The Law of the Land


When the Puritans migrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century, they brought their English legal mindset with them.  Between 1630 and 1700, they enacted hundreds of laws, ordering people’s lives from cradle to grave.  Everything from the proper gait of horses in Boston to the wearing of lace was regulated.  As they saw it, these elaborate rules helped them create an orderly, Christian society.  Today we find many of their laws amusing for their outdated and controlling perspective.  But some are surprisingly progressive in their focus on protecting the weak and less fortunate members of their communities.  Overall, they give us a glimpse into the Puritan mind and help us better understand the society they were trying to build.

Here are just a few, with updated spellings.  (Note: the monetary fines are in British currency; “s” stands for shilling; “d” stands for pence; and £ stands for pound.)

  • No surgeon, midwife, or physician shall practice on any without consent of the person or nearest relation.
  • All persons not worth 200 £ wearing gold or silver lace, or buttons, or bone lace above 2 s. per yard, or silk hoods, or scarves, may be presented by the Grand Jury and shall pay 10 s for every offence.
  • The selectmen of every town may assess those who dress above their rank, at 200 £ estate, and make them pay as those to whom their dress is suitable, except the magistrates, their wives and children, officers, civil or military, soldiers in time of service, or such as had had a high education or are sunk from a higher fortune.
  • All parents to teach their children to read, and all masters to acquaint their families with capital laws on penalty of 20 s., and to catechize them once a week.
  • A son of 16, accused by parents of rebellion and other notorious crimes, shall be put to death.
  • Fornication is to be punished by compelling marriage, fines, or as the Court sees fit.
  • Everyone to fence according to his proportion of the corn-field in common, and not to put in cattle while any corn remains.
  • Every householder has free fishing and fowling in any river, bay, etc., within the precincts of the town where they dwell, so far as the sea ebbs and flows, unless it be appropriated by the Freemen.
  •  No horse to be sold to an Indian, on penalty of 100 £.
  • Any may pass on another’s land, not trespassing on corn or meadow.
  • Whoever publishes a lie to the prejudice of the public, or any private person, pays 10 s or sits in the stocks two hours for the first offense, for the second 20 s. or whipped ten stripes, for the third 40 s. or fifteen stripes.  Every new fault increases 10 s. or five stripes.
  • Lands in the jurisdiction not improved by Indians is the property of the English.
  • None to sell the Indians a boat, skiff, or canoe, on forfeiture of 50 £.
  • No Court can punish with above forty stripes.
  • No man must correct any under him with cruelty, or be cruel to a beast.
  • No dancing in public houses, on penalty of 5 s.
  • No one to gallop a horse in Boston, on penalty of 3 s. 4 d.
  • Married persons must live together, unless the Court of Assistants approve of the cause to the contrary.
  • No work to be done on the Sabbath on penalty of 10 s, for the first offence, to be doubled for every following one.
  • To travel to a Meeting not allowed by law is a profanation of the Sabbath.
  • Witches suffer death.

4 thoughts on “The Law of the Land

  1. Very interesting–

    Can you imagine what would happen today if someone tried to punish fornication by enforcing marriage? But actually, that was still socially enforced not very long ago… when people assumed they had to get married because of a pregnancy.

    • Yes, I think the Puritan laws were a way of reinforcing the social norms. The laws against fornication were pretty mild for the time. Maybe they were designed to protect consenting unmarried adults from suffering a more severe punishment. The adultery laws were much harsher: “If any person commit adultery with a married woman, maid, or woman espoused, both man and woman shall be put to death.”

  2. “Witches suffer death.” Oh my! My folks were in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s and 1700s. Not sure if I’ve mentioned that.

    • I hope none of your ancestors were accused witches! 😉
      There were actually a lot more witchcraft investigations than convictions. Salem’s witchcraft hysteria in 1692 was the exception to the rule. Maybe because the penalty was so severe, they were cautious.

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