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Mayflower, Day by Day - Tuesday, 12 October 1621

12 Oct 2021 3:33 AM | Soule (Administrator)

Law and Government in the Plymouth Colony

With the exception of a few of their leaders it seems unlikely that the colonists were aware of any of the legal movements of the time, or even of the politics of the royal court.  Most of them were small farmers or artisans.  Their leaders were exiles because of their beliefs. “They were in respect of law and government footloose, maintaining with the homeland no more than a commercial relation with the group which financed them” (Goebbel, King's Law and Local Custom in Seventeenth Century New England, in Essays in the History of Early American Law, 91).  The members of the Plymouth Colony produced four sets of written codifications of their laws over time, the first in 1636, followed by collections of laws published in 1658, 1672 and 1685. Yet it is vital to recognise that none of this law-making was based on authority granted expressly by royal charter, and Plymouth was fairly unique in its time for lacking such a charter: it was the only English colony in North America never to receive a royal charter. The colonists did possess "land patents," which conferred title in the new "plantation" land to William Bradford and his "associates."  However, these land patents lacked the full grant of authorities that a charter would provide (Langdon, Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth, 1620-1691, 40). Such charters typically provided the recipients with the express authority to establish a colonial government and to exercise powers over the inhabitants of the colony. Royal charters also provided details as to sources for substantive law that should be utilized in the colony (Chafee, Colonial Courts and the Common Law, in Essays in the History of Early American Law, 56-57). For example, John Winthrop obtained a Royal Charter from King Charles I in 1630 for establishing the Bay Colony, and that charter served "as the legal basis for the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for more than half a century" (Powers, Crime and Punishment in Early Massachusetts, 1620-1692: A Documentary History, 511).

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