The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusets [sic] Colony, by Order of the General Court, Holden at Boston, May 15th, 1672, Edward Rawson, Secr. Cambridge: Samuel Green, 1672. Law Library, Library of Congress (023)

British settlement of North America began at a time when the idea that Englishmen were entitled to a special heritage of rights and liberties was quickly gaining ground. Even at its earliest stages, the colonists imported language reflecting this heritage into the legal and political arrangements of the communities they founded. In 1606, in the First Charter of Virginia, for example, King James I (reigned 1603–1625) guaranteed to the colonists and their posterity all of the “liberties, franchises, and immunities” possessed by anyone born in England. Every colonial charter included similar provisions.

The crucial importance that Sir Edward Coke attributed to Magna Carta as the basic guarantee of English rights in England was likewise reflected in the laws of the colonies. For instance, at Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1641, Nathaniel Ward, a jurist and Puritan minister who came to America in 1634, compiled “The Body of Liberties” (later, the basis of Massachusetts law), which contained a synopsis of Magna Carta’s guarantees of freedom from unlawful imprisonment or execution, unlawful seizure of property, right to a trial by jury, and guarantee of due process of law. Over time, all of the colonies adopted language from Magna Carta to guarantee basic individual liberties.

The Charter of Virginia

In 1606 King James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company to establish a commercial settlement in North America. The charter, drafted by Sir Edward Coke, who had heavily invested in the scheme to develop colonies in North America, extended the privileges and liberties of English subjects to the inhabitants of the Virginia colonies and their descendants. Thomas Jefferson acquired this manuscript of the Charters of the Virginia Company from the estate of Richard Bland (1710–1776), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and later loaned it to William Hening, who used it to compile his Virginia Statutes at Large.

Charter of Virginia, 1606 in the Records of the Virginia Company. Thomas Jefferson Library Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (022.00.01)

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Laws and Liberties in Massachusetts

In 1641, in Ipswich, Massachusetts, jurist and Puritan minister Nathaniel Ward (1578–1652) compiled “The Body of Liberties,” a document that formed the basis of the first Massachusetts code of law enacted in 1648. It began with a paraphrase of Magna Carta’s Chapter 29 guaranteeing freedom from unlawful imprisonment or execution, unlawful seizure of property, the right to a trial by jury, and a guarantee of due process of law. This edition of The General Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts preserves that passage. A handwritten note in the margin, written in an early hand, identifies the source of the law as “Magna Carta.”

The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusets [sic] Colony, by Order of the General Court, Holden at Boston, May 15th, 1672, Edward Rawson, Secr. Cambridge: Samuel Green, 1672. Law Library, Library of Congress (023)

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South Carolina Incorporates Magna Carta

The trend of constitutional change in British America was a gradual move away from proprietary colonies under private owners who held a charter to royal colonies under a royal governor. South Carolina made this change in several steps, beginning in 1712, the year of its separation from North Carolina. In 1729, it was recognized as a royal colony. This 1736 imprint documents one step of that transition—South Carolina’s 1712 incorporation of the common law and statutes of England into its colonial law. This was the first statutory enactment of Magna Carta in American history.

The Laws of the Province of South-Carolina, in Two Parts. . . . Charles-Town, South Carolina: Lewis Timothy, 1736. Law Library, Library of Congress (024)

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