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Self-government in the colonies in limited forms started in the early 1600s.

Self-Government in the Colonies

They wished to live among like-minded folk in order to better live a shared ideal. In the Dedham Covenant drawn up in Massachusetts during the 1630s, it was resolved “that we shall by all means labor to keep off from us all such as are contrary minded, and receive only such unto us as may probably be of one heart with us.”


The community aspect of early New England has been so often emphasized that the Puritans’ commitment to traditional English liberties has often been overlooked. John Winthrop, a key figure in the Puritan migration and a longtime governor of Massachusetts Bay, favored as little written law as possible so that he and his judges would have the discretionary authority to rule in accordance with the Bible. His fellow colonists, however, wanted less discretion and an explicit guarantee of
individual rights.

In 1641, with Winthrop temporarily voted out of office on these very grounds, the colonists established the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. The document contained more than one hundred provisions, including items familiar to Americans: the principle of no taxation without representation, the right to a jury trial, and the guarantee that no person would be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. (It also contains a provision that prohibited wife beating, excepting when the husband was acting in self-defense.) Nearly a century and a half before the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, we already find a document whose purpose is to limit and define the powers of government. It was one of many drafted by
the American colonists.

Over time some of the restrictions of Puritan life gradually dissolved. For example, a growing population forced people to settle farther from the town center, making them less easily observed and controlled by government and religious authority. In addition, theological liberalism proved increasingly attractive to many colonists. What originated as a group enterprise placed increasing emphasis on individual liberty.


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