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Modern History Sourcebook:
John Winthrop:
Arbitrary Government Described and the Government of the Massachusetts Vindicated from that Aspersion, 1644

Introductory Note

In 1644, a dispute arose in Massachusetts between the magistrates and the deputies as to the respective powers of the two branches of the legislature, the deputies claiming judicial authority. Winthrop's opposition to this claim brought upon him and other magistrates the charge of arbitrary government; and in order to clear up the situation he drew up the following document. It is important not only for its presentation of Winthrop's personal views, but for the light it throws upon the origins of the political institutions of the Commonwealth.


Arbitrary Government is where a people have men set over them, without their choice or allowance; who have power to govern them, and judge their causes without a rule.

God only hath this prerogative; whose sovereignty is absolute, and whose will is a perfect rule, and reason itself; so as for man to usurp such authority, is tyranny, and impiety.

Where the people have liberty to admit or reject their governors, and to require the rule by which they shall be governed and judged, this is not an arbitrary government.

That the Government of the Massachusetts is such will appear (1) by the foundation of it; (2) by the positive laws thereof; (3) by the constant practice which proves a custom, than which (when it is for common good) there is no law of man more inviolable.

1. The foundation of this Government is the King's Letters Patents: this gave them their form and being, in disposing a certain number of persons into a body politic; whereby they became then (in such a politic respect) as one single person, consisting of several members, and appoint to each its proper place: it regulates their power and motions as might best conduce to the preservation and good of the whole body.

The parties or members of this body politic are reduced under two kinds, Governor and Company, or Freemen: to the Governor it adds a Deputy, and eighteen Assistants: in these is the power of authority placed, under the name of the Governor (not as a person, but as a State) and in the other (which is named the Company) is placed the power of liberty: - which is not a bare passive capacity of freedom, or immunity, but such a liberty as hath power to act upon the chiefest means of its own welfare (yet in a way of liberty, not of authority) and that under two general heads, election and counsel: (1) they have liberty to elect yearly (or oftener if occasion require) all their Governors and other their general officers, viz., such as should have influence (either judicial or ministerial) into all parts of the jurisdiction; (2) they have liberty of counsel in all the General Assemblies, so as without their counsel and consent no laws, decrees, or orders, of any public nature or concernment, not any taxes, impositions, impresses, or other burdens of what kind soever, can be imposed upon them, their families or estates, by any authority in the Government: which notwithstanding remains still a distinct member, even in those General Assemblies: otherwise our state should be a mere Democratic, if all were Governors or magistrates, and none left to be an object of government, which cannot fall out in any kind of Aristocratie.

To make this clear, we will set down the very words of the Patent.

"(1) The words of Constitution of this body politic are these, A, B, C, and all such others as shall hereafter be admitted and made free of the Company and society hereafter mentioned shall be, etc., one body politic and Corporate, in fact and name, by the name of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England. And that from henceforth forever there shall be one Governor, one Deputy - Governor, and eighteen Assistants of the same Company, to be from time to time, constituted, elected, and chosen, out of the Freemen of the said Company for the time being; in such manner and form, as hereafter in these presents is expressed, which said officers shall apply themselves to take care for the best disposing and ordering of the great business and affairs of, for, and concerning, the said lands and premises hereby mentioned to be granted, and the plantation thereof, and the government of the people there."

(2) The distribution of power follows, in these words ensuing: - "That the Government of the said Company for the time being or, in his absence by occasion of sickness or otherwise, the Deputy - Governor for the time being, shall have authority from time to time, upon all occasions, to give order, for the assembling of the said Company, and calling them together, to consult and advise of the businesses and affairs of the said Company.

"And that the said Governor, Deputy - Governor, and Assistants of the said Company for the time being shall or may once every month or oftener at their pleasures, assemble and hold and keep a Court, or Assembly of themselves, for the better ordering and directing of their affairs:

"And that any seven, or more persons of the Assistants, together with the Governor or Deputy - Governor so assembled, shall be said, taken, held, and reputed to be, and shall be, a full and sufficient Court or Assembly of the said Company, for the handling, ordering, and dispatching of all such businesses and occurents, as shall from time to time happen touching or concerning the said Company or plantation."

Then follows a clause, whereby liberty is granted to hold four general Courts in the year, wherein (with the advice and consent of the major part of the freemen) they may admit others to the freedom of the Company, they may make all subordinate officers, and make laws and constitutions, for their welfare and good government.

