The "General Fundamentals"
of the Plymouth Colony
The Book of the General Laws
of the Inhabitants of the Jurisdiction
Boston: Samuel Green, 1685
Law Library (
August 4, 2010
The Book of the General Laws of the Inhabitants
of the Jurisdiction of New-Plimouth is one of the oldest
items in the Library's collection of American laws. This 1685
book reproduces the contents of a 1671 volume, which was the first
edition of the laws to be printed, and adds laws enacted between
1671 and 1684. The Colony of New Plymouth, founded by the Pilgrims
who arrived in the Mayflower in December 1620, occupied
the southeastern corner of the present state of Massachusetts.
It was soon surpassed in population and wealth by the Massachusetts
Bay Colony, centered on Boston, and was annexed to Massachusetts
The Colony of New Plymouth made several major contributions
to American legal institutions. In 1636, when the population was
less than three thousand people, a committee of the General Court
composed a legal code, the first produced in North America. It
contains what one scholar has called a "rudimentary bill of rights,"
which guarantees trial by jury and stipulates that all laws are
to be made with the consent of the freemen of the colony. The
"General Fundamentals" of the 1671 code state that "no person
. . . shall be endamaged in respect of life, limb, liberty, good
name or estate . . . but by virtue of some express law of the
General Court of this Colony, the known Law of God, or the good
and equitable laws of our Nation."
The punishment for adultery set out in this code
and in the 1694 laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, stipulating
that adulterers must bear the letters "A" and "D," provide the
basis for some of the best known elements in Nathaniel Hawthorne's
1850 novel The Scarlet Letter.