Massachusetts historical laws and legal documents

Provides links to early Massachusetts legal documents and collections, including charters, laws, and codes, that have been compiled by the Trial Court Law Libraries.

Table of Contents

History of Massachusetts


Massachusetts facts: Historical sketch, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Provides a general historical sketch starting with the earliest "Paleo-Indian" settlers up through the 2000s.

Why is Massachusetts a Commonwealth?, State Library of Massachusetts.

Court System

History of the judiciary of Massachusetts, including the Plymouth and Massachusetts Colonies, the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, and the Commonwealth, by William T. Davis, Boston Book Company, 1900.

The history of the law in Massachusetts : the Supreme Judicial Court, 1692-1992, by Russell K. Osgood, 1992. [Print resource]

Law in Colonial Massachusetts, 1630-1800, Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
Includes various conference papers relating to law, legal practice, and the organization and jurisdiction of the courts during the early colonies.

Sketches of the judicial history of Massachusetts from 1630 to the Revolution in 1775, by Emory Washburn, Little Brown, 1840.


Leading the way: a history of the Massachusetts General Court, 1629-1980, by Cornelius Dalton, Office of the Massachusetts Secretary of State, 1984. [Print resource]

Documents: 1620-1799

Before the Colonies

Charter of New England, 1620.
A royal charter that was granted to the Council for New England, which allowed for the establishment of colonies along the coast of North America. The charter was revoked and the Council was disbanded in 1635. See also: Act of Surrender of the Great Charter of New England to His Majesty (1635).

Plymouth Colony (1620-1691)

Mayflower Compact: Agreement Between the Settlers at New Plymouth, 1620.
An agreement drawn up by the Plymouth colonists in which the signers agreed to pledge allegiance to the King of England, govern the settlement by majority rule, allow every freeman the equal right of participation in the colony's government, and elect a governor annually.

Laws of Plymouth Colony, 1623-1691.

Records of the Colony of New Plymouth, in New England, 1620-1692.
A multi-volume set that includes court orders, judicial acts, laws, deeds, and more.

Charter of the Colony of New Plymouth Granted to William Bradford and His Associates, 1629.

Surrender of the Patent of Plymouth Colony to the Freeman, 1640.

Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630–1691)

Charter of Massachusetts Bay, 1629.

Laws of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay, 1634-1779.

Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, 1628-1686.
A multi-volume set that includes laws, orders, deeds, and other types of records drafted during this period.

Records of the Court of Assistants of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1630-1692.
The Court of Assistants, a predecessor of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, included the governor, deputy governor, and twelve assistants. It heard criminal cases, divorces, and some civil cases and appeals; for a time, it also functioned as part of the legislature.

Body of Liberties (1641)

Massachusetts Body of Liberties
The Body of Liberties "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." Website includes links to both the original text (1641) and revised versions (1648, 1660, and 1672).

Dominion of New England (1686-1689)

Massachusetts Royal Commissions: 1681-1774, The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1913.
Includes Sir Edmund Andros's commissions as governor of the short-lived Dominion of New England, which was the union of all New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies (with exception to Delaware Colony and the Province of Pennsylvania):

Province of Massachusetts Bay (1691-1780)

Charter of Massachusetts Bay, 1691.
Also referred to as the "Charter of William and Mary." This charter expanded the original colony of Massachusetts Bay and provided for the Governor's appointment by the Crown rather than election, and at the same time broadened the Governor's powers.

Explanatory Charter of Massachusetts Bay, 1725.

Laws of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay, 1634-1779.

Massachusetts Constitution (1780)

Massachusetts Constitution
A transcription of the Massachusetts Constitution (ratified on June 15, 1780), which continues to be the oldest constitution in the world that is still in use. Learn more about John Adams and the events leading up to his drafting of the Constitution.

17th and 18th Century Bills, Session Laws, and Journals

The colonial laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1672, with the supplements through 1686: ... treating of all the printed laws from 1649 to 1686.
Another great resource for colonial laws issued prior to 1692.

Available online through the State Library of Massachusetts:

Additional Resources

Massachusetts Archives Collection, 1629-1799
"The Massachusetts Archives Collection (also known as the "Felt Collection"), which includes original records of the governor, Council, General Court, secretary, and treasurer, is an important source of records for early Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire."

Documents: 1800-1932

19th Century Bills, Session Laws, and Journals

Available online through the State Library of Massachusetts:

Codifications of the Massachusetts General Laws (1836-1932)

Revised Statutes (1836)
Supplements to the Revised Statutes (1844)

General Statutes (1860)

Public Statutes (1882)

Revised Laws (1902)

General Laws (1921) v.1 
General Laws (1921) v.2 
General Laws (1921) Index

General Laws Tercentenary Edition (1932) v.1
General Laws Tercentenary Edition (1932) v.2
General Laws Tercentenary Edition (1932) Index

Contact   for Massachusetts historical laws and legal documents

Help Us Improve  with your feedback

Please do not include personal or contact information.