America’s First Set of Laws2 min read
On this day (Oct 4), in 1636, the Plymouth Colony, founded in 1620 by Pilgrims, established its first written set of laws. These laws were published as the 1636 Book of Laws, which were later called The General Fundamentals of New Plimouth. Now don’t presume that the Pilgrims were just running around, all willy-nilly. The General Court of Plymouth Colony, which has records (that we have found) going back to 1623, was not only a judicial system, but was the legislative system, too. So while the new colony had laws that were passed, they were never organized or formalized until October 4, 1636.
The laws that were formed were a hybrid mix of English common law and religious laws from the Bible. Some of the laws included were regarding capital punishment, taxes, distribution of land, indentured servitude, and trial procedures.
Crimes that were punishable by death were treason, murder, witchcraft, arson, sodomy, rape, bestiality, adultery, and cursing or smiting one’s parents. While the majority of these offenses never saw anyone put to death in their name, some were. You may have noticed that several of the above crimes were sex-related; however, few of these offenses, when committed, received the death penalty. In 1642, sixteen-year-old Thomas Granger was found guilty of bestiality and he was executed. He was executed under biblical precedent (Leviticus 20:15.) This would be one of the only sexual crimes, tried during this court’s administration, that ended in execution. Adultery, even though a capital crime, did not usually result in the death penalty. If you ever read The Scarlet Letter, then you are familiar with punishment for this offense.
They also had some unique laws, that by our standards seem…odd. By Plymouth law: if you were a member of the militia, there was a fine for not bringing a loaded gun to church; when voter turnout was low, there was a fine for not voting (for those that could vote); and in 1637, Plymouth Colony enacted an anti-smoking law.
Below is a chart that shows common colonial crimes and their punishments.
Every several years after the original 1636 publication (1658, 1672, and 1685), the law books would be edited, updates, and re-published. Below is a picture of The Book of the General Laws of the Inhabitants of the Jurisdiction of New-Plimouth, from 1685. Also worth checking out is a link to The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. This site shows laws and specific court cases where the law were upheld. (In case you were curious about the seal up top, that is the seal of The General Court of Plymouth Colony.)