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1600-1754: Law and Justice: Chronology

1600-1754: Law and Justice: Chronology





  • Dec. A conspiracy against the council in Jamestown, Virginia, is discovered; the leader of the rebellion, George Kendall, is executed for mutiny.


  • Dales Code is implemented in Jamestown, mixing military law with religious precepts to bring order to the poorly run colony.


  • Edward Coke, one of the greatest commentators on English law, is forced to resign as chief justice of the Kings Bench after contesting the authority of James I. Cokes Reports (1600-1615) and Institutes on the Laws of England (1628-1644) become the chief sources for Americans studying English legal principles.


  • 30 July The House of Burgesses meets at Old Church, Jamestown, Virginia, becoming the first representative assembly in the American colonies.


  • 21 Nov. Forty-one male passengers of the ship Mayflower sign a compact before establishing the colony of Plymouth. In the Mayflower Compact the settlers agree to frame such just and equal laws... as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.


  • James I revokes Virginias charter and makes it a royal colony with an appointed governor.


  • 30 Sept. John Billington, a member of the original Pilgrim band, is hanged for murder.


  • Cecilius Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, founds Maryland, the first permanent proprietary English colony.



  • Anne Hutchinson and several followers are tried by the Massachusetts General Court for sedition; they are convicted and banished from the colony.


  • Virginia enacts the first American statute regulating and licensing taverns.


  • 14 Jan. The first written constitution in the colonies, Roger Ludlows Fundamental Orders, is adopted by representatives from Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield, Connecticut; it remains in effect until 1818.


  • The Reverend Nathaniel Ward proposes his Body of Libertyes as a legal code for Massachusetts. Like Rev. John Cottons plan, it combines Old Testament laws with English common statutes; it is also rejected.



  • The people of Rhode Island receive the Rhode Island Patent from Parliament, a document similar to a royal charter but without the requirement that the governor be appointed by the English government.


  • Massachusetts makes it legal to pass a debt from one person to another, in essence allowing the transfer of wealth by paper transactions.


  • Massachusetts adopts the Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes, its first complete legal code and a mixture of English common law and biblical rules. Based on the Reverend Nathaniel Wards 1641 Body of Libertyes, it influences legal codes in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.


  • The Act of Religious Toleration in Maryland recognizes the rights of both Catholics and Protestants to worship.


  • Parliament passes the first of many Navigation Acts, which regulate trade between the American colonies, England, and other parts of the world.


  • 22 Sept. The General Provincial Court in Patuxent, Maryland, impanels the first allwoman jury in the colonies. The defendant, Judith Catchpole, is accused of murdering her child, although she claims that she had never been pregnant; the jury acquits her.


  • The government of Barbados creates the first comprehensive slave code in the English colonies.


  • Virginias House of Burgesses diverges from English law by making the children of enslaved women slaves, even if the father is free.
  • New France becomes a royal colony.


  • A Maryland slavery law prevents slaves who had converted to Christianity from claiming their freedom on the basis of previous English court decisions; similar laws providing for the lifelong servitude of blacks are passed in Virginia, the Carolinas, New York, and New Jersey.


  • 28 Feb. Six months after England conquers New Netherland (and renames it New York), the Dukes Laws are implemented. Dutch mayoral, or burgomaster, courts combine with English manorial and county courts.


  • The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina attempt to establish Carolina as a feudal colony with a representative assembly.


  • 5 May William Penns Frame of Government goes into effect in Pennsylvania, providing for a governor, council, and assembly to be elected by freeholders. In addition a new legal code forbids capital punishment and imposes sentences and fines instead of bodily punishments, all designed to reform of fenders instead of merely punishing them.


  • The New England colonies are combined into the Dominion of New England, and Sir Edmund Andros is appointed governor-general. All representative assemblies are replaced by a nonelective council nominated by the royal governor.



  • The English Parliament adopts the Bill of Rights, which becomes the basis for the American Bill of Rights in 1791.
  • Apr. The Dominion of New England is dissolved.
  • June Jacob Leisler seizes control of New York.



  • The Salem witchcraft trials end in 342 convictions and 19 executions.


  • The authority of English vice-admiralty courts, which hear cases pertaining to maritime trade but without juries, is extended to America.



  • South Carolina residents, frightened by the Stono Rebellion of the previous year, enact the most complete slave code of the colonial era; it influences Southern slave laws until the Civil War.


  • Prompted by fears of the Negro Plot, colonial authorities in New York burn thirteen African Americans, hang eighteen others (plus four whites), and deport seventy more.


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