The Annual Election Of Officers

Then followeth a clause for the annual election of all their officers in these words ensuing:

"That yearly once in the year forever, namely on the last Wednesday in Easter Term yearly, the Governor, Deputy - Governor, and Assistants of the said Company shall be in the General Court or Assembly, to be held for that day or time, newly chosen for the year ensuring, by such greater part of the aid Company, for the time being, then and there present as is aforesaid."

Then follows another branch, whereby, in any of their General Courts, any insufficient, or delinquent Officer (of what sort soever) may be removed and another forthwith put in place.

The last clause is for the governing of the inhabitants within the plantation. For it being the manner for such as procured patents for Virginia, Bermudas, and the West Indies, to keep the chief government in the hands of the Company residing in England (and so this was intended and with much difficulty we got it abscinded) this clause is inserted in this and all other patents whereby the Company in England might establish a Government and Officers here in any form used in England, as Governor and Council, Justices of the Peace, Mayor, Bailiffs, etc.; and accordingly Mr. Endicott and others with him, were established a Governor and Council here, before the Government was transferred hither: and that clause is expressed in these words:

"It shall and may be lawful, to and for the Governor, etc., and such of the Freemen of the said Company for the time being, as shall be assembled in any of their General Courts aforesaid, or in any other Courts to be specially summoned and assembled for that purpose, or the greater part of them, whereof the Governor or Deputy - Governor, and six of the Assistants to be always even; from time to time, to make, ordain, and establish all manner of wholesome and reasonable orders, laws, statutes, and ordinances, directions, and instructions, not contrary to this our Realm of England: as well for settling of the forms and ceremonies of government and magistracy, fit and necessary for the said plantation, and inhabitants there, and for naming and styling of all sorts of officers, both superior and inferior, which they shall find needful for that Government and plantation; and the distinguishing and setting forth of the several duties, powers, and limits of every such office, etc., for disposing and ordering the election of such of the said officers as shall be annual, etc., and for setting down forms of oaths and for ministering of them, etc., and for the directing, ruling, and disposing of all matters and things, whereby our said people inhabitants there, may be so religiously, peaceably, and civilly governed, etc."

Thus it appears that this Government is not arbitrary in the foundation of it, but regulated in all the parts of it.

(2) It will be yet further found by the positive laws thereof:

And first by that of (3) 14-1634; where it is declared, that the General Court only may make freemen; make laws,; choose General Officers, as Governor, Deputy, Assistants, Treasurer, etc.; remove such; set out their power and duty; raise moneys; dispose of lands in proprieties; not to be dissolved but by consent of the major part. The freemen of the several towns may send their deputies to every General Court who may do all that the body of freemen might do, except in election of magistrates and officers.

And in the sixty - seventh Liberty it is thus described, viz. - "It is the constant liberty of the freemen, to choose yearly, at the Court of Election, out of the freemen, all the general officers of this jurisdiction. If they please to discharge them at the Court of Elections, by vote, they may do it without showing cause; but if at any other General Court, we hold it du justice, that the reasons thereof be alleged and proved. By general officers, we mean our Governor, Deputy - Governor, Assistants, Treasurer, General of our wars, and our Admiral at sea; and such as are, or may be hereafter, of like general nature."

(3) According to these fundamental rules and positive laws, the course of government hath been carried on in the practice of public administrations to this very day, and where any considerable obliquity hath been discerned, it hath been soon brought to the rule and redressed; for it is not possible in the infancy of a plantation, subject to so many and variable occurrents to hold so exactly to rules, as when a state is once settled.

By what hath been already manifested, this Government is freed from any semblance of arbitrariness either in the form of it, or the general officers in it, which is the first branch in the description of Arbitrary Government.

The other branch, (wherein the main question lies) is concerning the rule so as if it shall appear also, that the Governor and other officers are prescribed such a rule, as may be required of them in all their administrations, then it must needs be granted, that this Government (even in the present state thereof) is, in no respect, arbitrary.

I might show a clear rule out of the Patent itself, but seeing it is more particularly (and as it were membratim) delineated in later laws, I will begin there, (3) 25 - 1636. It was ordered, that until a body of fundamental laws (agreeable to the Word of God) were established, all causes should be heard and determined, according to the laws already in force; and where no law is, there as near the law of God as may be. To omit many particular laws enacted upon occasion, I will set down only the first authority in the Liberties: which is as here followeth: - "No man's life shall be taken away; no man's honor or good name shall be stained; no man's person shall be arrested, restrained, banished, dismembered, or any ways punished; no man shall be deprived of his wife or children; no man's goods or estate shall be taken away from him, or any way damaged, under colour of law or countenance of authority, unless it be by the 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."

By these it appears, that the officers of this body politic have a rule to walk by in all their administrations, which rule is the Word of God, and such conclusions and deductions as are, or shall be, regularly drawn from thence.

