m. *Advance appointments are strongly recommended


(617) 727-9730


Main Library
Massachusetts State House, 24 Beacon Street, Room 341, Boston, MA 02133
Special Collections Department
Massachusetts State House, 24 Beacon Street, Room 55, Boston, MA 02133

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