Front Page Titles (by Subject) 20: [Pilgrim Code of Law] - Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
20: [Pilgrim Code of Law] - Donald S. Lutz, Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History 
Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History, ed. Donald S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
[Pilgrim Code of Law]
The original text of this document can be found in N. B. Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, eds., Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England: Vol. i, The Laws, 1623–1682 (Boston: The Press of William White, 1861), 6–12. The original is in a shorthand that is particularly tortuous even for the times in which it was written. The emended version of the text here is consistent with that found in W. Keith Kavenaugh, ed., Foundations of Colonial America: A Documentary History (New York: Chelsea House, 1973), 1: 247–51.
November 15, 1636
Much more than a code of law, this document lays out the fundamental values and political institutions of the community and is a candidate for the honor of being the first true written constitution in the modern world. It was revised in 1658 and then again in 1671. The text should be read carefully, in the context of earlier documents. On the one hand, the Pilgrim Code of Law reflects the attempt to recreate locally the English parliamentary form in a manner consistent with the provisions of its charter from the king. On the other hand, the quiet assumption of local popular sovereignty, reflected in an elected governor as well as in the inclusion of the Plymouth Agreement and the covenantal elements, is consistent with the evolving colonial political symbols going back to the Mayflower Compact. The blending of English and American forms will continue to characterize American constitutionalism. Of particular note, Plymouth Colony is by this time composed of several separate towns, so the document also establishes a federal system of government among those towns whereby each town continues to have its own assembly and officials at the same time there exists an elected colony-wide government as described here.
Whereas, at his Majesty’s court held the fourth and fifth of October in the twelfth year of the reign of our sovereign lord Charles, by the grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc., it was ordered that Major William Brewster, Major Ralph Smith, Major John Done, and John Jenny for the town of Plymouth, Jonathan Brewster and Christopher Wadsworth for Duxborough, and James Cudworth and Anthony Annable for Scittuate should be added to the governor and assistants as committees for the whole body of this commonweal, should meet together the 15th of November at Plymouth, above-mentioned, and there to peruse all the laws, orders, and constitutions of the plantations within this government that so those that are still fitting might be established, those that time has made unnecessary might be rejected, and others that were wanting might be prepared that so the next court they might be established.
Now being assembled according to the said order, and having read the combination made at Cape Cod the 11th of November 1620 in the year of the reign of our late sovereign lord King James of England, France, Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, as also our letters patents confirmed by the honorable council, his said Majesty established and granted the 13th of January 1629 in the fifth year of the reign of our sovereign lord King Charles, and finding that, as freeborn subjects of the state of England, we hither came endowed with all and singular the privileges belonging to such, in the first place we think good that it be established for an act that, according to the ... and due privileges of the subject aforesaid, no imposition, law, or ordinance be made or imposed upon us by ourselves or others at present or to come but such as shall be made or imposed by consent, according to the free liberties of the state and kingdom of England and no otherwise.
That whereas, before expressed, we find a solemn and binding combination as also letters patent derivatory from his Majesty of England, our dread sovereign, for the ordering of a body politic within the several limits of this patent, viz., from Cowahasset to the utmost bounds of Puckanokick westward, and all that tract of land southward to the southern ocean, with all and singular lands, rivers, havens, waters, creeks, ports, fishing, fowlings, etc., by virtue whereof we ordain, institute, and appoint the first Tuesday in March every year for the election of such officers as shall be thought meet for the guiding and government of this corporation.
This is altered afterwards to the first Tuesday in June yearly by a general court.
That at the day and time appointed a governor and seven assistants be chosen to rule and govern the said plantations within the said limits for one whole year and no more; and this election to be made only by the freemen according to the former custom. And that then also constables for each part and other inferior officers be also chosen.
That in every election some one of the assistants, or some other sufficient person, be chosen treasurer for the year present, whose place it shall be to receive in whatsoever sum or sums shall appertain to the royalty of the place, either coming in by way of fine, amercement, or otherwise, and shall improve the same for the public benefit of this corporation by order of the government; as also to give a just account thereof to the ensuing treasurer and to the governor whenever he shall demand it, or the court when they appoint.
