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Formation of an Early American Legal System

With newly-gained American independence came a certain political antipathy toward English law, resulting in the creation of several early statutes prohibiting the citation of any English decision handed down after independence. Loyalist attorneys returned to England, and those that stayed to seize political or judicial posts under the new government found much of their talents and expertise no longer in demand. The opportunity to broaden the base of American law was considerable, with an expressed interest in Roman and French law for enlightenment and guidance. (The Code of Napoleon did not appear until the beginning of the 19th century.) However, few judges or lawyers were versed in foreign languages, and the lack of an adequate body of American case law to bridge the gap left the legal bar in splinters.

For the above reasons, the quality of lawyers in the states was palpably inferior to the systemically-trained professionals of England. Early American lawyers were generally self-taught and self-read. Respected laypersons were often elected or appointed as judges to fill the gap and keep up with the newly burgeoning nation. During the early 1800s, the state of Rhode Island had a farmer serving as its chief justice, as well as a blacksmith serving as a member of its highest court. Early judges grappled with jurisprudential conflicts to form new law that would fit the peculiar needs of a young growing country, and especially, the needs peculiar to their own jurisdictions. Eventually, judges “rode circuits,” i.e., they traveled from county seat to county seat, hearing cases, and lawyers often traveled with them.

As the volume of new American case law grew, the uncertainty of earlier parochial court decisions gave way to more predictable and standard outcomes. Local judges increasingly strove to shape their own decisions so as to provide consistency with that of other regional (and eventually, state) jurisdictions.

By the end of the Civil War (1860s), the influence of English law upon America was negligible, although familiar procedures, vocabulary, and conceptual approaches to legal jurisprudence survived and were incorporated into American law. A few states originally paralleled the English system by distinguishing barristers from solicitors within the legal profession (Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Virginia). However, by the mid-1800s, such distinctions were dropped in favor of a single class of lawyers who dealt directly with both clients and courtrooms.

Inside Formation of an Early American Legal System