Pilgrim Code of Law

“You shall be loyal. You shall not speak or do, devise or advise anything or things, act or acts, directly or indirectly, by land or water, that does, shall, or may tend to the destruction or overthrow of this present plantation, colony, or corporation of New Plymouth.”

Summary Overview

In 1620, the Mayflower, the first of four ships carrying a group of Puritan Separatists, also known as the Pilgrims, set sail from Leiden, Holland, for North America. After dropping anchor at the northern tip of Cape Cod, forty-one adult male Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower drafted the Mayflower Compact, which was an agreement that the Pilgrims would create a body politic, complete with a strong government ruled by the people. Over time, the Plymouth Colony would add laws as needed, building what would be known as the Pilgrim Code of Law. The Pilgrim Code of Law would function as the colony’s primary set of laws until the Plymouth Colony was absorbed into the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691.

Defining Moment

In the early sixteenth century, as the Protestant Reformation was spreading throughout Europe, King Henry VIII of England opted to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, eventually establishing the Church of England, with himself as the head of the church. Meanwhile, supporters of the Presbyterian movement introduced by John Calvin at that time embraced a wider split from the Catholic Church than the Church of England promoted. This latter group promoted a more conservative form of Protestantism, stressing dedication to the teachings of the New Testament over good deeds as the key to salvation. These Calvinists later became known as “Puritans,” in light of their preference for what they saw as fundamental and pure Christian practices.

Puritans became a political force in England in the latter half of the sixteenth century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who reestablished Protestantism following the reign of her Catholic half-sister, Mary; however, Elizabeth also sought to accommodate the sizable number of English Catholics, and suppressed the more radical Puritan calls for reform, as did her successor, James I. Many Puritan leaders therefore viewed the Church as corrupt and unwilling to reform; although most Puritans chose to remain within the Church of England and continue lobbying for change, several congregations eventually opted to separate from the Church. This group became known as “Separatists,” one contingent of which immigrated to Holland in 1607.

Although they were free from religious persecution while in Holland, the Separatists were not succeeding economically. The English colonies established in Jamestown, Virginia, and elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region of America seemed to hold opportunities for a new start. The Separatists therefore successfully petitioned to establish a colony, on the condition that they remained loyal to the Crown and did not engage in any actions that could undermine English authority.

In 1620, the first group of Separatists (who would later become known as “Pilgrims”) traveled to North America aboard the Mayflower in order to establish the new colony. Upon dropping anchor at the tip of Cape Cod, forty-one members of the group drew up the Mayflower Compact, establishing for the first time in American colonial history a foundation for self-rule, on which the Pilgrim Code of Law was based. The Mayflower would then continue into Cape Cod Bay and make landfall in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Author Biography

The Pilgrim Code of Law was one of the first forms of democratic law introduced in colonial America. Introduced in 1636, the Code had its foundations in the Mayflower Compact of 1620. This document was designed to create a “civil body politic” in the colony that was about to be established. Among the prominent leaders who were a part of the compact and, later, the Pilgrim Code of Law, was the future governor of the colony, William Bradford.

William Bradford was born in 1590 in the village of Austerfield in the English county of York. Orphaned at a young age, Bradford developed an early interest in reading. By the age of twelve, he was consistently reading the Bible as well as the accounts of some of the founders of the Separatist movement, John Smith and Richard Clyfton. In 1608, Bradford fled England with a group of Separatists and settled in Amsterdam (and later Leiden), Holland. At the age of thirty, he sold his house in Leiden and brought his wife with him to the New World aboard the Mayflower, arriving in Plymouth on November 11, 1620.

Another prominent leader aboard the Mayflower who would contribute greatly to the formation of the Plymouth Colony’s legal system was John Carver. Very little is known about Carver’s youth, although it is believed that he arrived in Holland with the English Separatists. When the Separatists began their plans to travel across the Atlantic and establish their own colony, Carver and another prominent Separatist businessman, Robert Cushman, were selected as representatives to England. In this capacity, the two men negotiated with the English government and the London Company, which had founded the Virginia Colony, to establish a new colony to the north of Virginia. The two men were also key figures in the planning process and the business to be generated by the colony. Upon their arrival in Plymouth, Carver was elected the first governor of the colony.

Four months after he was elected governor, John Carver died suddenly. Bradford was elected as his successor, managing all of the colony’s finances, legal system, trade policy, and other aspects of Plymouth’s administration. He would be reelected numerous times afterward, holding the position (with the exception of five years) consistently until 1656, when he took ill. One year later he died, at the age of sixty-eight.

