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Colonial Period - Criminal Law

laws crime individual colonists

Colonial laws emphasized the survival of the settlement by keeping social order. Survival relied on positive contributions from every individual. Given the strong religious beliefs of settlements, colonial law was most concerned with repentance and the return of the defendant back into community life. The colonists also believed in individual liberty (freedom), as first expressed in the 1215 English document, the Magna Carta. Though the Magna Carta had actually established very limited rights, by the 1600s it was believed to define a wide range of individual freedoms. With survival plus individual liberty in mind, magistrates and community leaders set about defining crime.

Policing the Colonies

In the seventeenth century there was no professional police force. Ordinary citizens generally volunteered to enforce orderly conduct. Some communities such as the Dutch settlements in New York and in Boston tried paying "watchmen" in the mid-1600s to look after the behavior of their citizens, but the programs were dropped due to expenses. Nightwatchmen patrolled the streets looking for fires and disturbances. Constables, on duty during the day, apprehended offenders and enforced local ordinances (laws). The early colonial policing system proved loose and unreliable.

As the colonies became more established and populated, the governor in each colony began appointing sheriffs to enforce laws. The sheriff, running the jails, selecting juries, and managing prisoners, served as the top government agent in the county. Usually the community helped the sheriff to capture suspects. Sometimes a posse, a group of people assembled by a sheriff or other county official to help maintain order, was organized. A coroner (a public official who determined the cause of death when someone died unnaturally) was also appointed to look into violent or unexplained deaths, and to organize special juries to rule on cause of death cases.

Colonists, particularly those in the Puritan settlements of New England, considered sin as crime and crime as sin. Since the criminal justice system was a part of the existing religious order of the community, all offenses were against God and society. Laws in the Puritan regions were filled with religious messages. The 1648 Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts, for example, often quoted biblical passages.

Puritans on their way to church. Puritans had strict punishments against any deviation from the strict laws of their religion. (© Bettmann/Corbis)


Colonists considered lying, idleness (not working), drunkenness, various sexual offenses, and even general bad behavior as crime. Playing certain games in the Puritan colonies, such as shuffleboard or cards, was a crime. Those who flirted could face fines and warnings. Punishment for these lesser offenses was similar to parents punishing their children. Many of the early colonial laws were aimed at keeping the servants, slaves, and youth in line. The courts used shame, scorn, and humiliation to teach lessons for misbehavior. More severe crimes led to whipping and placing the guilty in wooden frames that had holes for heads and hands, called the pillory.

Heresy (holding a belief that conflicts with church teachings) was a major crime that could lead to the most severe sentence—banishment (being forced to leave the colony). A banished individual caught returning to the settlement could be put to death. Another major crime was blasphemy (showing a lack of respect toward God). Blasphemers could be sentenced to a whipping, to the pillory, have a hole made in their tongue with a red-hot iron, or stand for a period of time on the gallows (a wooden structure built for hangings) with a rope around their neck. Other laws punished colonists for not properly observing the Sabbath (Sunday, observed as a day of rest and worship by most Christians) and skipping religious services. Some colonial laws even banned traveling on Sundays. Various forms of these Sunday laws existed in all colonies.

During the early colonial period settlers believed in the supernatural, or unexplained occurrences. The world was full of omens, signs, and marks representing the invisible world. As a result, witchcraft was considered one of the most serious crimes. It was believed that people who practiced witchcraft and had made pacts with the devil.



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almost 2 years ago

Colonial Period - Criminal Law

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about 5 years ago

I am not understanding if people can not read between the lines or if they want something handed right down to them word for word, but this article is very helpful. No, it does not list the laws but if one would read it very carefully, it tells the punishment for the violation of many things, which would obviously be accurate with the law itself. For example, it was obvious that it was against the law to lie, be drunk, or commit sexual offenses, etc.

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over 8 years ago

Unlike your last user i believe this has some laws but mostly punishment try to balance it a little

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over 4 years ago

thank you so much!!!!!!!! Because of you I got so much information from this article. Thanks again and publish more!

Jracoon

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over 4 years ago

this is very helpful im doing project with my students in my social studies class and it helps alot thxs:)

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over 5 years ago

This is very helpful. I'm doing a report on the laws in colonial times, and I have such good laws writen down because of this sight. Thank you very much!

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almost 6 years ago

This is actually a very solid introduction to the main themes of law in the American colonies--hardly pointless or "rubbish." Read Kermit Hall's magisterial work on American law and you will find that everything in this post is accurate. I also detect the influence of several excellent colonial historians, including David Hall. If you want a list of laws, why don't you just read the actual statutes? They're all over the internet. Surely a 7th grade teacher can figure out how to do that.

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over 5 years ago

hi

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over 8 years ago

This does have some laws listed but as the last poster applied it is mainly punishment you should try and balance it.

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almost 2 years ago

no comment since 3 years ago

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almost 5 years ago

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almost 2 years ago

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over 6 years ago

Weren't colonial laws based upon British law?
I'm sure there were probably small variants particular to the colonies (or a colony in particular), but since the original 13 colonies were under the British Crown they would follow laws passed though the parliament (hence the feeling of estrangement the colonies felt with England)
A good expository of the is found on Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Revolution

Another site listing the various "Acts" of Parliament in relation to the colonies:
http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/revolution/rev-prel.htm

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about 5 years ago

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almost 5 years ago

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almost 8 years ago

i agree this material is not useful at all, i need information on laws in colonial america.....

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over 7 years ago

yea you should really balance it

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almost 5 years ago

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almost 5 years ago

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over 8 years ago

I'm sorry, but I did not find any of this information helpful. I am a teacher of a seventh grade history class. We are looking for a list of the laws, not this rubbish. If I were you, I would realize that the information on this site is completely pointless, and would update/change it imediately.



Sincerely,

Alicia Hornbake

Youngston County School

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over 1 year ago

They should not do this to kids

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about 1 month ago

i like this website just make it a little bit more kid friendly and write some more about the topic

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2 months ago

You guys are just idiots I hate you

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4 months ago

I used this website for an essay it was good

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6 months ago

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