Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641)

The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties was the first British North American colonial statute to guarantee the legality of enslaving Africans and Native Americans.
Massachusetts General Court
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 1.  

1. No mans life shall be taken away, no mans honor or good name shall be stained, no mans person shall be arrested, restrained, banished, dismembered, nor any ways punished, no man shall be deprived of his wife or children, no mans goods or estate shall be taken away from him, nor any way damaged under color of law or Countenance of Authority, unless it be by virtue or equity of some express law of the Country warranting the same, established by a general Court and sufficiently published, or in case of the defect of a law in any particular case by the word of God. And in Capital cases, or in cases concerning dismembering or banishment according to that word to be judged by the General Court. 

2. Every person within this Jurisdiction, whether Inhabitant or foreiner shall enjoy the same justice and law, that is generall for the plantation, which we constitute and execute one towards another without partiality or delay. 

87. If any man smite out the eye or tooth of his man-servant, or maid servant, or otherwise maim or much disfigure him, unless it be by mere casualty, he shall let them go free from his service. And shall have such further recompense as the Court shall allow him. 

88. Servants that have served diligently and faithfully to the benefit of their masters seven years, shall not be sent away empty. And if any have been unfaithful, negligent or unprofitable in their service, notwithstanding the good usage of their masters, they shall not be dismissed till they have made satisfaction according to the Judgement of Authority. 

91. There shall never be any bond slavery, villinage or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful Captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israel concerning such persons does morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authority. 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from https://history.hanover.edu/texts/masslib.html.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What are some of the rights guaranteed to members of the Massachusetts colony?
    Unless forbidden by law, no man should be dishonored, “arrested, restra[i]ned, banished, dismemb[e]red,…punished,…deprived of his wife or children,” or have his property taken away or damaged. Everyone should have “the same justice and law.”
  2. Question
    What protections/rights do they give to indentured servants?
    If masters hurt their indentured servants, the servant is set free (unless hurt by accident). After seven years, they are discharged from service, but are to be given some compensation.
  3. Question
    Passage 91 says there will “never be any bond slaver[y]” except for what circumstances?
    They are taken in “just war[s]” or who “sell[] themselves or are sold to us.”
  4. Question
    Passage 91 provides legal justification for enslavement of both Native Americans and Africans. Which circumstances would apply to these two populations?
    Native Americans could be considered those taken in war, as warfare with Native American populations were common. African people, taken in the Atlantic slave trade, could be sold to the colonists.
  5. Question
    In Leviticus, 25:44-45, God provides Moses instructions regarding enslaved people: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary resident living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property” (NIV). A) How do these verses inform interpretation of Passage 91?
    Passage 91 states: “And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons…” This part of Passage 91 makes reference to the rules established for Moses, thus providing Biblical justification for enslaving those considered to be of a different nation, Native Americans and Africans, as well as keeping their descendants enslaved.
  6. Question
    B) In light of the Biblical passage, how does Passage 91 perpetuate race-based slavery?
    By justifying enslavement of those considered to be a different “nation,” it constructs non-whites as being a foreign “other.” By following the “law of god”, Passage 91 allows for the enslaved people’s children to automatically be enslaved, perpetuating enslavement of non-whites.
Reveal Answers
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