Document Analysis

The Pilgrim Code of Law was developed as a fluid document, subject to changes, additions, and subtractions throughout the life of the Plymouth Colony. The excerpt above begins with evidence of this fluidity. One year after the code was implemented, it was modified to add eight people to serve on the colonial government within a special committee. The committee would review every existing law implemented in the colony dating back to the Mayflower Compact. Under the order, any statutes, regulations, or other government sanctions that demonstrated relevance to the colony’s future would remain a part of the code. Those laws that appeared outdated would be immediately expunged. Furthermore, the committee would assess areas within the code that seemed lacking, so that the colony’s General Court (a colonial government body charged with both lawmaking and addressing judicial matters) could address those changes.

The code next pays deference to the authority of the English Crown over the new colony. Although it was founded and populated by refugees from England, the Plymouth Colony could not have existed without the financial backing of both the English government and a number of English business enterprises seeking to prosper in the New World. This section also places the Pilgrims on the same level as other English subjects in terms of their liberties and rights. The Plymouth colonists came to the New World and established themselves as a free society. Still, according to the code, this group retained the rights and privileges that were given all English subjects. As such, they were expected to demonstrate their loyalty to the King.

Furthermore, the code made clear that there were but two legal authorities the Plymouth colonists would recognize. First and foremost was the Plymouth colonial government, which would be established by the Code of Law. However, the colonial government would still defer to the ultimate authority of the second entity: the English Crown. As long as the laws and regulations implemented in Plymouth Colony did not run contrary to English law, the legal and public policy frameworks established in the code would be the only law that could be imposed on the colonists of Plymouth.

The Code of Law next outlines the fact that the Plymouth Colony would be a body politic—that is, an organized group of colonists united as a politically viable nation, society, or state. This statement refers back to 1620, when the forty-one Pilgrim passengers aboard the Mayflower signed the Mayflower Compact. The code here further defines the geographical definition of the new colony. The Plymouth Colony would extend northward as far as what is now Cohasset, Massachusetts, westward to the village of Puckanokick (what is now Bristol, Rhode Island, near Fall River, Massachusetts). The code further said that the colony extended all the way down to the southern coast of New England. Within these borders, the code stated, the people of the Plymouth Colony had unfettered access to lands, coastline, and wildlife in this region.

An important omission from the Pilgrim Code of Law is any reference to the church. Indeed, the Pilgrims were known in England as Separatists who had broken with the Church of England, which they deemed to be corrupt. To be sure, the Pilgrims (like the other Puritans who would establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony shortly after the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth) believed in a strong faith and religious foundation built upon the teachings of the Bible. The Puritan church in Plymouth would ultimately be a central force in the new colony. Then again, unlike the Puritans who remained in England, the Pilgrims did not incorporate references to the authority of any church throughout their Code of Law.

The absence of religious references is believed to be a result of the Mayflower Compact. As described above, only a few dozen passengers aboard the Mayflower signed this document. William Bradford later recalled that a number of the passengers were not loyal to a particular church or doctrine. In order to avoid creating dissent or conflict among the people on aboard the Mayflower, therefore, the group opted not to include any reference to a particular religious institution, only allowing language that recognized God’s ultimate authority over all.

The Plymouth Code of Law also describes the process whereby the colony’s leaders would be elected by the people. The governor and his assistants would be elected for one-year terms, with no limits on the number of terms a governor may be in office. Governor Bradford, for example, was in office for about thirty terms, for example, only relinquishing his post after he became ill. In fact, only two other governors, Thomas Prence and Edward Winslow, would succeed Bradford after he assumed the post when John Carver died.

In addition to the elections of the governor and his associates in the Plymouth Colony, the people would use Election Day (the first Tuesday in June), to select other key government officials. Among the officers selected by the voters was the colony’s treasurer. This person could be selected from among the governor’s assistants, although consideration would be given to another “sufficient person.” The treasurer’s responsibilities would be to impose and collect taxes, levy fines, and keep, for the public benefit, a careful account of the colony’s financial activities.

The colonial government would, in a fashion similar to that of neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony, be formed under the title “General Court.” This institution would be comprised of members (including the governor and his assistants) responsible for the creation, application, and enforcement of the colonial laws (including civil disputes). A central figure in the management of this court, as identified in the Code of Law, would be the clerk. This individual would serve as the colony’s main administrative officer, maintaining records and other key documents.

Still another important figure identified by the code as one of the governor’s assistants was the colony’s coroner. This post originated as far back as twelfth-century England, where the coroner (or “crowner,” as he was known) would be responsible for collecting all moneys due to the Crown. Over time, the coroner became the individual responsible for ensuring that all publicly elected government officers were performing their jobs in a responsible manner. The position changed somewhat around the time the Plymouth Colony was established: The colonial coroner would also investigate the causes of death of Plymouth’s colonists, although the task of upholding officer standards would remain part of his job description. (Eventually, investigating unnatural deaths would become the whole of the job.)