All commonwealths have had some principles, or fundamentals, from which they have framed deductions to particular cases, as occasion hath required. And though no Commonwealth ever had, or can have, a particular positive rule to dispense power or justice by in every single case, yet where the fundamentals or general rule hold forth such direction as no great damage or injury can befall, either the whole, or any particular part, by any unjust sentence or disorderly proceeding, without manifest breach of such general rule, there the rule may be required, and so the Government is regular and not arbitrary.

The fundamentals which God gave to the Commonwealth of Israel were a sufficient rule to them, to guide all their affairs; we having the same, with all the additions, explanations, and deductions, which have followed; it is not possible we should want a rule in any case, if God give wisdom to discern it.

There are some few cases only (beside the capitals) wherein the penalty is prescribed; and the Lord could have done the like in others, if He had so pleased; but having appointed governments upon earth, to be His vicegerents. He hath given them those few as presidents to direct them and to exercise His gifts in them (Deut. xvii; 9, 10, 11). In the most difficult cases, the judges in supreme authority were to show the sentence of the law; whence three things may be observed: (I) this sentence was to be declared out of the law established, though not obvious to common understanding; (2) this was to be expected in that ordinance; therefore (v. 19,) the King was to have a copy of the law, and to read them all the days of his life: (3) such a sentence was not ordained to be provided before the case fell out, but pro re nata, when occasion required, God promised to be present in his own ordinance, to improve such gifts as he should please to confer upon such as he should call to place of government. In the Scripture there are some forms of prayers and of sermons set down; yet no man will infer from thence that ministers should have sermons and prayers prescribed them for every occasion; for that would destroy the ordinance of the ministry, i. e., a reading priest might serve in that office, without any learning or other gifts of the Spirit. So if all penalties were prescribed, the jury should state the case, and the book hold forth the sentence, and any schoolboy might pronounce it; then what need were there of any special wisdom, learning, courage, zeal or faithfulness in a judge?

This being so great a question now on foot, about prescript penalties it will be of use to search as deep into it as we may by the light of Scripture, approved patterns, and other rational arguments; not tying our discourse to method, but laying down things as they come to hand.

England in the right constitution, is not an Arbitrary Government, nor is ours of the Massachusetts; yet juries, both there and here, give damages which (in vulgar sense) are arbitrary, in most cases: as in actions of slander, trespass, battery, breach of covenant, etc.; all which concern the people's liberties no less than fines and other penalties; And if twelve men, who have no calling to office, may (in expectation of God's assistance) be trusted with men's estates in a way of distributive justice without a prescript rule, etc., why may not those whose calling and office hath promise of assistance, have like trust reposed in them, in vindictive justice?

In the Liberties enacted here of purpose to prevent Arbitrary Government, there are near forty Laws, to the violation whereof no penalty is prescribed, nor was ever moved.

God may pronounce sentence against an offender, before the offence be committed, both by his absolute sovereignty, and also because he foreseeth all facts, with all their circumstances; and besides the least degree of the same offense deserves more than that full punishment before his Justice, but man must proceed according to his Commission; by which he cannot sentence another before he hath offended; and the offence examined, proved, laid to the rule, and weighed by all considerable circumstances, and liberty given to the party to answer for himself: nor is there anything more prejudicial to a subject's liberty, than to be sentenced before his cause be heard.

England is a state of long standing, yet we have had more positive and more wholesome laws enacted in our short time than they had in many hundred years. They have indeed some laws with prescribed penalties annexed, but they are for the most part so small as do undervalue the least degree of those offences; they have twelve pence for an Oath: five shillings for drunkenness, etc.; but for all great offences and misdemeanors, as perjury, forgery, conspiracies, cozenages, oppression, riot, batteries, and other breaches of the peace, etc., there is no penalty prescribed; how it is in other states in Europe, I cannot relate (because we know not their laws) otherwise than what appears in their histories, where we find some great offences punished by the discretion of their judges.

Justice ought to render to every man according to his deservings, eye for eye, hand for hand, etc.; and (Luke xii.47) the servant, who transgressed against knowledge was to be beaten with more stripes than he who transgressed of ignorance. If we had a law, that every lie should be punished forty shillings, and two offenders should be convict at the same time, the one a youth of honest conversation, never known to lie before; and now, suddenly surprised with fear of some discredit, had told a lie wherein was no danger of harm to any other; the other an old notorious liar, and his lie contrived of purpose for a pernicious end: it were not just to punish both these alike. As forty shillings were too little for the one, so it were too much for the other. Besides, penalties (we know) coming of paena, should cause pain or grief to the offenders. It must be an affliction, yet not a destruction except in capital or other heinous crimes: but in prescript penalties, authority shoots at adventure; if the same penalty hits a rich man, it pains him not, it is no affliction to him; but if it lights upon a poor man, it breaks his back.

