Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Freemen of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

When you begin researching or reading about ancestors who lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony you come across references such as he was made a freeman on such and such a date, he was a commoner, selectmen, prudential men, etc.  But what does that mean exactly. Here is a brief explanation of the different terms.  

The Charter
The Colony was established by a charter granted by King Charles I, basically it was a Corporation, and the rules were laid out more for a company than for the running of towns.
The head of the Colony was a Governor, Deputy Governor and 18 Assistants who were to be chosen annually by the "Freemen" of the colony. In 1630 the only "Freemen" were the a fore mentioned men.  The charter spelled out that the Governor and the "Company" could choose as many "Freemen" as they deemed requisite for the orderly managing and dispatching of the affairs of the Governor and the Company.  Freedmen were if you like, stockholders in the Corporation and the Assistants would be the Board of Directors. This plan was laid out in England prior to setting sail.
In 1630 the Winthrop Fleet arrived in the Colony and set up the seat of Government at the newly formed town of Charleston.  They rapidly established 8 settlements: Salem, Lynn, Charleston, Mystic, Boston, Dorchester and Roxbury to dispurse the 700 plus new colonists.  By December the decision was made to remove the seat of Government to Boston.
John Wintrop, 1st Governor
The charter provided for meetings of the Governor, Deputy Governor and the Assistants once a month, or as often as they felt necessary.  For a quorum, they needed at least 7 Assistants. They agreed that the Governor, Deputy Governor and the Assistants would meet quarterly with all the Freemen in the colony. 
At the first quarterly court 109 men applied for admission as Freemen.
Those in authority were alarmed.  As all laws and elections would be democratic they felt it unacceptable that all men would be able to vote, so they changed the rules and said that the Freemen would only be allowed to elect the assistants and they in turn would choose the Governor.  No Freemen were chosen in the first court.
Puritan Male
In the quarterly court held in May of 1631 after changing some rules, the Court admitted 116 men as Freemen.  The new rules included the stipulation that in order to be considered a man must be a member of a church in good standing with the Colony. This was not as simple as it seemed.  First of all, everyone in the Colony was required by law to attend church, but to be a full church member you had to go before a panel of elders and endure a rather excruciating examination of your beliefs.  Many men chose to forego this and as a result did not become freemen. It goes without saying that the church must be of the Puritan persuasion, no Baptists, Quakers, or Catholics allowed. 
In 1632 the town of Watertown was taxed to pay for the expense of fortifying Cambridge.  the Pastor and elders of the Watertown church  refused, stating that the Governor and Assistants did not have the authority to levy taxes or make laws. They said only the General Court and the Freemen had that right. The towns while agreeing, felt it was impossible for all the Freemen in the Colony to leave their farms and homes to travel to Boston to attend the Court.  This would leave their towns vulnerable to Indian attacks, as well as leaving their farms and businesses untended.
The Court agreed and it was decided that each town would elect two representatives, called Deputies,  to attend the General court to vote for their townsmen. 

Freedmen were required to take the Freedmen's oath as follows:
I, A.B., being by God's providence an inhabitant and freeman within the jurisdiction of this Commonwealth, do freely acknowledge myself to be subject to the government thereof, and therefore do here swear by the great and dreadful name of the everlasting God, that I will be true and faithful to the same, and will accordingly yield assistance and support thereunto, with my person and estate, as in equity I am bound; and I will also truly endeavour to maintain and preserve all the liberties and privileges thereof, submitting myself to the wholesome laws and orders, made and established by the same. And further, that I will not plot nor practise any evil against it, nor consent to any, that shall so do, but will truly discover and reveal the same to lawful authority now here established, for the speedy preventing thereof. Moreover, I do solemnly bind myself in the sight of God, that when I shall be called to give my voice, touching any such matter of this state, wherein freemen are to deal, I will give my vote and suffrage, as I shall judge in mine own conscience may best conduce and tend to the public weal of the body, without respect of persons or favor of any man; so help me God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Men who were not eligible to be freemen or who choose not to be were residents. They too took an oath at age 16 called the residents of Oath of Fidelity. Women and Indians need not apply!   




Prudential Men were chosen by each town to enact the towns business.
As early as 1641, the Prudential men of theTown (Ipswich) ordered that no dog should come into the meeting house on Sabbath days or lecture days between twelve and three o'clock. Why they were so obnoxious during the afternoon service, and not in the morning, we are left to our wits to discover. Certain it is, that from very early times, the dog had been legislated against as an undesirable attendant.

The Selectmen were the Executive branch of the town government, these men had charge of the day-to-day operations; selectmen were important in legislating policies central to a community's police force, highway supervisors, poundkeepersfield drivers, and other officials.  They were also the town busybodies.  Reporting those who wore clothing above their station, did not go to church, fell asleep in church, etc.