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Colonial Period

Criminal Law

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.



Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawColonial Period - European Settlement Of North America, Factors Influencing Early Colonial Law, Differences From The English Criminal Justice System