The Massachusetts Archives Collection (also known as the "Felt Collection"), which includes original records of the governor, Council, General Court, secretary, and treasurer, is an important source of records for early Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. The Collection is unique in the quantity of seventeenth-century records it contains, and this richness continues throughout the eighteenth century, with voluminous amounts of Revolutionary era materials. Records pertaining to the ratification of the Massachusetts and federal constitutions, Shays' Rebellion, and the early statehood period are also found in the collection.
Topics covered by the collection range from international affairs to
local and individual concerns. Records reflect the activities of the governor
and General Court within the framework of the British empire, focusing
on Massachusetts's relations with London, other British colonies, the
French colonial government in Canada, and the Indian nations in New England
and New York. They document the prosecution of military actions and negotiations
for peace. Treasury records, census schedules, tax lists, judicial actions,
and legislative orders provide the opportunity to study the administrative
functions of the colonial/provincial government. Additionally, many volumes
trace the General Court's involvement with localities and individuals.
Documents range from tavern licenses, divorce petitions, and land grants
to records pertaining to the compensation for the loss of a horse or the
siting of a meeting house.
The collection also documents the lives of significant persons such as
John Winthrop, Increase Mather, Roger Williams, and Jonathan Edwards.
The volumes from the Revolutionary era are filled with references to the
major figures of that period, including Thomas Hutchinson, Thomas Gage,
George Washington, James Otis, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock.
The records are bound into 328 numbered scrapbook volumes are arranged roughly by topic topic. The collection was originally organized in the 1830s by the Rev. Joseph Felt. The last third of the collection was added in the late nineteenth century using a similar scheme. Some of the volumes include material on a particular topic, while others, especially those dealing with the Revolutionary era, contain records with a similar format. It is important to note that materials on a particular subject may appear in any number of volumes. Most of the volumes have a table of contents and many have been indexed. Microfilm must be used for most of the volumes for research.
King Charles I of England granted a charter to the "Governor and
Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England" in 1629. The charter
took the form of a private trading company with twenty-six men named as
incorporators. The king recognized Massachusetts as a corporate body,
with the right to rule and administer the territory under its authority.
The charter set boundaries three miles north of the Merrimack River to
three miles south of the Charles River, and from the Atlantic on the east
to the south sea on the west. Using creative geography, Massachusetts
used these boundaries to lay claim to Maine, New Hampshire, and portions
of Connecticut and New York.
The charter provided a general administrative structure for the company,
but left many details vague. Four great and general courts, with the governor,
lieutenant governor, assistants, and freemen, were to be held annually.
These courts were responsible for admitting additional freemen, choosing
officers in an annual election, settling the necessary forms of government,
and making laws and ordinances for the good and welfare of the company,
provided they were not contrary to the laws of England. General Court
orders dating from the 1630s mandated careful record-keeping practices,
thus ensuring that the Massachusetts Bay colony would be carefully documented.
The first General Court was held on October 19, 1630, in Boston. By 1634,
the inevitable increase in population and the inconvenience of gathering
for a General Court from the outlying areas led to the election of representatives
or "deputies." The assistants, a small group of wealthy men
who controlled much of the government, and deputies met as a single legislative
assembly until 1644 when tensions between the two groups caused the General
Court to divide into two bodies, which met separately.
The Puritan settlers, who made up most of the company, faced many practical
difficulties as they sought to create a workable society while preserving
their religious beliefs. During the first years of the colony's existence,
the tension between the idealism of religious beliefs and the practical
needs of a small agricultural community tested the colonists' resolve.
These tensions led the General Court to exile leading members of the colony
who threatened the religious basis of the community. Many of the exiles
later settled in other areas in New England.
By 1684 Massachusetts government was based on the provisions of the charter,
various legal codifications, and a liberal interpretation of English common
law. The colonial charter was withdrawn in 1684, in part because Massachusetts
resisted the changes demanded by the developing British imperial system.
A strong sense of local entitlement and authority pervaded the colony
and led to repeated policy conflicts with Great Britain. Despite the revocation
of the charter, the Governor and General Court continued to govern Massachusetts
until May 1686, when a provisional government under Joseph Dudley was
The inter-charter years cover the period between the end of the old colonial
government in 1686, following the revocation of the colony charter in
1684, and the resumption of the Massachusetts government under the William
and Mary charter in 1692. Three different governments were in effect during
this period, but the documentary record covering the late seventeenth
century is not nearly as complete as that of the colonial period.
In May 1686, Joseph Dudley established a provisional government, covering
Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Plymouth, and the Narragansett Country.
The president and Council were royal appointees with the same functions
as the governor and assistants. The Massachusetts General Court ceased
to function, but the new government had no power to either enact laws
or collect taxes.
