American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Reason

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The "General Fundamentals"
of the Plymouth Colony

The Book of the General Laws of the Inhabitants of the Jurisdiction of New-Plimouth
The Book of the General Laws
of the Inhabitants of the Jurisdiction
of New-Plimouth.

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 in 1691.

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.

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