The office of governor, in which the individual elected would serve for a one-year term, was established to provide the colony with a chief executive officer. One of his primary tasks was to execute the laws developed by his advisors and others within the General Court. The governor would maintain a strong presence among his officers and assistants, calling together the members of the government for the examination of new laws and to address key legal issues.

Furthermore, the governor would be expected to serve as a legal and moral authority within the colony. The Code of Law afforded him the power to recommend sentences for criminals (in the event that the General Court could not agree to such punishments). Additionally, the governor would be able to arrest and detain offenders as well as “examine any suspicious persons for evil against the colony,” such as those suspected of plotting to undermine and/or overthrow the colonial government.

The subsequent sections of the Pilgrim Code of Law were the oaths of the key members of the new society. The first of the oaths presented in the code was that of the governor, who was expected to be loyal and true to the colony. Furthermore, he was required to administer the laws and settle legal disputes with exceptional evenhandedness. He was to be fully dedicated to the prosperity and best interests of every person and institution within the colony’s borders, and equally dedicated to the defeat of any force or policy that would hinder the colony’s success and stability.

The next oath identified in the Code of Law was that which was applied to freemen. Put simply, freemen were fully recognized residents of the colony. During the colonization of British America, the people who took up residence in these territories would be expected to go on record as dedicated subjects. In the colonies of Massachusetts (including Plymouth), residents hoping to become freemen would need to become members in good standing with the local church congregation. Freemen enjoyed the right to vote and even become elected and/or appointed government officials.

According to the oath designed by the code, freemen would actively support the colony’s laws and ordinances as well as dedicate themselves to the prosperity of the colony. Thus, a freeman was never supposed to say or do anything to undermine the colony’s authority and success. Likewise, the code directed freemen to combat any efforts by others to undo and/or destroy the colony’s pursuits. In essence, freemen became stakeholders in the colony rather than simple onlookers. In this regard, the code gives strength and value to those otherwise private persons who wish to become involved in the continued development of the colony.

The next group of public figures given attention in the Pilgrim Code of Law is the assistants. Assistants were aides to the governor, providing administrative support as well as expertise on a wide range of public policy and legal issues. Assistants were needed in virtually every aspect of a colony’s governance, from the office of the treasurer to that of the coroner and all components of the legal system. Leading government officials therefore relied on the expertise of their assistants in all aspects of developing, implementing, and enforcing the laws of the colony. It was critical that assistants be fully loyal to the colonial government and the colony as a whole. For this reason, the code includes the requirement that all assistants take an oath of loyalty to the colony. Furthermore, this oath would include the promise that an assistant would, during the course of his duties, maintain full secrecy on matters deemed confidential by the governor. After all, the code states, there was a distinct possibility that an assistant would be called upon to act as a higher-level official in his absence.

The next oath to be taken, according to the Pilgrim Code of Law, was the oath of “any residing within the government.” Not every resident of the colony demonstrated a desire to participate in the public policy or legal process; rather, many individuals simply wished to live in peace and harmony in New England. Still, the code states, the people of Plymouth should nevertheless pay their respects to their sovereign, King Charles, as well as the governor and the entire body politic that existed in Plymouth. The oath expected to be taken by members of the Plymouth society who were not freemen simply stated that no person living in the colony would, through action or words, work to undo the government and/or the colony. Additionally, they would be expected to oppose any effort by others to subvert the colony’s endeavors.

The final oath identified in the Pilgrim Code of Law pertained to the chief law enforcement officers in the colony. Constables, according to the code, are charged with (in the name of the king) maintaining order and peace within the colony. Their tasks included investigating criminal activity and apprehending suspects. Furthermore, constables were tasked with bringing these accused criminals before the governor and/or his assistants for prosecution (which constables would attend). The duties of constables would also include serving warrants and summonses to appear before the General Court. In general, constables were the colony’s keepers of the peace, working to ensure that Plymouth’s harmony was maintained and that any disruption to this harmony would be quickly stopped and the perpetrators held responsible under the law.

Constables would play another role in addition to their tasks as police officers. These individuals were also charged, according to the code, with calling upon freemen and others to take part in annual elections. This role was important, as it encouraged participation in the public policy process. Then again, it also encouraged freemen and other leaders to perform their duties. In this regard, the constables were to play a role in ensuring that all aspects of government and political systems were operating smoothly.

The Pilgrim Code of Law next described the process by which laws and ordinances were to be imposed upon the people of Plymouth. Only freemen, according to the document, would be permitted to create the colony’s laws. These laws were to be applied on an equitable basis, with no class of colonist enjoying different standards within the colonial structure. This point is particularly important as it related to tax policy. Taxes were expected to be levied upon all colonistsat fair rates; the freemen establishing these rates (in addition to developing any other laws, regulations, or ordinances) were to demonstrate an evenhanded, unbiased perspective as they performed their duties.