Sir Edmund Andros's arrived in Boston in December 1686 with a commission
to establish the Dominion of New England. The new royal province included
the same territory as under Dudley, with the addition of Connecticut and
Rhode Island. Andros governed with a council, consisting of royal appointees
from the various colonies. They had power to enact laws and collect taxes,
actions that were previously the responsibility of the colonial legislatures.
In 1688 New York and the Jerseys were also added to the Dominion. Andros'
policies, which were dictated by the British Lords of Trade in London,
proved unpopular. The lack of a popularly elected assembly, enforcement
of the Navigation Acts, questions regarding the validity of land titles,
and the disestablishment of the Puritan church all served to alienate
residents. Governor Andros was imprisoned and the government overthrown
on April 18, 1689, shortly after the news of the English Glorious Revolution
An extralegal provisional government known as the Council for the Safety of the People and Conservation of the Peace was quickly established after the overthrow of the Dominion of New England and lasted until government under the old charter could be resumed. Returning to the form of government in effect in 1684, the new provisional government existed until 1692, when the charter for the new Province of the Massachusetts Bay was brought to Boston.
King William and Queen Mary signed a new charter on October 7, 1691.
The charter, inaugurated in Boston on May 14, 1692, officially enlarged
the territory governed by Massachusetts to include the old colony of Massachusetts
Bay, Plymouth Colony, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Maine, and parts
of Nova Scotia. The new charter significantly altered many of the forms
of colonial government.
No longer an independent colony, the Province of the Massachusetts Bay was now woven more tightly into the British imperial structure. The powers of the governor, appointed by the king rather than elected, were greatly expanded. The governor had the right to veto acts of the General Court, as did the king. The governor was the commander-in-chief of the militia and appointed all military officials; he had the right to summon, adjourn, and prorogue the General Court.
The Council, the successor to the assistants, consisted of twenty-eight
men selected from the House of Representatives. They acted as the upper
body of the legislature and advisor to the governor. No money could be
issued from the treasury without a warrant from the governor and Council.
The lower body of the legislature, known as the House of Deputies under
the old charter, was now called the House of Representatives. Freeholders,
those men holding a certain amount of property, elected the House of Representatives
annually. The General Court appointed officers, passed laws and orders,
organized all courts, established fines and punishments, and levied taxes,
all with the consent of the governor. The House alone controlled the salaries
of the governor and judicial officers.
The William and Mary Charter was modified in 1725 by the Explanatory
Charter, issued by King George I. Further strengthening the position of
the governor, this charter gave the governor the sole power to adjourn
the House of Representatives and the right to negate the House's choice
of their speaker.
The charter was modified again in 1774, when the British Parliament passed the "Intolerable Acts" as a result of the Boston Tea Party. Later in the same year the final split between the royal governor, General Thomas Gage, and the House of Representatives resulted in the establishment of the first Provincial Congress.
Spurred by the 1774 "Intolerable Acts," which significantly
altered the 1692 charter, closed the Port of Boston, and allowed the quartering
of British troops in the town of Boston, the General Court resolved itself
into the first Provincial Congress on October 7, 1774, in Concord. Among
its early actions were resolves appointing Henry Gardner as receiver-general
for the province and establishing a plan for the defense and safety of
It also organized a Committee of Safety, which functioned primarily as
an executive for the Congress. Despite its provisional nature, the Provincial
Congress came to be seen as the legitimate government for all of Massachusetts
except the area around Boston that was still under British control. The
first Congress dissolved on December 10, 1774.
After new elections, the next Provincial Congress met at Cambridge on
February 1, 1775, and later at Concord and Watertown. It was dissolved
on May 29, 1775. A third newly elected Congress met at Watertown on May
31, 1775, and dissolved on July 19, 1775, on the same day that the new
state government was inaugurated.
On May 12, 1775, after the battles of Concord and Lexington and the subsequent gathering of the Continental Army around Boston, the Provincial Congress applied to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to clarify the situation regarding a permanent government. Acting on that request, the Continental Congress resolved that Massachusetts was correct in recognizing that the positions of governor, lieutenant governor, and the Council were vacant. They recommended that the Massachusetts towns elect a new Assembly that would choose a Council from among its members. On July 19, 1775, this newly elected General Court "resumed" government under the old 1691 charter.
From July 19, 1775, until a new constitution was adopted in 1780, state
government was based on a modified version of the 1691 charter. Massachusetts
followed the advice of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and created
a temporary government. Lacking a governor or lieutenant governor, the
Council or a standing committee sat continuously as the executive. When
the General Court was in session the Council continued to meet as the
upper house of the legislature. Although cumbersome, this form of government
worked well enough to provide the necessary time for the development of
a constitutional government.
Calls to change the provisional government began in 1776, with arguments
that the Revolutionary War had ended any validity of a government based
on a charter issued by the King of Great Britain. Questions about the
process of constitution making revolved around the composition of the
constitutional convention and the need for popular ratification.
