Sunday, May 29, 2011

Common Law in Colonial America

I picked up a copy of William E. Nelson's slim volume, The Common Law in Colonial America, volume 1, The Cheseapeake and New England, 1607-1660 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), at an online Oxford University Press sale.

It's of interest to those trying to track the role of common law in American laws. I also found it an interesting quick overview of the New England and Chesapeake colonial societies, how different they were, and how they both used the English common law in shaping their different legal traditions. Virginia and New England remain interestingly different places even after centuries of change and homogenization.

Here's a taste from the introduction:

As it functioned after 1625 in Virginia, the rule of law mattered not because the law had a particular content, but because its content was known, fixed, and not subject to arbitrary change [allowing lenders to count on being able to collect debts]. In contrast, the content of the law mattered enormously in colonial New England, where . . . a key issue was the discretion of magistrates. The magistrates wanted to rule by the law of God, but most of the people in the towns found God's law too ambiguous. {9}

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