The government of the Plymouth colony was to have an open and somewhat democratic design. Most colonists were, in theory, capable of acquiring a position in the colonial government, as long as they had taken the oath of the freemen. Furthermore, the Pilgrim Code of Law allowed for any colonist to challenge a law, tax policy, or legal proceeding that seemed unfair. If such an issues arose (and the government agreed that there was due cause), according to the code, colonists had the right to have their complaints heard and, when possible, remedied.

The early democratic principles of the Pilgrim Code of Law and the Plymouth colonial government were also evident in the legal system. Although English courts had involved the use of juries for centuries, these juries were for the most part managed by the monarch—any member of a jury that acted against the king’s agenda could himself be prosecuted. However, by the end of the sixteenth century (and just as the Plymouth Colony was establishing its own legal system), juries became free and independent decision-makers on legal cases. The code reflected this evolution: Both major criminal and civil cases heard in the Plymouth legal system were to be decided by juries solely on the basis of English law. Then again, smaller cases (such as civil cases involving disputes over small sums of money) would be heard by the governor and/or his assistants.

Although there were indications that the Pilgrim Code of Law showed an appreciation for individual freedoms and rights, the colony established in Plymouth was still bound to the king and England, which had both sanctioned the colony’s foundation and supported it financially. In light of this fact, the people who resided in Plymouth were still required to remain true to England. All of Plymouth’s colonists were required to take an oath of loyalty and fidelity to the king and his government. Furthermore, any individual taking professional or other oaths—the governor, his assistants, freemen, constables, coroners, and private persons—were to swear loyalty to the king and his heirs and successors as well.

Essential Themes

The Pilgrim Code of Law was written to build upon the Mayflower Compact, which was written and signed by the Plymouth Colony’s founders en route to the mainland. Like that document, the code focused on the establishment of a civil body politic, creating the governmental and legal institutions and processes that would serve the colony’s residents. The code was to serve as a skeletal framework around which the laws and public services of the colony would be established. Then again, the framers of the Code of Law wrote the document with the expectation that it would be modified throughout the life of the colony itself. In this way, the Code of Law was designed to be a fluid and evolving document.

The Pilgrims arrived as refugees from England, having been branded as Separatists from the Church of England. Like other Puritans, the Pilgrims believed in the strong moral values espoused by Calvinist Protestants and the Bible. However, the group of founders that framed the Code of Law did not wish to create a legal and political system that was dominated by any single church or congregation. Those who came to Plymouth were expected by their peers to adhere to Puritan morals and ideals, particularly by joining and being active in a church congregation. Then again, any reference to such churches are absent from the Code, leaving the decision to attend and participate in any church congregation strictly in the hands of the people.

The fact that it was written by Separatists from the Church of England underscores the notion that the Code of Law created some of the earliest illustrations of democratic principles in colonial America. Indeed, the document created a system wherein the people would choose their leaders from among their own number. Additionally, the code created a legal system in which the people, without fear of backlash from the government, were the primary decision-makers in major legal and criminal cases. Furthermore, the document required each colonist to play a role in its growth and prosperity.

At the same time, however, the Pilgrim Code of Law paid deference to the authority of English law and, in particular, the king of England. After all, the colony was proposed to the king as a business enterprise that would presumably benefit England. The Mayflower expedition could not have proceeded without the financial backing and official sanction of the King. The Code of Law therefore made clear that any individual who sought to become an active member of the Plymouth Colony would need to swear an oath not only to the colony and to God, but to the king and England as well.


  • Heinsohn, Robert Jennings. Pilgrims and Puritans in Seventeenth Century New England. Society of Mayflower Descendants in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2012. Web. 29 May 2012.
  • “History of the Office of Coroner.” Indiana Coroner’s Manual. Purdue University, n.d. Web. 29 May 2012.
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  • Martinez, Fernando Rey. “The Religious Character of the American Constitution: Puritanism and Constitutionalism in the United States.” Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy Spring 2003. Web. 29 May 2012.
  • “Origins and History of the Jury.” VermontJudiciary.org. VermontJudiciary.org, n.d. Web. 29 May 2012.
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Additional Reading

  • Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620–1647. New York: McGraw, 1981. Print.
  • Johnson, Caleb H. The Mayflower and Her Passengers. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2006. Print.
  • Raum, Elizabeth. The Mayflower Compact (Documenting US History). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Lib. 2012. Print.
  • Stratton, Eugene Aubrey. Plymouth Colony: Its History and People, 1620–1691. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 1986. Print.