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The Colonial Period

The development of the law in the thirteen American colonies between 1620 and 1776 was marked by the willingness of the colonists to apply elements of English common law and to devise new, and often simpler, ways of handling legal matters. Because many of the colonial settlements were geographically isolated, the law varied from place to place, and local traditions, customs, religious beliefs, and economic conditions often played major roles in shaping the law.

The Pilgrims who left England in 1620 to settle in Massachusetts were escaping from religious intolerance and persecution. Their religious beliefs, rooted in a strict version of Protestantism, led them to create a government that was dominated by the church leadership. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, Massachusetts had become a more heterogeneous and secular society with a growing commercial class that created a demand for trained lawyers and judges.

Other colonies were shaped by different traditions. In Pennsylvania the Quakers played a decisive role in the development of law and social arrangements. In the southern colonies, law became an instrument to support the institution of slavery. Laws in slaveholding colonies presumed that slaves were chattel (personal property) rather than human beings.

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