Roots of American Law

Virginia’s disastrous early years demonstrate some of the problems with English colonial law. Granted to a private company, the early colony at Jamestown was failing miserably to turn a profit, and in fact was proving quite deadly for its inhabitants. Sir Thomas Dale, charged with the task of turning things around for the company, implemented a code of Lawes Divine, Morall, and Martiall, a strict system of discipline designed to bring order to the chaotic Chesapeake.

As English Virginia grew and expanded, particularly after Opechancanough’s coup of 1622, it became clear that the planters, not the company, were in charge; they began to revise the legal system to suit their needs. Accordingly, most of the cases heard by Virginia’s early courts were related to servitude. Indentured servants routinely received longer terms of service for various infractions, including running away and getting pregnant. They could also sue their masters after being treated unfairly for instance, not receiving proper freedom dues upon release from their indentures. As such servants were gradually phased out in favor of Africans who were slaves for life, the legal system changed. Eventually, African slaves would not be allowed to sue or own their own land.

The Puritans of Massachusetts were familiar with legal persecution; church authorities in the first half of the seventeenth century had mounted increasingly aggressive campaigns against the reform-minded sect. The Puritans were also extremely legalistic in their outlook. They viewed the Bible as a source of law, but their statutes were closer to English jurisprudence. Still, not everyone who moved to New England was a Puritan. Court records indicate that adultery, absence from church, and other crimes were committed regularly. Nathaniel Ward’s Body of Liberties, written in 1641, codified many of the Puritansideas regarding law and order. Rights were to be protected (especially in the case of men and property), and accused persons could expect a fast jury trial. All male church members were given the status of freeman, meaning they could vote and hold office. Ministers, although powerful, were forbidden from holding office.

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Roots of American Law

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