1661: Act of the General Court (of Mass.)

Source: Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History, ed. Donald S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998).

31 [An Act of the General Court]

The text is taken from Shurtleff, Massachusetts Colonial Records: Vol. iv, 25–26.

The charter of 1629 creating the Massachusetts Bay Company not only had the standard provision providing for local self-government but also had the peculiarity of failing to make any specific reference to parliamentary authority. This was interpreted to mean, at least by the colonists, that the English Parliament had no power over the colony. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties, 1641 [22], also implied that the colony was bound only by laws of its own choosing. The document below was passed by the Massachusetts General Court in a bold attempt to essentially declare their autonomy from allegiance to the king as well, or at least to render that allegiance so tenuous as to make it meaningless. This move to enlarge the liberties of the colonies is one more major attempt by the colonists to create a political foundation based completely upon their own consent. Indeed, the document spells out clearly the major principles that underlay the evolving colonial constitutionalism. The Crown eventually revoked the colony’s charter in 1684, and this document was a major reason for that royal action.

concerning our liberties

1. We conceive the patent (under God) to be the first and main foundation of our civil polity here, by a Governor and Company, according as is therein expressed.

2. The Governor and Company are, by the patent, a body politic, in fact and name.

3. This body politic is vested with power to make freemen.

4. These freemen have power to choose annually a governor, deputy governor, assistants, and their select representatives or deputies.

5. This government has power also to set up all sorts of officers, as well superior as inferior, and point out their power and places.

6. The governor, deputy governor, assistants, and select representatives or deputies have full power and authority, both legislative and executive, for the government of all the people here, whether inhabitants or strangers, both concerning ecclesiastics and in civils, without appeal, excepting law or laws repugnant to the laws of England.

7. The government is privileged by all fitting means (yea, if need be, by force of arms) to defend themselves, both by land and sea, against all such person or persons as shall at any time attempt or enterprise the destruction, invasion, detriment, or annoyance of this plantation, or the inhabitants therein, besides other privileges mentioned in the patent, not here expressed.

8. We conceive any imposition prejudicial to the country contrary to any just law of ours, not repugnant to the laws of England, to be an infringement of our right.

concerning our duties of allegiance to our sovereign lord, the king

1. We ought to uphold and, to our power, maintain his place, as of right belonging to Our Sovereign Lord, The King, as holden of His Majesty’s manor of East Greenwich, and not to subject the same to any foreign prince or potentate whatsoever.

2. We ought to endeavor the preservation of His Majesty’s royal person, realms, and dominions, and so far as lies in us, to discover and prevent all plots and conspiracies against the same.

3. We ought to seek the peace and prosperity of Our King and nation by a faithful discharge in the governing of his people committed to our care.

First, by punishing all such crimes (being breaches of the First or Second Table) as are committed against the peace of Our Sovereign Lord, The King, his Royal Crown, and dignity.

Second, in propagating the Gospel, defending and upholding the true Christian or Protestant religion according to the faith given by our Lord Christ in His word; our dread sovereign being styled “defender of the faith.”

The premises considered, it may well stand with the loyalty and obedience of such subjects as are thus privileged by their rightful sovereign (for Himself, His Heirs, and Successors forever) as cause shall require, to plead with their prince against all such as shall at any time endeavor the violation of their privileges ... And, also, that the General Court may do safely to declare that in case (for the future) any legally obnoxious, and flying from the civil justice of the state of England, shall come over to these parts, they may not here expect shelter.

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