Sunday, July 11

The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts - 1648

Ryan's post about the printing of the Declaration piqued my memory about printing and ancient (by American commonwealth government’ standards) texts. As a result, I’ve written an article about a book I recently picked up, an effort that required quite a bit of research. We hope you enjoy it.

Two weeks ago, in one of my favorite rare and used book stores, I happened across a reprint of The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts from 1648. The reprint was set in the best possible reproduction of the original typeface and retained the grammar, spelling, and ligatures. More importantly, this book codified the first set of rights in New England and served as a foundation for all future U.S. law. Some of the content taken verbatim from the Liberties exists to this day, like the oath taken before giving evidence at trial, “I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

The content is fascinating; colonial Massachusetts was a strict and harsh place. The "Capital Laws" were numerous and you could be executed for just about any offense you can imagine, no matter how frivolous (by today's standards). I knew very little of publishing in that period, nor did I know anything of the book’s own history.

Cover of the Laws and Liberties, Stinehour Edition

The edition of my book was printed by Stinehour Press, in Vermont, on Finch Vanilla Opaque Text, using a redrawn version of Caslon to come close to the original Leyden Roman style. Sadly, Stinehour Press, a well-known artisan printer has since gone out of business. The book is a beautiful reproduction. The history of the original text is far more complex.

The Massachusetts colony, according to some reports, only had about four printers in the 17th century and even this is not clear. The last remaining intact copy of the Liberties was purchased in 1911 by Henry E. Huntington whose library was responsible for providing the original to the Harvard University Press for its facsimile publication in 1929.

The original edition was published during a fascinating time for print and the early European immigration to the Americas. Before we go on, we must take note of the technology and migratory timelines involved in our story. Our book, The Lauus and Libertyes of Massachusetts, was printed in 1648. The Mayflower had arrived only twenty eight years earlier, in 1620. Shakespeare had died a mere four years before that, in 1616. The printing press had been mechanized by Joannes Gutenberg two hundred years earlier. The American Revolution would not occur for another one hundred twenty seven years.

Much has been been written about the difficulties of life in the early Massachusetts Bay Colony, a history of hardship that is responsible for the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Goods brought to the colonies used precious cargo space on the small ships that endured a treacherous journey across the violent and fickle Atlantic ocean. In the first year of settlement, nearly half the colonists died. This new wilderness spurned many myths and popularized the adventures of the pilgrims in England, particularly through the publication of a pamphlet called Mourt’s Relation.

Frontispiece of Mourt's Relation, via

It was in this environment that a minister, the Rev. Joseph Glover, from Surrey, decided to leave his post in England and embark with his family on a journey to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Unfortunately for the Reverend, the journey had grown no less dangerous in the two decades since the original settlement, and in attempting to cross the ocean in 1638, he fell ill and died. In the histories written by his family, he brought along with him, besides his family, a printing press intended for Harvard College in Cambridge, Stephen Daye whom was a “printer” and three servants who were bound to work the press. This press was destined to be the first printing press in America.

The Cambridge Press was established in 1639, using the “Daye Press,” the press operated by Stephen Daye thanks to the shipping of the (then deceased) Rev. Glover. Our story becomes more curious as Stephen Daye was not a particularly good press superintendent, though he was said to be a descendant of the typographer John Day. His spelling, punctuation, and typography were generally poor. His first work, the Freeman’s Oath, was purportedly less than impressive as a work of art, but served as the foundation for the entire history of American printing. Unfortunately, that original broadsheet, printed in 1639, has long been lost to recorded history (though the oath remains).

This brings us to three questions: who published The Lauus and Libertyes of Massachusetts, who printed it, and what press was it printed on?

Records indicate that given the timeline, production in 1647 for the Cambridge press was done by Samuel Green, under the authority of Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard University (then Harvard College). The Daye press, the one established by Daye in honor of Rev. Glover, was apparently still the only press in use. So, we can answer the three questions definitively but one curiousity remains: what did the Daye press actually look like? The Laws and Liberties are set with a complex number of glyphs, strange ligatures, and tildes that dot the text, as do beautiful scrollwork and rules. The collection of type was clearly sophisticated.

The "Capital Laws" Section of the Liberties

According to a citation of the Cambridge Historical Society, this is an image of the press itself:

Image of the Daye Press, attributed to the Cambridge Historical Society

It’s hard to imagine the experience that these individuals undertook in the name of print. The colonies were difficult frontier to trespass, a place where no luxury was permitted. It is in this place, with no more than 2000 colonists, that the foundations of the modern press and the world of publication were poured. Rev. Glover died in his attempt to ferry a press to the new world, his debtor Stephen Daye carried forth the press and tradition without him, and under the authority of the General Court of Massachusetts, the first set of rights were published in New England.

Through time these ideals and documents were carried and in 2010, three hundred sixty two years after its publication, I bought a beautifully printed edition of The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts for ten dollars in a used bookstore. If this doesn’t underscore the legacy of print and the fundamentals of communication in America, nothing does. As book publishing and print wane in our new digital age, it will be easy to forget the centuries of history, blood, and ink that make up our very social fabric. At the least, the next time I use my iPhone, I’ll think of Stephen Daye and Rev. Glover, without whom our modern communication conveniences might never have existed.

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