Every law must be just in every part of it, but if the penalty annexed be unjust, how can it be held forth as a just law? To prescribe a penalty must be by some rule, otherwise it is an usurpation of God's prerogative; but where the law - makers, or declarers, cannot find a rule for prescribing a penalty, if it come before the judges pro re nata, there it is determinable by a certain rule, viz., by an ordinance set up of God for that purpose, which hath a sure promise of Divine assistance (Exo. xxi. 22; Deut. xvi. 18). "Judges and Officers shalt thou make, etc., and they shall judge the people with just judgment." (Deut. xxv. 1, 2, and xvii. 9, 10, 11). If a Law were made that if any man were found drunken he should be punished by the judges according to the merit of his offense, this is a just law, because it is warranted by a rule; but if a certain penalty were prescribed, this would not be just, because it wants a rule, but when such a case is brought before the judges, and the quality of the person and other circumstances considered, they shall find a rule to judge by; as if Nabal, and Uriah, and one of the strong drunkards of Ephraim, were all three together accused before the judges for drunkenness, they could so proportion their several sentences, according to the several natures and degrees of their offences, as a just and divine sentence might appear in them all; for a divine sentence is in the lips of the King, his mouth transgresseth not in judgment (Prov. xvi.), but no such promise was ever made to a paper sentence of human authority or invention. He who hath promised His servants to teach them what to answer, even in that hour when they shall be brought before judgment seats, etc., will also teach his ministers, the judges, what sentence to pronounce, if they will also observe His word and trust in Him. "Care not for the morrow, etc." is a rule of general extent, to all cases where our providence may either cross with some rule or ordinance of His, or may occasion us to rely more upon our own strengths and means, than upon His grace and blessing. In the sentence which Solomon gave between the two harlots (1 Kings iii. 28), it is said that all Israel heard of the judgment which the King had judged; and they feared the King, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to do judgment. See here, how the wisdom of God was glorified, and the authority of the judge strengthened by this sentence; whereas in men's prescript sentences neither of these can be attained; but if the sentence hit right, all is ascribed to the wisdom of our ancestors; if otherwise, it is endured as a necessary evil, since it may not be altered.

Prescript penalties take away the use of admonition, which is also a divine sentence and an ordinance of God, warranted by Scripture, as appears in Solomon's admonition to Adonijah, and Nehemiah's to those that break the Sabbath (Ecel. xii. 11, 12); "The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies - by these (my son) be admonished." (Prov. xxix. 1; Isa. xi. 4; Prov. xvii. 10). "A reproof entereth more into a wise man, than a hundred stripes into a fool."

Judges are Gods upon earth; therefore, in their administrations, they are to hold forth the wisdom and mercy of God, (which are His attributes) as well as His Justice, as occasion shall require either in respect of the quality of the person, or for a more general good, or evident repentance, in some cases of less public consequence, or avoiding imminent danger to the State, and such like prevalent considerations. (Exo. xxii. 8. 9). For theft and such like trespasses, double restitution was appointed by the Law; but (Lev. vi. 2, 5) in such cases, if the party confessed his sin and brought his offering, he should only restore the principal and add a fifth part thereto. Adultery and incest deserved death, by the Law, in Jacob's time (as appears by Judah his sentence, in the case of Tamar); yet Reuben was punished only with the loss of his birthright, because he was a patriarch. David his life was not taken away for his adultery and murder (but he was otherwise punished) in respect of public interest and advantage; he was valued at ten thousand common men. Bathsheba was not put to death for her adultery, because the King's desire had with her the force of a law. Abiathar was not put to death for his treason, because of his former good service and faithfulness. Shemei was reprieved for a time, and had his pardon in his own power, because of his profession of repentance in such a season. Those which broke the Sabbath in Nehemiah his time, were not put to death, but first admonished, because the state was not settled, etc. Joab was not put to death for his murders in David's time, for avoiding imminent public danger; the sons of Zeruiah had the advantage of David, by their interest in the men of war; and the commonwealth could not yet spare them. But if judges be tied to a prescript punishment, and no liberty left for dispensation or mitigation in any case, there is no place left for wisdom or mercy; whereas Solomon sayeth (Prov. xx. 28): "Mercy and truth preserve the King, and his throne is upholden by mercy."

