General Court, Colonial

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GENERAL COURT, COLONIAL. The general court, which functioned as a legislature, administrative agency, and judicial body, served as the central governing body of Massachusetts Bay from the colony's inception. By royal charter, King Charles I of England granted Puritans (Protestant dissenters against the Church of England)the right to form a company that would hold four "Greate and Generall Courts" each year where freemen would administer company business, making "wholesome and reasonable orders, lawes, statutes, and ordinances" that would not contravene English law. The court gained importance when Puritan leaders in 1629 decided to shift the Massachusetts Bay Company's whole government from London to New England. No chartered group had ever moved its entire headquarters and administrative structure to the colonies—previously, most of the important decisions about England's New World Colonies had remained in the hands of men in England. This event converted the trading company's general court into a local, not remote, body that could eventually function as a colonial assembly. In 1644, the court became a bicameral organization, with a House of Assistants (later the Senate) and a House of Deputies (later the House of Representatives)that could mutually veto each other's legislative proposals. Adopting parliamentary procedures, proposed laws were read in the general court on three separate days prior to their enactment.

Puritan leaders specifically encouraged education; their earliest initiatives through the general court created local grammar schools and a university, later known as Harvard College. The court also passed laws in many other areas, regulated certain professions (such as the practice of medicine), and served as the final court of appeal for local lawsuits.

The general court of Massachusetts Bay invited imitation and attracted controversy. Other colonies in New England, including New Haven, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Plymouth copied the name or methods of the Massachusetts general court. Technically speaking, a general court assembled together the colonial governor, his assistants or council, and colonial freemen or their representatives. Men like John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, attempted to limit who might serve in the general court by restricting the designation of "freemen" to colonists who were devout Puritan churchmen, and this religious restriction eased only after sixty years. Individuals who protested against the authority of the general court or the colony's dominant Puritan regime were banished, as in the cases of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Divisiveness did not disappear, however; the court itself fragmented into competing parties during the eighteenth century. Members of Massachusetts's general court eventually rebelled against the English monarchy in the 1770s, transforming the colonial assembly into a state legislature.


Breen, T. H. The Character of the Good Ruler: A Study of Puritan Political Ideas in New England, 1630–1730. New York: Norton, 1974.

Bushman, Richard L. King and People in Provincial Massachusetts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Dalton, Cornelius, John Wirkkala, and Anne Thomas. Leading the Way: A History of the Massachusetts General Court, 1629–1980. Boston: Office of the Massachusetts Secretary of State, 1984.

Sally E.Hadden

See alsoAssemblies, Colonial ; Assistant ; Massachusetts Bay Colony ; andvol. 9:Trial of Anne Hutchinson at Newton, 1637 .

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General Court, Colonial