Bodies Politic: Town Founding and the Common Good

Historian Scott McDermott asks: how did the Puritan ideal of the common good get put into practice? In the second in our series, The Common Good, we explore the vision and the practicalities of community in towns in Essex county. Click here for the 88-minute video.

Early Massachusetts Bay Colony was racked with considerable political disagreement, as colonial leaders fought to determine the foundation of the colony’s laws. Governor John Winthrop saw the members of the Court of Assistants, the magistrates, as the fount of law in Massachusetts. But an influential opposition formed, many of whom lived at least for a time in Essex County. These leaders, who included Nathaniel Ward, Thomas Dudley, Richard Saltonstall, Richard Bellingham, Ezekiel Rogers, and Simon Bradstreet, advocated the creation of a written law code in order to safeguard the liberties of the colony’s freemen. Scott McDermott, Associate Professor of History at Albany State University in Georgia, leads the discussion.

As its name suggests, the master concept of the 1641 Body of Liberties, written chiefly by Nathaniel Ward, was corporatism, the image of society as a body politic composed of various members. Accordingly, the code featured several sections which protected the liberties of various members of the social body, including freemen, women, children, servants, “Forreiners and Strangers,” and even domestic animals. According to the Protestant scholastic principle of analogy, each body politic was analogous to the church as the Body of Christ. 

A close reading of the earliest records of Ipswich and the various towns spawned from it, including Haverhill, Andover, Rowley, and Newbury, reveals that corporatism provided a guiding principle in early Massachusetts town-founding. The founders of these towns obsessively sought to guarantee the health of their new social bodies by preserving “proportion” and hierarchy within the body.

Land distribution helped articulate the social body and create sustainable communities. Town meetings, elected officials, and magistrates sought to guarantee the health of each body politic by protecting and distributing resources for the common good of the whole. When scarcity threatened the health of one social body, a new town could be birthed from the older one in order to preserve the well-being of all inhabitants. This corporatist model endured, providing a metaphysical basis for Puritan mobility and the founding of towns in New England. Many of those towns exist today, and have served in turn as the inspiration for other migrations and other foundings.