I would know by what rule we may take upon us, to prescribe penalties where God prescribes none. If it be answered, "From God's example," I might reply (1), God prescribes none except capital, but only in such cases as are between party and party, and that is rather in a way of satisfaction to the party wronged, than to justice and intention. (2), God's examples are not warrants for us to go against God's rules; our rule is to give a just sentence, which we cannot do (in most cases) before the offence is committed, etc. Five shillings now may be more than twenty shillings hereafter, and e contra. If examples in Scripture be warrant for us to proceed against rule, then we may pass by murders, adulteries, idolatries, etc., without capital punishments; then we might put the children to death for parents' offences, etc.

If we should inquire also of the end of prescribing penalties, it can be no other but this, to prevent oppression of the people by unjust sentences; then I am again to seek of a rule to weaken the power and justice of an ordinance of God, through distrust of His providence, and promise of assistance in His own ordinance. Who must give the lawmakers wisdom, etc., to prescribe sentences? Must not God? And may we not then trust Him to give as much wisdom, etc., to such judges as He shall set up after us? It is said when they had judges by God's appointment, God was with the judge. So may we still believe that if our posterity all choose judges according to God, He will be with the judges in time to come, as well as with the present.

It may be further demanded, what power we have over the property and estates of the succeeding generations? If we should now prescribe where our posterity should dwell, what quantities of land they should till, what places they should tend unto, what diet they should use, what clothes they should wear, etc., by what rule could we challenge this power? Yet we have example for some of these in Scripture, as of Jonadab, the son of Rechab, etc.; but no man will take these as warrants for us to lay such injunctions upon those which come after us, because they are to have the same interest and freedom in their estates and properties that we have in ours.

And for preventing of oppression, etc., is there no way to help that but by breach of rule? Shall we run into manifest injustice for fear of I know not what future danger of it? Is there not a clear way of help in such cases, by appeal, or petition, to the highest authority? If this will not relieve in a particular case, we shall then be in a very ill case for all our prescript penalties. Besides, there may be such a general law made (as in Magna Charta) that may prevent the overthrowing of men's estates, or lands, etc., by fines, etc., (and I think it is needful, as any law of Liberty we have), whereby the judges may be restrained within certain limits, which, (if occasion should require to exceed,) may be referred to the General Court; and in capital punishments, a liberty in such and such cases, to redeem them at a certain rate. This would sufficiently assure the proper persons and estates from any great oppression, if, withal, our Courts of Judicature were kept but by three or five magistrates at most, which may well be ordered, without any deviation from our Patent. And so the greater number of magistrates should be free from engagement in any case which might come to a review upon appeal or petition.

It is an error so to conceit of laws as if they could not be perfect without penalties annexed, for they are as truly distinct as light and darkness. Law was created with and in man, and so is natural to him, but penalty is positive and accidental. Law is bonum simpliciter, but poena is simpliciter malum in subiecto; therefore laws may be declared and given without any penalties annexed.

Isa. x, 1: Woe to them that decree unrighteous decrees: and write grievousness, which they have prescribed; so that where the penalty proves grievous by the unrighteousness of a prescript decree, it will draw a woe after it, as well as unrighteous sentences; (Deut. xxv, 15) Thou shall have a perfect and just weight and measure." If God be so strict in commutative justice that every act therein must be by a just and perfect rule, what warrant have we to think that we may dispense distributive or vindictive justice to our brethren by guess, when we prescribe a certain measure to an uncertain merit?

But it will be objected, volenti non fit injuria; the people giving us power to make laws to bind them, they do implicitly give their consent to them. To this it may be answered that where they put themselves into our power to bind them to laws and penalties, they can intend no other but such as are just and righteous; and although their implicit consent may bind them to outward obedience, yet it neither ties them to satisfaction, nor frees such law - makers from unrighteousness, nor the law itself from injustice, nor will such a law be a sufficient warrant to the conscience of the judge, to pronounce such a sentence as he knows to be apparently disproportionable to the offence brought before him.

Although my argument conclude against prescript penalties indefinitely, yet I do not deny but they may be lawful in some cases; for an universal affirmative position may be true, though it comprehend not every particular, as when we say, "All the country was rated to such a charge," no man will conceive that every person and every woman, etc., was rated; and when we say such an one was cast out by the whole church, this is a true speech (to common intendment) though every particular member did not consent. Where any penalty may be prescribed by a rule, so as the judge may pronounce a just sentence, I have formerly and shall still join in it.


Response To Objections Regarding Judges' Sentencing Liberties

We will now answer such objections as are made against the liberty required to be left to judges in their sentences.

1, ob. Judges are subject to temptations, if their sentences be not prescribed.

