English law, structure and traditions, was the basis for the early American justice system. The biggest influence on American law was English common-law or judge made law as it is sometimes called. English Common-law is legal precedent based on judges rulings in different courts in England such as: “Kings Bench which dealt with crimes, the Court of Common Pleas which dealt with disputes over property and personal injuries, and the Court of Exchequer which had jurisdiction over disputes arising out of tax collection”.
Less serious crimes were normally disposed of in what English and early America called local courts, a. k. a. Justice of the Peace. We also borrowed from the English court system a court that handled disputes of small amounts of money this is what we call today Small Claims Court. The English also had various other local courts that the colonies used as well. Codified laws or that is to say laws that are written down in a book of codes or body of laws were used by some of the more organized colonies.
These codified laws were also loosely based on English law not to say that we took their laws and directly copied them down but suffice to say that most were directly related to English law. The colonies put their own spin on these laws and created new laws to fit their needs. Trial by jury, grand jury indictments, and procedures like cross-examination, evidentiary procedures were also used by English and colony court systems. Other rights like innocent until proven guilty and the right to know the charges that have been levied against you were also taken from the English court system.
Although, some English courts were not obligated to use these fundamental rights. Although, they followed many procedures and copied many court systems from the English the colonies did not use all of them especially the procedures or court systems they felt were unjust or could easily be corrupted. Take for instance “the Court of Star Chamber, where defendants could be subjected to torture, might not be informed of the exact charges against them, lawyers had no right to cross examine witnesses and defendants received no jury trials”.
Because England had no written or codified law the colonies could not simply bring them to the New World. Some states did use English charters that gave them a good beginning at a cohesive government system to use as a guide. Although, colonies like the Pilgrims at Plymouth also, Rhode Island and Connecticut, which were founded by exiles from Massachusetts, did not have charters. They had to establish written rules to govern themselves. American constitutional wisdom and political ideas stemmed from English traditions and forms of government.
Since the colonies were far removed from England and its authority the colonies were left to fend for themselves for the first fifty or so years. At the time colonists did not realize what great an opportunity they were given. They were handed a golden chance to create a loosely English based but new form of government. This was the beginning of what we call today America. Because the colonists were left to their own devices they developed and nurtured a cultural heritage of their own.
Proudly claiming the rights of Englishman, Americans, identified those rights with their own legal and political institutions, which, though similar to England’s, retains significant differences especially the absence of a hereditary aristocracy, the greater degree of religious Liberty, and the broader political participation that characterized Colonial life”. Initially there were three types of colonies in America: charter, proprietary and royal. A charter colony was settled by individual companies that received a document (charter) from the King giving them land and authority to form a specific government.
The second, proprietary gave certain individuals a similar document and in both cases the King did not have the authority to name governors and other political officials. The third, royal colony was under direct authority of the King, he appointed governors and other political appointments. All three types of colonies drastically changed over the next hundred and fifty years until it all came to a screeching halt in the 1770s. During that hundred and fifty year time-span many political and cultural changes were addressed by the colonists.
Most of these changes came about because of the constant tightening of control by the king on the new colonies. The King began to realize that the colonies were a good source of income for England by means of taxation. Every colony had some type of local representative assembly that gave people a voice in government similar to England’s form of representation. But the colonies did not have a voice and England’s government they had no representatives in Parliament. This was the beginning of a change in thinking by the colonists. They began having notions of what form of government would best represent all people not just the few.
Which in turn slowly transcend into what we call the Constitution of United States. Arriving at one reason for the American Revolution would be nearly impossible. Although, most reasons such as: taxation without representation, Stamp Act of 1765, and The Proclamation of 1763 all stem from the notion of governing rights of England over the colonies. Most Americans believed that Parliament had limited authority over the colonies. Both England and the colonies agreed that Parliament had legal rights to pass laws governing commerce and the defense of its kingdom.
The reason colonists believe Parliament had no right to govern them except for the aforementioned is simply stated they had no representation in Parliament. Being beleaguered by constant heavy handed British politics the colonists were becoming more and more agitated by the increasing aristocracy in England. By increasing aristocracy I mean unyielding power over the poor than just plain old being self-indulgent. This caused the counties to become more solidified with regards to England’s legal authority over the colonies.
As I stated earlier, most Americans conceded that Parliament had the right to pass laws regulating the commerce and defense of the empire. But they insisted that the British principal of consent by the governed, the ancient charters that guaranteed them the rights of Englishman, and the customary practices of the previous 150 years all precluded Parliament from substituting its laws for those of the Colonial assemblies. Some believe that if England and the colonies agreed on the rights of Parliament to pass laws governing the colonies that possibly the American Revolution may not have happened.