Plymouth Colony Drafts the First Laws in North America

Democracy formally took root in colonial North America on Oct. 4, 1636, when Plymouth Colony drew up the first written legal code on the continent.

Plymouth Colony was settled in 1620 by Anglicans and Separatists, also known as Brownists, and later known together as the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims believed God commended them to adopt democracy as their form of government. And that government should enforce religious belief.

A typical house in Plymouth Colony, recreated at Plimoth Patuxet.

By 1636, Plymouth Colony had fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. The Massachusetts Bay Colony would eventually eclipse it in wealth and population and absorbed the entire colony.

In the beginning, the laws of Plymouth Colony only carried the weight of a proclamation by  the General Court. But in 1636 the court put them into a code known as the “General Fundamentals.”

Plymouth Colony Bill of Rights

The legal code included a rudimentary bill of rights and guaranteed trial by jury. It levied taxes, decreed the distribution of land and set out punishments for specific crimes.  Several crimes carried the death penalty: treason, murder, witchcraft, arson, sodomy, rape, bestiality, adultery, and cursing or smiting one’s parents.

The Book of the General Laws of the Inhabitants of the Jurisdiction of New-Plimouth

Plymouth magistrates, however, rarely meted out the death penalty. Only one sex crime ever resulted in an execution: Thomas Granger in 1642 for bestiality.

Edward Bumpus received a death sentence for “striking and abusing” his parents in 1679. But he received only a severe whipping due to his insanity. The alleged killers of a Praying Indian named John Sassamon in 1675, which set off King Philip’s War, also received the death penalty. 

Rules for Adultery

Convicted adulterers were to be punished by wearing the letters ‘A’ and ‘D’ sewn on to their garments. Nathaniel Hawthorne, of course, used that in his short story, The Scarlet Letter. Anyone convicted of burglary got the letter ‘B’ branded onto his hand. Profanity got you not more than three hours in the stock. Whipping or a fine of 40 shillings went to those who traveled, worked or participated in sports on the Sabbath.

Watching their language.

The General Fundamentals began with a preamble that declared “the associates of the Colony of New Plimouth” as “free born subjects of the kingdom of England.” As such, they had all the privileges of Englishmen. They didn’t have a charter, but believed that God wanted democratic government.

The first article  of the General Fundamentals was a declaration of self-rule, stating,

That no act, imposition, law or ordinance be made or imposed upon us at present or to come, but such as has been or shall be enacted by the consent of the body of freemen or associates, or their representatives legally assembled; which is according to the free liberties of the freeborn people of England.

The second article established the election calendar, including “a free election annually, of governor, deputy governor, and assistants. But only freemen –men of property who belonged to the church — could vote.

Plymouth Colony also drew up laws for preaching the Gospel to indigenous people and for admitting them as preachers.

This story about Plymouth Colony last updated in 2022.

Images: Plymouth Colony house by By Ben Franske – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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