Massachusetts Body of Liberties

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Massachusetts Body of Liberties was the first legal code established in New England, compiled by Puritan minister Nathaniel Ward. The laws were established by the Massachusetts General Court in 1641. The Body of Liberties begins by establishing the exclusive right of the General Court to legislate and dictate the "Countenance of Authority".

In 1684, King Charles II revoked the Body of Liberties and reinstated English law over the Commonwealth. King James II established the Massachusetts Colony, and the Body of Liberties took effect and remained so until it was replaced by the 1691 Provincial Charter.[1]

Rights acknowledged by the Body of Liberties[edit]

The Body of Liberties was one of the earliest protections of individual rights in America.[2] Unlike many of the English sources of the time, the Body of Liberties were express in many of their grants and far more supportive of individual rights.[2] Despite these grants, the rights were modifiable by the General Court.

To varying degrees, the document contained rights that would later be included in the Bill of Rights. Many of the other rights are now considered fundamental components of procedural due process, such as rights to notice and hearing before the court. The rights also contained in the Bill of Rights included freedom of speech, a right against uncompensated takings, a right to bail, a right to jury trial, a right against cruel and unusual punishment, and a right against double jeopardy.[2]

In addition to those, the Body of Liberties also contained other individual rights, including: a prohibition of a compulsory draft except for territorial defense; a prohibition of monopolies, "No monopolies shall be granted or allowed amongst us, but of such new Inventions that are profitable to the Countrie, and that for a short time."; prohibition of an estate tax; the freedom of all "house holders" to fishing and fowling on public land.

Some of the liberties legislated are explicitly cited as originating from biblical sources. While many of the liberties established still exist in both and law and practice in the Commonwealth today, some do not. The justification for slavery of Africans in Passage 91 of the Body of Liberties was likely based on an interpretation of scriptural passages of the New Testament, such as Ephesians 6:5 and Titus 2:9. Liberties were only extended to Caucasian Northern Europeans, particularly protestant Christian men.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Encyclopedia of American civil liberties, Volume 1, Ed. Paul Finkelman, entry written by Sherrow Pinder, CRC Press, 2006, ISBN 0-415-94342-6, page 979.
  2. ^ a b c Bernard Schwartz, The great rights of mankind: a history of the American Bill of Rights, Rowman & Littlefield, 1992, 0945612281, page 51.