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Massachusetts General Laws and Liberties


In 1646, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay appointed a committee to "correct and compose in good order all the liberties, lawes, and orders extant with us." The committee's work, publication of which was delayed until 1648, was far more comprehensive than the earlier massachusetts body of liberties. The framing of the General Laws and Liberties capped a movement for codification that had grown because the Body of Liberties had failed to curb the magistrates' discretion. Frequent legislation compounded popular confusion over the state of the law, but even so, the General Laws did not include all the laws in force.

The new code incorporated eighty-six of the one hundred items in the Body of Liberties and covered subjects from business regulations to property laws. It generally followed English practice. Plaintiffs could easily attach land, the law guaranteed a speedy trial, and juries could return "special" verdicts—practices foreign to English proceedings. Also unlike English practice, forms of action were relatively unimportant; substance took precedence in Massachusetts. Like contemporary English statutory abridgments and practice manuals, the General Laws were listed alphabetically to encourage reference and use. They were revised in 1660 and 1672 and served as the prototype for other colonies' legal codes.

David Gordon

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