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Notices Concerning the Early ‘Freemen’ in New England

Source: “Notices Concerning the Early ‘Freemen’ in New England,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register 3[1849].

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Before a member of society could exercise the right of suffrage, or hold any public office, he must be made a freeman by the general or quarterly court.  To become such he was required to produce evidence that he was a respectable member of some Congregational church.  “This regulation was so far modified by Royal order in 1664, as to allow individuals to be made Freemen, who could obtain certificates of their being correct in doctrine and conduct, from clergymen acquainted with them.”

“In 1631, a test was invented which required all freemen to be church-members.  This was upon the first appearance of a dissent in regard to religious opinions.  But even this test, in the public opinion, required great caution, as in 1632 it was agreed that a civil magistrate should not be an elder in the church.”

The “FREEMAN’S OATH” was the first paper printed in New England.  It was printed at Cambridge, by STEPHEN DAYE, in 1639, upon a single sheet, in the manner of a handbill, and without date.  It was in these words, as established in 1634:–

I (A.B.) being by Gods providence, an Inhabitant, and Freeman, within the Jurisdiction of this Commonwealth; do freely acknowledge my self to be subject to the Government thereof: And therefore do here swear by the great and dreadful Name of the Ever-living God, that I will be true and faithfull to the same, and will accordingly yield assistance & support thereunto, with my person and estate, as in equity I am bound; and will also truly endeavor to maintain and preserve all the liberties and priviledges thereof, submitting my self to the wholesome Lawes & Orders made and established by the same.  And further, that I will not plot or practice any evill against it, or consent to any that shall do so; but will timely discover and reveal the same to lawfull Authority now here established, for the speedy preventing thereof.

Moreover, I doe solemnly bind my self in the sight of God, that when I shal be called to give my voyce touching any such matter of this State, in which 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 publike weal of the body, So help me God in the Lord Jesus Christ.*

The first General Court in Massachusetts was held on the 19th of October, 1630, not by representatives, but by every one that was free, of the corporation, in person.  None had been admitted freemen since they left England.  It was ordered, that for the future the free-

* Copied from “New England’s JONAS cast up at London,” by Major John CHILDE,” 1647. [In the body of the tract the name of CHILDE is spelled without the e.] Mr. Felt has also printed the oath in his Ipswich, from the records, and it is likewise to be found in the “Charters and Laws of Massachusetts Bay.”  We have copied from MAJOR CHILDE to preserve the old orthography.

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men should choose the assistants, and the assistants from among themselves choose the governor and deputy governor.  The court of assistants were to have the power of making laws and appointing officers.  This was a departure from their charter.  One hundred and nine freemen were admitted at this court.  MAVERICK, BLACKSTONE, and many more who were not of any of the churches, were of this number.  The next General Court was the court of election for 1631.  The scale was now turned, and the freemen resolved to choose both governor, deputy, and assistants, notwithstanding the former vote, and made an order, that, for the time to come, none should be admitted to the freedom of the body politic but such as were church members.*  “None have voice in elections of Governor, Deputy and Assistants, none are to be Magistrates, Officers or Jurymen, grand or petit, but Freemen.  The Ministers give their votes in all elections of Magistrates.  Now the most of the persons at New England are not admitted of their Church, and therefore are not Freemen; and when they come to be tried there, be it for life or limb, name or estate, or whatsoever, they must be tried and judged too by those of the Church who are, in a sort, their adversaries; How equal that hath been or may be, some by experience doe know, others may judge.”**

“This,” remarks Hutchinson, “was a most extraordinary order of law, and yet it continued in force until the dissolution of the government, it being repealed, in appearance only, after the restoration of King Charles the Second.  Had they been deprived of their civil privileges in England by an act of parliament, unless they would join in communion with the churches there, it might very well have been the first in the roll of grievances.  But such were the requisites to qualify for church membership here, that the grievance was abundantly greater.”

It is supposed by Mr. Savage,*** that “near three fourths of the present [1826] inhabitants of the six New England states,” are descended from such as were made freemen before the death of Governor Winthrop.  This conjecture would seem plausible enough were we to end our inquiries here; but if we extend them to the revolution of 1688, the time when the practice of making freemen ceased, by a similar course of reasoning we should not now find inhabitants enough in New England for our purpose.  However, our opinion is, that from the “OLD FREEMEN” before the Revolution, above seven eighths of all the present inhabitants of New England, and no inconsiderable portion of those of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio are descended.

In 1663, “ the practice of freemen’s meeting in Boston to elect magistrates was repealed.  This repeal, however, was so unpopular, that the same practice was renewed the next year; but it seems to have gone down soon after.  At first, danger from Indians was pleaded, why

* Hutchinson’s Hist. Mass., i. 25, 26.

** Lechford, Plain Dealing, 23, 24.

*** Winthrop, Jour., ii. 74.  In his edition of this invaluable work, Mr. S. has printed lists of the FREEMEN to the time of his author’s death.

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border and distant towns should retain part of their freemen from General Election.  At last, the greatness of the number, when assembled from the whole colony to choose the magistrates, and the concurrent inconveniences of this custom, appear to have been the cause of producing an alteration, which substantially accords with present usage.”

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