Ans. 1. We may not transgress rules, to avoid temptations; for God will have His servants exercised with temptations, that the power of His grace may be made manifest in man's infirmity. A master will not send his servant about his business in a dark night, to avoid temptations of ill - company or the like which he may possibly meet with in the day time; nor will any Christian man take in his corn or hay before it be ready, for avoiding a temptation of taking it in upon the Sabbath. We do not forbid wine to be brought to us, though we know it is a great occasion of temptation to sin.

2. Those who make laws and prescribe penalties are also men subject to temptations, and may also miscarry through ignorance, heedlessness, or sinister respects; and it is not hard to prove, that the lawmakers, in all states, have committed more, and more pernicious errors than the judges, and there is good reason for it: (1) they, supposing themselves tied to no rule, nor liable to any account, are in the more danger of being mislead; (2) he who prescribes a punishment in a case wherein no person stands before him to be judged, cannot be so wary of shedding innocent blood, or sparing a guilty person, or committing other injustice, as the judge who hath the person and cause before him. When Saul prescribed that capital sentence against such as should taste aught before night, if Jonathan's case had then been before him, he could have judged otherwise. (3) Lawmakers have not so clear a calling in prescribing penalties, as judges have in passing sentences, and therefore there cannot be expected the like blessing of assistance from God. Judges are necessarily tied to give sentence in a cause before them, but lawmakers are not so bound to prescribe sentences.

3. If a judge should sometimes err in his sentence, through misprision or temptation, the error or fault is his own; and the injury or damage extends not far; but an error in the law resteth upon the ordinance itself, and the hurt of it may reach far, even to posterity. There is more righteousness and dishonor in one unjust law than in many unjust sentences.

2, ob. God prescribed some certain penalties, and that in cases where offences do usually vary in their degree and merit.

Ans. 1. We have showed before, how God might do it, in regard to His absolute sovereignty.

2. It is no injustice to Him, because the least degree of the smallest offence (before His judgment seat) deserves the highest degree of punishment.

3. In some of these (as in theft) He varieth the punishment according to the measure and nature of the offence. In others as death, perpetual solitude, etc., being the just reward of such offences in their simple nature, they have not a fit subject, for an increase of punishment to take place upon. He who is put to death for adultery cannot die again for incest concurring therewith, and he who is adjudged to perpetual servitude for stealing a hundred pounds cannot be capable of a further sentence for battery.

4. In all or most of those offences, the penalty was in way of satisfaction to such as were damnified therewith, and in such cases justice will not allow a judge any liberty to alter or remit any thing, nor can any circumstance lead to qualification. A rich man hath the same right of satisfaction for his goods stolen from him as a poor man, and the poorest man's life is the life of man, as well as a prince's.

5. These precendents were given to the judges not with direction to prescribe penalties to other laws that had none, but with commandment to give judgment in all cases, by the equity of these: (there are some forms of prayer and sermons in Scripture, but this doth not prove ergo all, etc.)

3, ob. If the determination of the law were left to the judges, that were Arbitrary Government; and is it not in reason the same, if the punishment of the transgression of the law be committed?

Ans. The reason is not alike in both cases.

I. The determination of law belongs properly to God: He is the only lawgiver; but He hath given power and gifts to man to interpret His laws; and this belongs principally to the highest authority in a commonwealth, and subordinately to other magistrates and judges according to their several places.

2. The law is always the same, and not changeable by any circumstances of aggravation or extenuation, as the penalty is, and therefore draws a certain guilt upon every transgressor, whether he sin of ignorance, or against knowledge, or presumptuously; and therefore laws or the interpretations of them, may be prescribed without any danger, because no event can alter the reason, or justice of them, as it may of punishments.

3. The law is more general, and lieth as a burden upon all persons and at all times; but the penalty reaches to none but transgressors, and to such, only when they are brought under sentence, and not before.

4. It is needful that all men should know the laws, and their true meanings, because they are bound to them, and the safety and welfare of the commonwealth consists in the observation of them; therefore it is needful they should be stated and declared as soon as is possible; but there is not the like necessity or use of declaring their penalties beforehand, for they who are godly and virtuous, will observe them, for conscience and virtue's sake; and for such as must be held in by fear of punishment, it is better they should be kept in fear of a greater punishment than to take liberty to transgress through the contempt of a smaller.

4, ob. It is safe for the commonwealth to have penalties prescribed, because we know not what magistrates or judges we may have hereafter.

Ans. 1. God foresaw that there would be corrupt judges in Israel, yet He left most penalties to their determination.