On June 17, 1777, the General Court resolved itself into a constitutional
convention and early the next year the constitution establishing the State
of the Massachusetts Bay was submitted for popular ratification. It failed
by a five to one margin. Although votes in town meeting provided a variety
of explanations for dissatisfaction with the proposed constitution, chief
among them were the absence of a bill of rights, a constitutional convention
composed of the legislature instead of specially elected delegates, lack
of complete separation of governmental powers, and a restriction on the
religious background of office holders.
On February 19, 1779, the General Court again asked the towns to vote on the expediency of drafting a new constitution and the need to elect a special constitutional convention. The resulting constitutional convention convened on September 1, 1779, and met through June 1780. The government under the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts began on October 25, 1780.
There were no elected governors during the Revolutionary period.
According to the rules of the Council, the "eldest" councilor
present always acted as the president. Seniority was determined by the
length of service in the Council - not the age of the individual. The
Council was elected from the members of the House of Representatives at
the beginning of the legislative year in May, and the order of seniority
was determined at that point.
James Otis July 27 - September 12, 1775
William Sever September 21 - October 6, 1775
James Otis October 7 - October 16, 1775
James Bowdoin October 17 - October 19, 1775
James Otis October 20 - October 23, 1775
James Bowdoin October 24 - October 25, 1775
James Otis October 26 - November 16, 1775
Walter Spooner November 29 - December 5, 1775
William Sever December 6 - December 29, 1775
Walter Spooner December 30, 1775 - January 15, 1776
William Sever January 16 - February 12, 1776
Benjamin Greenleaf February 13 - February 23, 1776
William Sever March 14 - March 29, 1776
James Otis March 30 - April 30, 1776
James Bowdoin May 1 - May 3, 1776
James Otis May 4 - May 7, 1776
James Bowdoin May 8, 1776
James Otis May 9 - May 13, 1776
James Bowdoin May 30 - June 22, 1776
Jeremiah Powell June 24 - July 4, 1776
James Bowdoin July 5 - July 16, 1776
James Bowdoin August 16 - September 25, 1776
Walter Spooner September 26 - October 4, 1776
James Bowdoin October 9 - November 16, 1776
Jeremiah Powell November 18 - December 2, 1776
James Bowdoin December 3, 1776 - February 11, 1777
Jeremiah Powell February 12 - July 10, 1777
Artemas Ward July 11 - July 21, 1777
William Sever July 22 - August 1, 1777
Artemas Ward August 2 - August 13, 1777
Jeremiah Powell August 14, 1777 - June 1, 1778
Artemas Ward June 2 - June 8, 1778
Jeremiah Powell June 9, 1778 - June 7, 1779
Artemas Ward June 8 - June 10, 1779
Jeremiah Powell June 11 - October 16, 1779
Artemas Ward October 18 - October 23, 1779
William Sever October 25 - November 9, 1779
Artemas Ward November 10 - December 1, 1779
Jeremiah Powell December 2, 1779 - June 7, 1780
James Bowdoin June 8 - August 25, 1780
Jeremiah Powell August 28 - September 5, 1780
James Bowdoin September 6 - September 16, 1780
Jeremiah Powell September 18 - October 13, 1780
James Bowdoin October 14 - October 18, 1780
Jeremiah Powell October 19 - October 25, 1780
The new constitution establishing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was
ratified on June 16, 1780, and the new government began on October 25.
The 1780 Constitution, framed by an elected constitutional convention
and ratified by a franchise unrestricted by property requirements, is
the oldest written constitution still being used for governance. It has
three parts: the Preamble, which discusses the nature of the document
and the idea of a social compact; theDeclaration of Rights, enumerating
the "natural" rights of individuals; and the Frame of Government.
Article XXX of the Declaration of Rights clearly establishes the separation
of powers within the executive, legislative, and judicial branches "to
the end it may be a government of laws and not of men." The Frame
of Government divides the legislative power between the House of Representatives
and the Senate, each with a negative vote over the other. The Senate consists
of forty members, to be chosen from electoral districts. Representatives
are elected by individual towns, with the number dependent on the population
of the town. With references linking back to both the 1629 and 1691 charters,
the legislature is still called the General Court. The executive power
in the Constitution resides in the governor and lieutenant governor. The
governor holds a qualified veto over the legislature. The Council, no
longer connected with the legislature, acts as an advisory body to the
governor. The General Court has the power to constitute all courts. Judges
are appointed by the governor and hold their positions for good behavior.
As time passed it became evident that modifications to the Constitution were needed; the lack of a specific amending procedure however prohibited any changes. The Constitution required that a referendum be held in 1795 to ask voters if they favored holding a constitutional convention. Although a majority of voters favored the convention, it did not receive the required two-thirds majority, and no changes were made. In 1820 the separation of the state of Maine and consequent shift in population finally provided the occasion to call a new constitutional convention.