That a clerk of the court also be chosen for the year.
That also one be chosen to the office of coroner to be executed as near as may be to the laws and practice of the kingdom of England, and to continue one year.
the office of the governor
The office of the governor for the time being consists in the execution of such laws and ordinances as are or shall be made and established for the good of this corporation according to the several bounds and limits thereof; viz., in calling together or advising with the assistants or council of the said corporation upon such material occasions, or so seeming to him, as time shall bring forth; in which assembly, and all other, the governor to propound the occasion of the assembly and have a double voice therein. If the assistants judge the case too great to be decided by them and refer it to the general court, then the governor to summon a court by warning all the freemen aforesaid that are then extant, and there also to propound causes, and go before the assistants in the examination of particulars, and to propound such sentence as shall be determined. Further, it shall be lawful for him to arrest and committ to ward any offenders provided that with all convenient speed he shall bring the cause to hearing either of the assisstants or general court, according to the nature of the offense. Also, it shall be lawful for him to examine any suspicious persons for evil against the colony, as also to intercept or oppose such as he conceives may tend to the overthrow of the same. And that this office continue one whole year and no more without renewing by election.
the oath of the governor
You shall swear to be truly loyal; also, according to that measure of wisdom, understanding, and discerning given unto you faithfully, equally, and indifferently, without respect of persons, to administer justice in all cases coming before you as the governor of New Plymouth. You shall, in like manner, faithfully, duly, and truly execute the laws and ordinances of the same, and shall labor to advance and further the good of the colonies and plantations within the limits thereof to the utmost of your power and oppose any thing that shall seem to hinder the same. So help you God, who is the God of truth and punisher of falsehood.
the oath of a freeman
You shall be loyal. You shall not speak or do, devise or advise anything or things, act or acts, directly or indirectly, by land or water, that does, shall, or may tend to the destruction or overthrow of this present plantation, colony, or corporation of New Plymouth, neither shall you suffer the same to be spoken or done, but shall hinder, oppose, and discover the same to the governor and assistants of the said colony for the time being, or some one of them. You shall faithfully submit to such good and wholesome laws and ordinances as either are or shall be made for the ordering and government of the same, and shall endeavor to advance the growth and good of the several plantations within the limits of this corporation by all due means and courses. All which you promise and swear by the name of the great God of heaven and earth, simply, truly, and faithfully to perform as you hope for help from God, who is the God of truth and punisher of falsehood.
the office of an assistant
The office of an assistant for the time being consists in appearing at the governor’s summons, and in giving his best advice both in public court and private council with the governor for the good of the colonies within the limits of this government; not to disclose, but keep secret, such things as concern the public good and shall be thought meet to be concealed by the governor and council of assistants in having a special hand in the examination of public offenders and in contriving the affairs of the colony; to have a voice in the censuring of such offenders as shall not be brought to public court; that if the governor has occasion to be absent from the colony for a short time, by the governor, with consent of the rest of the assistants, he may be deputed to govern in the absence of the governor. Also, it shall be lawful for him to examine and commit to ward where any occasion arises where the governor is absent, provided the person be brought to further hearing with all convenient speed before the governor or the rest of the assistants. Also, it shall be lawful for him in his Majesty’s name to direct his warrants to any constable within the government, who ought faithfully to execute the same according to the nature and tenure thereof; and may bind over persons for matters of crime to answer at the next ensuing court of his Majesty after the fact committed or the person apprehended.
the oath of the assistants
You shall all swear to be truly loyal to our sovereign lord King Charles, his heirs and successors. Also, you shall faithfully, truly, and justly, according to that measure of discerning and discretion God has given you, be assistant to the governor for his present year for the execution of justice in all cases and towards all persons coming before you without partiality, according to the nature of the office of an assistant read to you. Moreover, you shall diligently, duly, and truly see that the laws and ordinances of this corporation be faithfully executed; and shall labor to advance the good of the several plantations within the limits thereof and oppose anything that shall hinder the same by all due means and courses. So help you God, who is the God of truth and punisher of falsehood.