2. There is no wisdom of any state can so provide but that in many things of greatest concernment they must confide in some men; and so it is in all human affairs: the wisest merchants, and the most wary, are forced to repose great trust in the wisdom and faithfulness of their servants, factors, masters of their ships, etc. All states, in their generals of war, admirals, ambassadors, treasurers, etc., and these are causes of more public consequence than the sentence of a judge in matters of misdemeanor, or other smaller offences.

3. When we have provided against all common and probable events, we may and ought to trust God for safety from such dangers as are only possible, but not likely, to come upon us; especially when our striving to prevent such possible dangers may hazard the deprivation or weakening of a present good, or may draw those or other evils nearer upon us.

This discourse is run out to more length than was intended: the conclusion is this: The Government of the Massachusetts consists of Magistrates and Freemen: in the one is placed the authority, in the other, the liberty of the commonwealth. Either hath power to act, both alone, and both together, yet by a distinct power, the one of liberty, the other of authority. The Freemen act of themselves in electing their magistrates and officers; the magistrates act alone in all occurrences out of court; and both act together in the General Court; yet all limited by certain rules, both in the greater and smaller affairs, so as the Government is regular in a mixed aristocraty, and no ways arbitrary.

The returns of the Committee of the House of Deputies concerning the Book about Arbitrary Government, in the examination thereof; and the votes of the House passed upon each particular, viz.:

In the first part thereof:

1. Concerning the definition therein made, we conceive it is defective.

2. Concerning the distinction therein made of the body politic, and the members thereof, in attributing authority to the one, and only liberty to the other, we find not any such distinction in the Patent.

3. Concerning the clause recited therein (respecting the General Court) which gives only liberty to the freemen to advise and counsel, instead of power and authority (which the Patent allows), we conceive it a taking away of the power and privileges of the freemen.

In the second part of the book, which concerns the rule by which a people should be governed, we find these dangerous positions:

1. That general rules are sufficient to clear a state from Arbitrary Government.

2. That judges ought to have liberty to vary from such general rules when they see cause.

In the following of the first of those two positions there are many dangerous passages, and bitter censuring of all penal laws: as:

1. That they are paper sentences of human authority and invention.

2. That men's prescript sentences do deny and exclude both the wisdom of God, and the authority of the judge.

3. That to prescribe laws with certain penalties is an usurping of God's authority.

4. That a sentence ought not to be provided before the case fall out, but immediate assistance to be expected.

5. That particular laws including certain penalties are not just, wanting rule.

The introduction of particular instances which are brought to prove this second position, with the reasons and consequences, are pernicious and dangerous.

 

per Robert Bridges, By order, etc.

Governor Winthrop's comments on this report, as indorsed by him on the same sheet on which he had carefully copied it, are as follows:

Answer: the Committee have been mistaken in most of their objections.

1. The Title shows that the author intended not any definition, but a description only, and to make it the more full and clear, he lays it down both affirmatively and negatively; yet a logician may frame it into a definition, thus Arbitrary Government is a Government exercised without a rule, but the description is false by the cause and by the effects.

2. There is no such distinction as is observed between the body politic and the members thereof, for that were to distinguish between the whole and the parts; but the distinction between the members of that body, giving authority to the one and power and liberty to the other, is warranted by the Patent (as in other places so) particularly in that clause which sayeth that the Governor, etc., shall call the freemen to consult and advise, etc., which is an act of liberty and not of authority; and for the other part of their power, which is matter of election, the late Body of Liberties sayeth it is their constant liberty, not authority.

In the second part:

1. We find not any such position that general rules are sufficient to clear a state of arbitrary government, but we find that the word of God and the laws here established being appointed by order of Court as a rule for the present, are such a rule as may be required by the judges in all their administrations, because a rule may from thence be derived (if God give wisdom to discern it) in any particular case which may fall out; otherwise the Law of God were not perfect, and from what better grounds shall the lawmakers draw all future laws and prescribed penalties.

But if the author had expressed himself in the very words of the position yet it will admit a safe construction, for all laws (not limited to particular parties or occasions) are general rules, and may be so called, though they have a certain penalty annexed.

2. Nor will the book own the second position in the words expressed, but this the judges both from their offices (being God's vice - gerents) and from diverse examples in Scripture, which seem to hold forth so much, that some liberty ought to be left to judges in some cases, upon special occasions to hold forth the mercy of God, as well as His justice; nor do we consider that either in the Commonwealth of Israel, or in any other, the judges have been wholly restrained of such liberty.

