This course surveys the history of American law from the beginnings of colonization through the end of the Civil War. This page contains a full course description, hyperlinks, and past exams.
This course will survey American legal history from colonial times to the end of the
Civil War, emphasizing the ongoing relationship between legal development and
general social, economic, political and intellectual trends. Topics to be covered in
this process include the early New England legal codes, the origins of American
slavery, the place of women in colonial law, the Salem witchcraft trials, the rise of the
American legal profession in the eighteenth century, the impact of economic growth
and industrialization on early nineteenth-century American legal doctrine, the
development of the American prison system, the codification movement, and the
methodology of American legal education prior to the Civil War. Evaluation will be by
The following links provide connections to Internet resources pertinent to this class:
All exams were administered under the same rules. Each exam was three hours long, open book. In each case students were instructed to answer three of the four questions; all questions were weighted equally.
- Discuss the factors that contributed to the rise of legal positivism, first in seventeenth century England, and then in eighteenth century America.
- Throughout the colonial period, some (and on occasion, many) American colonists were concerned with either the possibility or the fact of English imperial "interference" in their legal affairs. How was this concern manifested, and to what extent was it justified?
- "The punishments which a society imposes on convicted criminals are eloquent - if generally grim - testimonials to that society's structure and values." Discuss in light of American penological practices from the colonial period through the mid-nineteenth century.
- "The history of American law in the early nineteenth century is primarily the history of
- "The impact of religious conviction and belief on colonial American law has traditionally been over-estimated; religion was certainly not irrelevant to early American judges and
law-makers, but it played, at most, a secondary role in early American legal history." Discuss.
- You are a Massachusetts lawyer living in the year 1770. Write an entry in your diary describing your day's work and commenting on some of the legal issues that concern you.
- "Far from improving with time (as a superficial reading of judicial precedents and legislation might suggest), the situation of American women actually deteriorated between the early seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries."
- In what ways and for what reasons did the laws and legal practices of the American South differ from those of the American North between 1600 and 1860?
- "The ways in which Americans thought about the law in the colonial period were never 'nationally' distinctive; by choice or by force, Americans simply espoused theories and understandings of law which were in vogue in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, although some legal ideas which were 'current' in England admittedly took time to become 'current' across the Atlantic." Discuss.
- "The Salem witchcraft trials were the horrible by-product of powerful political, social and moral crises which simultaneously gripped the colony of Massachusetts in the early 1690s." Discuss.
- "Despite its usefulness in illuminating certain aspects of the American legal past, the 'Horwitz thesis' threatens to reduce the complexities of American legal history in the late 18th and early 19th century to a single causal dimension." Do you agree or disagree with this statement? If you agree, where else would you look for plausible explanations for American legal conditions and legal changes in this period? If you disagree with the statement, how would you defend the legitimacy of Horwitz's approach?
- You are an American law student living in the year 1830. Write a letter home to your mother telling her about your legal education, comparing and contrasting it with the legal education your grandfather received as a young man in the 1760s.