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met in a convention, in the cabin of the Mayflower, for the purpose of forming a social compact. In which they declared themselves the loyal subjects of King James, and that their undertaking was for the advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor of the king and country. They then enacted that “they solemnly and mutually, in presence of God and one another, consort and combine into a civil body politic, for their better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid ; and by virtue thereof do enact, institute and frame, such equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most convenient for the general good of the colony.” To this compact they all promised submission and obedience, thereby investing a majority with the whole political power, and recognizing to the fullest extent the right of such a majority to govern. Unlike the Constitution of the United and the several States, it made no division of political powers, contained no checks, imposed no restraints on the government, but left the whole to the rule and decision of a bare majority.
During the whole existence of the colony this form of polity was continued; and though at subsequent periods, there was some division of political power, and some restrictions were imposed upon the government, yet this was all done by mere acts of legislation which could, at any moment, be annulled by legislative power. This compact may properly be considered the only valid constitution which the colony ever had, and to it they clung with the greatest tenacity.
$ 40. On the 3d of November, the king granted to the Council of Plymouth the territory of New Plymouth, with other lands. This rendered it necessary, to avoid difficulties, for the colonists to acquire that right, which was done in 1629 by a charter from the Council of Plymouth to William Bradford and his associates. This charter was no more a charter of government than the hundred conveyances from the natives, and so the colonists considered it, for they spared no efforts to obtain the sanction of the king to it, being aware that without this they had no assurance that he would do them the favor to let them alone. Their efforts were however unavailing. The king never gave his sanction, and from the beginning of the colony to the end, its government can properly be considered as resting on no other basis than the will of the colonists themselves. For this reason, we see that in every period of their history they exhibited a constant solicitude, not only as to the validity of their government, but as to the extent of those powers which they might exercise under it.
§ 41. For the first sixteen years we have but a meagre account of the legislation of the colony. There are no records of the Plymouth Colony Laws till 1623 ; and the first act established the trial by jury. From that time a record was kept. Anterior to the records of the colony, the population being exceedingly small, notwithstanding the community required many municipal regulations, the necessity for a record was in a great measure obviated, from the fact that such regulations and laws were adopted in general assembly of the people. Their existence was thus made known to all; and as many of them partook rather of the nature of temporary rules than permanent laws, there was the less necessity for keeping records thereof. These laws were made at first by the whole people in general assembly, but afterwards by the governor, assistants, and representatives, subject to the approval of the people in certain cases, and then it was that records became the more necessary.
42. In 1636, a new era occurred in its legislation. The circumstances as well as the number of the colonists had so changed, it was found that their then system was unsuited to their condition. They now found
it necessary to create new offices, define their powers, establish fixed laws, and define more fully the authority under which they acted. For this purpose, a general court was called in October of that year, and a committee of fourteen appointed to revise the laws. Their report was made, and a new code adopted within five weeks, which constituted the first revision of their laws; and one copy in manuscript was made, and preserved by the secretary. This code first gave form to the government of the colony, and invested it with its most distinguished features. Its preamble recites the authority of the colonists to make laws, and declares, that as free born subjects of England, they were possessed of all the rights of Englishmen; and that as such, no law, imposition or ordinance, should be made or imposed upon them, but by their consent; the very doctrine maintained by their descendants a century and a half afterwards in the Declaration of American Independence. It further provided, that an election should be held on the first Tuesday of March annually, at which all their officers should be chosen, viz: A Governor, seven Assistants, a Clerk, Treasurer, Coroner, "Messenger, and Constables. The duties and powers of those officers were, to a considerable extent, defined. The governor had authority to summon and dissolve the general court, and was made a conservator of the public peace; but in other respects he had little more authority than any
of the other magistrates, except that he could cast a double vote in the general court. The assistants composed his council ; and both together were invested with extensive judicial powers. The messenger was the chief executive officer of the general court, and performed duties very similar to those of a sheriff at the present day.
§ 43. Until 1639 all the freemen in general court took part in enacting laws, and this was not merely a privilege but a duty enjoined under a penalty of ten shillings
sterling. This system was thus continued; but at this period the population had become so numerous and scattered and it had become so burdensome that it was abandoned. In September, 1638, the general court enacted that each town in the colony, except Plymouth, should choose two persons, and Plymouth four, who with the governor and assistants, should make all good and wholesome laws, as would be for the benefit of the colony, provided that all the laws so made should be proposed at one general court and remain to be considered at the next. This provision was doubtless made with a view to afford an opportunity to the representatives of the people to consult their constituents in reference to the propriety and expediency of the adoption of any proposed enactment. It was also further provided, that if any law so enacted should be found prejudicial, all the freemen assembled at the court of election might repeal it. This was the beginning of the representative system of the colony, and from this time until its union with Massachusetts Bay most of the laws were made by the governor, assistants, and deputies, composing a single body; though at all times the freemen claimed, and not unfrequently exercised, the right of assembling and enacting laws for themselves. The election of deputies was regarded as a matter of convenience, and not as precluding them from the rights of legislating for themselves. In all cases of great importance, where the representatives did not wish to take the responsibility, the freemen were called together, or their wishes were otherwise ascertained. The representatives were strictly the servants of the people, and their whole power could be taken from them, even while they remained in office.
In 1646 a law was made fixing the time of the meeting of the general court. By this law that body was required to meet in the summer at seven o'clock, in the winter at eight o'clock; and to remain in session till half past eleven, when an adjournment took place for dinner. After dinner they were required to hold another session, to such an hour in the evening as the governor thought proper. And, in order to insure punctuality and constant attendance, each member was liable to a fine of a sixpence for tardiness, and also for each hour's absence during the session, thus setting an example of devotion to their duties, worthy of, but little imitated by modern legislators.
§ 44. Anterior to 1658 no measures were adopted for the publication of the laws, They were kept by the secretary, who had but a single copy, and who kept them not in a volume by themselves, but in connection with all other records he was required to make. In the same manuscript volume are found the general laws, judicial proceedings of the court of assistants, the record of deeds, wills, marriages, deaths, coroners' inquests, and accounts of special providences. Thus they had grown so voluminous as to render it necessary to adopt some measure for the ascertainment of those laws then in force. The process of repealing and amending laws was to erase or expunge. Many of the laws had been thus repealed or amended without any evidence upon the face of the records as to the time when done. At a general court held in 1656, a committee was appointed to "peruse the laws and reduce them to order." They made a selection from the whole body of the laws, suggested such amendments as they thought proper, and arranged them in alphabetical order in one manuscript volume. This volume was then submitted to the general court and formally enacted. The general court in an address to the people explanatory of these laws, remark, “We have had an eye primarily and principally upon the Jewish platform, and unto the right improvement of the liberties granted unto us by our superiors the states