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Massachusetts Bay Colony

the first British colony in America to have its own government

seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

In 1606, King James I of Great Britain chartered the London and Plymouth companies for the purpose of establishing colonies in the New World. The London Company subsequently founded Jamestown, Virginia, but the Plymouth Company did nothing with its charter.

In 1628, the Plymouth Company, led by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, secured a new charter under the name Council for New England. The charter included a grant of all lands between the 40th and 48th degrees of latitude, westward to the Pacific Ocean. In 1628, the Council granted its land to John Endecott and five other men, who proceeded to lead about 60 Puritans to a pre-existing settlement at Salem, on the Massachusetts Bay. Given that the political climate in Great Britain was at that time uncertain, the Council thought it wise to gain a royal charter for the land it was settling, and said charter was granted by King Charles I in March of 1629. That charter specifically granted the Council control over a tract of land extending from three miles south of the Charles River to a point three miles north of the Merrimac, west to the Pacific Ocean. The Council for New England was renamed the Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay in New England, which was given the power to govern said territory. The Massachusetts Bay Company placed the government of its colony in the hands of a Governor, Deputy Governor, and 18 Assistants, all of whom were to be elected by stockholders. Much of the new charter resembled the charters granted to other colonies in the New World, with one major exception -- it did not specify that the seat of government had to remain in England.

map of Massachusetts Bay

In August of 1629, a group of Puritans met at Cambridge (England) and adopted the "Cambridge Agreement," wherein they agreed to migrate to Massachusetss, provided that the charter and seat of government be transferred there. The Massachusetts Bay Company agreed, and in 1630 John Winthrop, the newly-elected Governor, brought another 1,000 settlers to Massachusetts; Thomas Dudley was made Deputy Governor. Winthrop initially landed at Salem, but he subsequently moved to the south and established Boston, which became the capital of Massachusetts.

As per its charter, Massachusetts was allowed to govern itself. Every stockholder in the colony had a voice in Massachusetts government, but only Puritans were allowed to be stockholders. Many of those excluded from government ended up leaving Massachusetts to found or join new settlements in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. Despite the loss of dissenters, the Massachusetts Bay Colony expanded greatly during its first decade, and by 1640 over 20,000 Puritans were living along Massachusetts Bay. Eventually it became too cumbersome to have every eligible citizen vote on every government decision, so Massachusetts adopted a representative system. Under the new system, each town elected two delegates who, along with the Governor, Deputy, and Assistants, formed a General Court, which had legislative and judicial power. In 1641, the General Court adopted a code of laws called the "Body of Liberties," which replaced English common law as the basis for Massachusetts law. Aside from the requirement that a voter be a Puritan, the "Body of Liberties" remains the basis of Massachusetts law to this day.

Having left England because they wanted freedom from British tyranny, the Puritans of Massachusetts were prone to ignoring British trade laws. As a result, in 1684, they lost the royal charter they had been given in 1629. In 1691, after they agreed to observe the king's laws, a new charter was issued. This charter included the Plymouth Colony and Maine as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the colonists were governed by it until 1775, when the Revolutionary War broke out.


U.S. History

See Also

King James I
Jamestown, Virginia
John Endecott
John Winthrop
Revolutionary War

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The Robinson Library >> Massachusetts >> History

This page was last updated on September 17, 2018.