the oath of any residing within the government
You shall be truly loyal to our sovereign lord King Charles, his heirs and successors. And whereas you make choice at present to reside within the government of New Plymouth, you shall not do, or cause to be done, any act or acts, directly or indirectly, by land or water, that shall or may tend to the destruction or overthrow of the whole or any of the several colonies within the said government that are or shall be orderly erected and established, but shall, contrariwise, hinder, oppose, and discover such intents and purposes as tend thereunto to the governor for the time being, or some one of the assistants with all convenient speed. You shall also submit to and obey such good and wholesome laws, ordinances, and officers as are or shall be established within the several limits thereof. So help you God, who is the God of truth and punisher of falsehood.
the oath of a constable
You shall swear to be truly loyal to our sovereign lord King Charles, his heirs and successors, which you shall faithfully serve in the office of a constable in the ward of ... for this present year according to that measure of wisdom understanding and discretion God has given you. In which time you shall diligently see that his Majesty’s peace commanded be not broken, but shall carry the person or persons offending before the governor of this corporation, or some one of his assistants, and there attend the hearing of the case and such order as shall be given you. You shall apprehend all suspicious persons and bring them before the said governor, or someone of his assistants, as aforesaid. You shall duly and truly serve such warrants and give such summons as shall be directed to you from the governor or assistants before mentioned, and shall labour to advance the peace and happiness of this corporation and oppose any thing that shall seem to annoy the same, by all due means and courses. So help you God, who is the God of truth and punishment of falsehood.
That the annual election of officers before expressed be at a general court held in his Majesty’s name of England. And that the governor in due season, by warrant directed to the several constables in his Majesty’s name aforesaid, give warning to the freemen to make their appearance; and that all other our courts, warrants, summons, or commands by way of justice be all done, directed, and made in the name of his Majesty of England aforesaid, our dread sovereign.
And for default in case of appearance at the election before mentioned, without due excuse, each delinquent to be amerced in three shillings sterling.
That if at any time any shall be elected to the office of governor and will not hold according to the election that then he be amerced in twenty pounds sterling fine.
That if any elected to the office of assistant refuse to hold according to election that then he be amerced in ten pounds sterling fine.
That in case one and the same person should be elected governor a second year, having held the place the foregoing year, it should be lawful for him to refuse without amercement unless they can prevail with him by entreaty.
That the government, viz., the general courts and courts of assistants, be held at Plymouth, and that the governor hold his dwelling there for the present year, except such inferior courts as for some matters shall be allowed by this court in other places of this government.
It is enacted that no presentment hereafter shall be exhibited to the grand inquest to be brought to the bench except it be done upon oath, and that it shall be lawful for any of the assistants to administer an oath in such case.
That the constable see the highways for man and beast be made and kept in convenient repair, and therefore be also appointed surveyor for the liberty he is chosen. That two surveyors in every constablerick be chosen each year to see that the highways be mended competently. And if it fall out that a way be wanting upon due complaint, that then the governor panel a jury and upon oath charge them to lay out such way as in conscience they find most beneficial for the commonweal and as little prejudice as may be to the particular.
That the laws and ordinances of the colony and for the government of the same be made only by the freemen of the corporation and no other; provided, that in such rates and taxations as are or shall be laid upon the whole they be without partiality so as the freemen be not spared for his freedom, but the levy be equal. And in case any man finds himself aggrieved that his complaint may be heard and redressed if there be due cause.
That an oath of allegiance to the King and fidelity to the government and the several colonies therein be taken of every person that shall live within or under the same.
That all trials, whether capital or between man and man, be tried by juries according to the precedents of the law of England, as near as may be.
That the governor and two assistants, at the least, shall, as occasion shall be offered in time convenient, determine in such trivial cases, viz., under forty shillings between man and man, as shall come before them: as also in offense of small nature shall determine, do, and execute as in wisdom God shall direct them.