1.1. The Colonial Era and Independence (1620-1787)

Population, rank

1650

(8 colonies)

1700

(12 colonies)

1750

(13 colonies)

1780

(13 colonies)

Maine

NA

 

NA

 

NA

 

49,100

 

New Hampshire

1,300

6th

5,000

11th

27,500

12th

87,800

10th

Vermont

NA

 

NA

 

NA

 

47,600

 

Massachusetts

15,600

2nd

55,900

2nd

188,000

2nd

268,600

3rd

Rhode Island

800

7th

5,900

9th

33,200

10th

52,900

12th

Connecticut

4,100

4th

26,000

4th

111,300

5th

206,700

7th

Key events that shaped law and society:

  • Massachusetts, the first New England colony, fashioned a legal system that was a mix of English common law and Puritan religious tenets.  Puritans believed in centralized governance linked with a state-sponsored church.  But they also believed that one’s relationship with God was a highly personal matter that, in the end, could not be controlled by church officials.  Thus, Massachusetts placed a high value on liberty and order at the same time.
  • All of the other New England colonies except Vermont were first settled by Massachusetts residents.  Massachusetts’s attempts to shape the legal and social systems of its daughter colonies met with mixed success: 
    • Connecticut adopted Massachusetts’s legal system with little change. 
    • New Hampshire and Maine did likewise but they retained a strong sense of separate identity, even though  Maine was incorporated into Massachusetts in 1691 and New Hampshire and Massachusetts shared a governor for much of the 18th century.   Vermont was not settled until the early 1700’s; its legal system showed traces of New Hampshire influence.
    • Rhode Island was settled by exiled Massachusetts dissidents; it was more tolerant of religious diversity than any other New England colony.  Cotton Mather, Puritan leader, derided the colony as “the fag end of creation,… the sewer of New England,” and  Rhode Islanders viewed Massachusetts with equal hostility.
  • The New England colonies were run by proprietors – English nobles who operated under royal charters, with only loose supervision by the Crown.  James II put the colonies under direct Crown control (1684-1691), but after James was deposed, the Crown returned to a looser system of control:  Crown-appointed colonial governors shared power with popularly elected assemblies.
Cotton Mather, prominent Puritan leader (ca. 1700) - courtesy Wikipedia


“While in substance the Common Law was preserved, we happily lost a great mass of antiquated and useless rubbish, and gained in its stead a course of practice of admirable simplicity.” – Justice __, in ___ (N.H. 1855)


“[T]hat low craft and cunning so incident to the People of [New England] …is so interwoven in their Constitutions that all their art cannot disguise it from the World, though many of them under the sanctified garb of Religion, have endeavored to impose themselves on the World for honest men.” – Lewis Morris (New York)