Timetable of Legal History logoFirst law book printed in English America was called The Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of the Massachusetts.


The book was republished by book seller Hezekiah Usher in Cambridge in 1648 under the title:

"The Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of the Massachusetts, collected out of the records of the General Court for the several years wherein they were made and established and now revised by the same Court and disposed into an Alphabetical order and published by the same Authoritie in the General Curt held at Boston the fourteenth of the month Anno 1647."

No copy had been thought to have survived but then, in about 1900, one was found.

It is believed to have been written by Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652).

The introduction smacks of the Book of Genesis and shouts theocracy (with spelling of the time mostly retained):

A Commonwealth without lawes is like a ship without rigging and steerage. Nor is it sufficient to have principles or fundamentals, but these are to be drawn out into so many of their deductions as the time and condition of that people may have use of.

"And it is very unsafe & injurious to the body of the people to put them to learn their duty and liberties from general rules, nor is it enough to have lawes except they be also just.

"Therefore among other privileges which the Lord bestowed upon his peculiar people, these he calls them specially to consider of, that God was nearer to them and their lawes were more righteous then other nations. God was said to be amongst them or near to them because of his Ordinances established by Himself, and their lawes righteous because Himself was their Law-giver.

General Lawes and Libertyes "Yet in the comparison are implied two things. First that other nations had something of God's presence amongst them. Secondly that there was also some what of equity in their lawes, for it pleased the Father (upon the Covenant of Redemption with his Son) to restore so much of his Image to lost man as whereby all nations are disposed to worship God, and to advance righteousnes....

"They did by nature the things contained in the law of God.

"But the nations corrupting his Ordinances (both of Religion, and Justice) God withdrew his presence from them proportionably whereby they were given up to abominable lusts. Whereas if they had walked according to the light & law of nature they might have been preserved from such moral evils and might have enjoyed a common blessing in all their natural and civil Ordinances.

"Now, if it might have been so with the nations who were so much strangers to the Covenant of Grace, what advantage have they who have interest in this Covenant, and may enjoy the special presence of God in the purity and native simplicity of all his Ordinances by which He is so near to his own people. This hath been no small privilege, and advantage to us in New England that our churches and civil State have been planted, and grown up (like two twins) together like that of Israel in the wilderness by which wee were put in mind (and had opportunity put into our hands) not only to gather our churches, and set up the ordinances of Christ Jesus in them according to the Apostolic pattern by such light as the Lord graciously afforded us, but also with all to frame our civil polity, and laws according to the rules of his most holy word whereby each do help and strengthen other (the Churches the civil authority, and the civil authority the churches) and so both prosper the better without such amulation and contention for privileges or priority as have proved the misery (if not ruin) of both in some other places."

The content - the laws - were unapologetically Puritan, as all the laws had some reference in the Old Testament of the Bible.


"If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death. If any man lyeth with man-kinde as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed abomination, they both shall surely be put to death: unles the one partie were forced (or be under fourteen years of age in which case he shall be seveerly punished).

"If any child, or children, above sixteen years old, and of sufficient understanding, shall curse or smite their natural father or mother, he or they shall be put to death  unless it can be sufficiently testified that the parents have been very unchristianly negligent in the education of such children, or so provoked them by extreme and cruel correction, that they have been forced therunto to preserve themselves from death or maiming.

"No person, householder or other shall spend his time idly or unprofitably under pain of such punishment as the Court ... shall think meet to inflict. And for this end it is ordered that the Constable of every place shall use special care and diligence to take knowledge of offenders in this kind, especially of common coasters, unprofitable fowlers and tobacco takers...."