In theory the Puritans and Pilgrims left England in pursuit of freedom. On religious grounds the Pilgrims were being asked to leave but the Puritans had concluded that the English Church was straying from the scriptures so they took the initiative. Yet, Parliament gave each group a business contract. The land is yours, settle it, grow things, send some back to England at the end of every harvest. Mine things, fish things, build ships, but sell them back to England.[i]
Each charter gave the immigrating company a territory and a license to regulate laws as long as it did not contradict the laws of England. The Colonial laws for murder, manslaughter, indenture, impressment, jury trial by your peers, habeas corpus et al, matured through the middle of the 18th Century and followed English common law practices. After all, most Colonial lawyers and judges were initially trained by lawyers from England. Each could have served well in the others court.
England was the most civilized nation in the Western Hemisphere, thanks to their “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and subsequent Bill of Rights of 1689. From herein Parliament became the only authority in England to make laws. The King had been promoted out of the process. However, laws since the English Constitution seemed to work best for those in power, with land or wealth. One individual, both a Tory politician, professor, judge and jurist responded to the duplicity. As a result of the merger of written and unwritten laws, Sir William Blackstone wrote four volumes to help the common man navigate through the English legal system. The four volumes covered the rights of a person, of things, of private and public wrongs. Today they are referred to as Blackstone’s Commentaries but were published as the “Commentaries on the Laws of England”. The last volume was published posthumously in 1783.
During Blackstone’s lifetime there were six million Englishmen[ii] and two million Colonists,[iii] yet more copies of his Commentaries were purchased in the Colonies than England. Short of the Puritan Bible, Blackstone’s Commentaries were necessary reading for the common citizen to survive especially since the Colonies, Scotland and Ireland believed they were subjugated to second class citizenship. Along with a lack of representation in Parliament this unwritten second class status further divided the Colonies from its Parent.
Parliament outsmarted itself. The legitimate establishment of Colonial legislatures instead of representation at Parliament, opened the door to a natural and pragmatic interpretation of English law. While the practice of setting precedents in common law were the same here and there, the pragmatic decisions soon caused conflict. For instance, money was scarce in the Colonies. If a judgement was rendered against you there were “New World” standards or choices to satisfy the verdict. You could pay the fine, go to jail or become indentured to the plaintiff for three years or until you decided that options one or two were a better course. The three-year option was imposed by common law since many Colonist, particularly the young indentured, intransigent seamen and the poor had no hard currency. Then consider the conflict that did arise as the law was applied to the British military in Boston. If you joined a local militia generally you committed for a period of time limited by your family’s ability to support themselves or the need to harvest. The British planned a military campaign that endured until they won or lost. If you left early were you a deserter? You can correctly guess the divergent views of the Colonist and British military. The requirement of the Colonies to purchase taxed English goods lead to smuggling on a wide scale. Would you have considered John Hancock a smuggler? His ship the Liberty was confiscated by British customs agents based on their interpretation of customs duties. John lost a great ship and 900 bottles of Madeira wine. By the way, the Liberty was converted to a British Naval frigate in 1768 and in July 1769, the Liberty confiscated two Newport Rhode Island commercial vessels. The locals boarded the Liberty, off loaded the British seamen, then sailed it to Goat Island and scuttled and burned her. That should clue you in to the inevitable conflict to come, both legal and military as judged by Englishmen of the same blood.
Early in the 18th Century numerous confrontations between the British military, Parliament and the Thirteen Colonies came about while each were interpreting law based on the same principles. Our blog on “The Rose”, “These Colonist were a match for Parliament” and “Private Riley’s Debt”, will provide additional examples.
Our next blog will discuss the disdain that developed between the British military, the Colonial militias and citizens. Perhaps that ancient proverb described it best, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. In this case, Barely!
[i] A paraphrase of many entries from many historical interpretations both English and American now and then.
Roots of conflict : British armed forces and colonial Americans, 1677-1763 / Douglas Edward Leach.
[ii] http://www.thepotteries.org/dates/census.htm http://www.tacitus.nu/historical-atlas/population/british.htm
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirteen_Colonies slaves not counted.