The Massachusetts Bay Colony emerged from the pretext of a joint-stock trading enterprise called the Massachusetts Bay Company. It gained its legality in 1629 when King Charles I issued the Massachusetts Bay Charter at the behest of a group of Puritan merchants. The founders of the company selected John Winthrop, a prosperous Puritan lawyer, to lead the endeavor, sending more than 1,000 men, women, and children across the Atlantic in 1630. Since the charter required the Massachusetts Bay Company to maintain a home office in England, Winthrop and the other company leaders decided to take the charter with them to New England, in order to transfer the entire government of the colony to Massachusetts Bay, where they hoped it would ensure local, but more importantly Puritan, control.
Upon arrival in Massachusetts Bay, the founders effectively translated the company charter into a plan for government, a process that took nearly 14 years to complete. By transferring the Massachusetts Bay Company charter to America, an English trading company evolved into a provincial government and initiated a unique project of colonization.
Power within the company rested with the General Court, which was responsible for the election of a governor and his eighteen assistants. The General Court consisted of the shareholders, commonly referred to as freemen, because they had the freedom of the company. Of those who went to America, only a few besides Winthrop and his assistants initially had such status and freedom. While this suited these select few, more than 100 settlers petitioned for freeman status shortly after the colony was established. Rather than risk trouble, the inner group invited applications and finally admitted 118 in 1631. Afterward, provisions were made such that only church members, a limited category, could become freemen.
Originally, the General Court consisted of one house, composed of company members who had the power to pass laws and levy taxes. It acted as the supreme legislative and judicial authority in the colony. In 1634, the colony had grown large enough to make reliance on membership cumbersome, and the composition of the General Court became limited to just two or three representatives from each township. In 1644, the government established by the charter was further altered when the General Court was expanded into a two-house legislature, which set the deputies and assistants to the governor in a separate house from the elected town representatives. With establishment of a bicameral legislature, all legislative decisions required a majority in both houses for passage.
Thus, over an extended period, the Massachusetts Bay Company underwent a metamorphosis that took it from trading corporation to the governing body of a commonwealth. Church membership replaced stock ownership as the criteria for becoming a freeman, later called a voter. The General Court, like Parliament in England, became a representative body composed of two houses: The House of Assistants roughly corresponded to the House of Lords, and the House of Deputies was comparable to the House of Commons. Although the charter remained unchanged, the performance under the charter was entirely different from original expectations.
Solomon K. Smith See also: Boston; Massachusetts Bay Colony; Politics and Government (Essay); Politics and Government (Chronology); Puritanism; Winthrop, John. Bibliography Collier, Christopher. Pilgrims and Puritans, 1620 1676. New York: Benchmark, 1998. Peters, Ronald M. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: A Social Compact. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1978. Taylor, Robert J. Massachusetts: Colony to Commonwealth. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.
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