Plymouth Colony Drafts the First Laws in North America

Democracy formally took root in North America on Oct. 4, 1636, when Plymouth Colony drew up the first 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 democracy was the form of government required by God — and that government should enforce religious belief.

The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, by William Formby Halsall. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, by William Formby Halsall. Courtesy Library of Congress.

By 1636, Plymouth Colony had fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. It would be eclipsed in wealth and population by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and eventually absorbed into its northern neighbor.

In the beginning, the laws of Plymouth Colony were merely proclaimed by  the General Court, but in 1636 they were put into a code known as the ‘General Fundamentals.’

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 death penalty, though, was rarely meted out. Only one sex crime was ever punished by death: Thomas Granger was executed for bestiality in 1642.

Edward Bumpus was sentenced to death for ‘striking and abusing’ his parents in 1679, but because he was judged insane he only received a severe whipping. The death penalty was also administered to the alleged killers of a Praying Indian named John Sassamon in 1675, setting off King Philip’s War. 

Convicted adulterers were to be punished by wearing the letters ‘A’ and ‘D’ sewn on to their garments, which Nathaniel Hawthorne used in his short story, The Scarlet Letter. Anyone convicted of burglary was to have the letter ‘B’ branded onto his hand. Profanity was to be punished by 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.

The General Fundamentals began with a preamble:

We the Associates of the Colony of New Plimouth, coming hither as free born subjects of the kingdom of England, endowed with all and singular the privileges belonging to such: Being assembled, Do enact, ordain and constitute…

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:

And for the well governing this colony, it is also ordered, that there be a free election annually, of governor, deputy governor, and assistants, by the vote of the freemen of this Corporation.

Plymouth Colony also drew up laws for preaching the Gospel to the Indians and for admitting Indian preachers.

This story about Plymouth Colony was updated in 2017.

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