In the following argument:

If the Committee had found such dangerous passages as they intimate, they should have done well to have imparted their particular observations therein unto us, that we might have considered of them, for want whereof if cannot be expected we should deliver any opinion about them. The like we may say for such bitter censurings as they mention, only it is usual for men to call such things bitter which themselves disrelish, though they may be harmless and wholesome notwithstanding.

For the five particulars mentioned, they are delivered as arguments or the consectaries thereof, so as the arguments must first be avoided before any judgment can be given about them.

The examples which the author allegeth out of Scripture are only to show how God hath sometimes (in His wisdom and mercy) dispensed with the rigor of His own law; and that princes have sometimes done the like upon public or other prevalent considerations, which cannot be denied to be a truth; and for the warrant they had for it, being (at the most) disputable, it was as free for him to deliver them in his own and some other learned and godly men's apprehensions as it is for others who differ therein; and there can be no more danger in this than in other books and sermons, where the same or other passages of Scripture are truly reported, though not applied to the sense of every godly man, as if one should reason thus: David put the Amorites to torture, therefore, in some cases it is lawful so to do. This will not be judged a pernicious doctrine, though some godly men do question the warrantableness of the example. The like may be said of all such examples in Scripture as are controverted among godly and learned men; but it is otherwise in such places as are not questionable, as if a man should reason thus: David sentenced Mephibosheth before he heard him; therefore it is lawful for judge so to do. This might truly be said to be a pernicious doctrine; or if one should argue thus: Saul made a law with a prescript penalty of death to him that should transgress it; therefore it had been just that Jonathan should have been put to death for transgressing that law; or therefore it is lawful for princes, etc., to prescribe penalties at their own pleasures; - these might be judged to be pernicious doctrines, because the example is unquestionable, etc.

 

The Author's Review Of His Writing

That which gave me occasion first to inquire after a rule for prescript penalties, was the inequality I saw in some prescribed sentences upon the breach of diverse moral laws; and proceeding in this inquiry, I kept my intention still upon that subject, without respect to such laws as are merely positive, having their authority only and wholly from human institutions: therefore you shall find that all my instances are of that kind, and all my arguments look that way, as in the instances I bring of the laws of England. If I intended the positive and statute laws, it had been a great mistake, for I know well that most of the later Statute Laws have their penalties prescribed, and it must needs be so, for such as are merely positive; for a judge can have no rule for his sentence upon the breach of such a law, except he have if from the law itself: as, for instance, if the law which forbids any man to kill an hare or partridge with a gun, had not also set down the penalty, the judge could not have found out any, which might have been just, because no law of God or nature makes such an act any offence or transgression. But for the Common Laws of England (which are the ancient laws, and of far more esteem for their wisdom and equity than the Statute Laws,) they had no penalties prescribed; and it may be conceived that for such of them as were grounded upon the Word of God, and the light of nature, there must needs be that in the same Word, and in the same light of nature (especially where the image of God in man is in part renewed by Christ) which may lead us to a just punishment for the transgressor of such a law. Nor do I oppose all prescript penalties in moral cases, but only such as do cross some clear rules in the Word of God, as will appear by all my arguments. And for avoiding all danger to the subject for want of prescript penalties in some cases, you may see that to require some such law to be made, as may limit judges within such bounds of moderation as may prevent such dangers, and [it] is one of my express conclusions in the first page, that judges ought to be tied to a rule, and such a rule as may be required of them in all their administrations, and therefore upon what ground I should be charged to assert Arbitrary Government, and that judges should have liberty to do what they may, I leave to your judgment.

As for laws, you shall find also that I conclude the necessity of declaring and stating them, so as all the people may know them, for I ever held it unjust to require of men the obedience of any law which they may not (by common intendment) take notice of. Answerable thereunto hath been my practice. All the useful laws we have had my consent, and such poor help as the Lord enabled me to yield to them; some of which have prescribed penalties, and where I have withheld my consent to any such penalties I have given my reasons for it, which have been such as in some cases have satisfied the Court, and therein I have taken no more liberty than is allowed to every member of the Court. I will not justify every passage in my book: there are two or three words that offence hath been taken at, and although I can give a safe account of them, yet I must confess they do not now please me, but when the matter is good, and the intention of the writer honest, the Lord forbids us to make a man an offender in word.

Whatsoever is erroneous (I say as I did from the first) I shall leave it to its due censure; but for all that is of God, and of the Truth, or the sincerity of my intentions herein to the public weal, or the liberty I had by my place to propound such considerations to the Court, if these be questioned I must stand and fall with them.

John Winthrop


Source:

American historical documents, 1000-1904 : with introductions and notes. [New York : P.F. Collier, c1910]. The Harvard classics v. 43.


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© Paul Halsall, August 1998
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