The Duke’s Laws

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The Dukes Laws


Conquered Territory. New Netherland became New York when England defeated the Netherlands in the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1664. But English authorities confronted a delicate situation with the Dutch culture that had grown there since the colonys founding four decades earlier. They had to accommodate their new subjects and at the same time not alienate them.

Accommodation. The Dutch courts that had developed before 1664 were called burgomaster (mayoral) courts. They used a legal system derived from Roman law, unlike English courts, which used English common law. The burgomaster courts were awkward for the English, but the new governor, Francis Nichols, recognized that some accommodation would have to be worked out if he was to rule the colony. The agreements that resulted were known as the Dukes Laws because they operated under the authority of the proprietor, the kings brother, James, the Duke of York. Nichols agreed to preserve the authority of the Dutch courts if the Dutch citizens would swear allegiance to the English Crown; they agreed. Where English Puritans settled, Nichols created courts like the county courts of Massachusetts. And the prominent Dutch and English politicians who received enormous land grants on both sides of the Hudson River were allowed to administer their own manorial courts, just as the landed gentry had done in England since feudal times, although few in fact did.

Cultural Tensions. For several decades two different kinds of legal systems existed within New York simultaneously, but tensions between the Dutch and English settlers still did not disappear. The Dutch who gained economically from English rule formed an alliance with the English, but other Dutch residents felt alienated. An attempt in 1673 to restore Dutch rule failed. Members of the older Dutch community were particularly upset by the creation of the Dominion of New England in 1686, and after ousting the royal government some of them briefly ran the colony, in what became known as Leislers Rebellion.


Peter Charles Hoffer, Law and People in Colonial America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992);

Michael Kämmen, Colonial New York: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).