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Massachusetts Bay, Colonial Charters of (1629, 1691)


In 1629 King Charles I granted a royal charter to Puritan leaders of the New England Company, incorporating them as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the same year Puritan leaders received authorization to migrate to New England and take the charter with them. As a result the Puritans controlled Massachusetts and sought to create a godly commonwealth. The charter authorized the freemen of the company to meet in a General Court or legislature, and to choose a governor, a deputy governor, and assistants, seven of whom could function as the General Court. The charter vested power in these men to govern Massachusetts Bay in every respect and guaranteed that all inhabitants "shall have and enjoy all liberties and immunities of free and natural subjects … as if they … were born within the realm of England." The Puritans, who governed themselves, enjoyed the rights of Englishmen, and put an ocean between themselves and England, became obstinately independent.

Massachusetts admitted only church members to freemanship, but the little oligarchy in control refused to allow the freemen a right to participate in governing, a violation of the charter. In 1634 the freemen, on seeing the charter for themselves, demanded full participation in government. From then on, the freemen in the towns chose two deputies from each town as members of the General Court, making it a representative body. Conflict between the freemen and the assistants led to an agreement that without a majority vote of each no law should be passed; that soon led to bicameralism. In the 1640s the battle of the freemen for their charter rights led to the massachusetts body of liberties and to the massachusetts general laws and liberties, which, with the charter, became the basis of fundamental law in the colony, the functional equivalent of a written constitution.

In the succeeding decades Massachusetts proved to be aloof from English concerns and refractory in many ways, even claiming that its charter made it independent of Parliament. Relations deteriorated after the Restoration and finally, in 1684, England vacated the charter of 1629. In 1686 James II appointed his own governor of the new Dominion of New England, which combined the New England colonies, New York, and New Jersey. The king's governor ruled without a representative legislature and sought to insinuate the Church of England into Puritan New England. News of the overthrow of James II led to a parallel Glorious Revolution in New England—and elsewhere in America. Each of the colonies that had been absorbed within the dominion resumed its prior governmental practices.

In 1691 King William III, advised by people who had experienced the independence of Massachusetts, officially restored self-government to Massachusetts on royal terms. The charter of 1691 turned Massachusetts from comparative autonomy to a royal colony. The king appointed its governor and his deputy, and the governor could veto legislation—a model for a strong executive in later American history. The General Court consisted of two houses, the lower one elected by the people of the towns who sent two deputies each to the General Court; these elected representatives chose the governor's council, which also served as the upper house. The freemanship of church members disappeared under the new charter, which replaced the religious test with a property qualification on the right to vote. The General Court was empowered to legislate, to create a judicial system, and to elect the upper house—subject to the governor's veto. The government established by the second charter recognized a clear separation of powers between the three branches. The charter also embodied the principle of liberty of conscience for "all Christians (Except Papists)" and, like the first charter, also guaranteed the rights of Englishmen.

Leonard W. Levy


Osgood, Herbert L. (1904) 1957 The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century. 3 Vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith.

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