It would be a mistake to assume that law in early America begins with the transplantation of European legal forms across the Atlantic. Like all human communities, native societies had, over the course of centuries, developed ways of regulating behavior and settling disputes. Although there was wide variation between native peoples, most native legal apparatuses were intimately connected to an individual group’s system of clans and kinship. Clans were generally charged with punishing crimes including murder and adultery and the retaliatory aspects of clan-based law have been emphasized by many scholars.
Gradually, as native peoples came into contact with various sorts of Europeans, they were forced to confront alien legal forms. On rare occasions, Native Americans were able to turn European American laws to their advantage, but more often the application of these laws resulted in losing their land and sovereignty. Tribal law today remains a complex tangle of indigenous, local, state, and federal statutes.
The colonial American legal system was never a coherent whole. Each colony in British North America was basically responsible for the creation of its own legal system. Because of this, the law and courts in early America were a confusing hodgepodge of different applications of English legal theory, adapted for use in a variety of American settings. Most ordinary colonists knew little about English law; a few highly educated men knew slightly more. In England, a complex of courts both civil and religious regulated community life; most people dealt with the law through the person of the justice of the peace.
The first colonial laws were the charters granted to various colonizing companies for establishing English colonies in the Americas. These charters combined feudal social ideas with forward-looking ideas about profit and capitalism; they also compacted private law and public law into a single document. As it turned out, most of the charters had relatively little effect on the systems of law and courts that developed in the colonies.
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