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The Early Years of American Law

A New Start

On the eve of the open hostilities with Britain that led to the American Revolutionary War, the colonists formed the Continental Congress that began meeting in Philadelphia in 1774. For the next fifteen years the Continental Congress laid the foundation for their nation including a newly emerging judicial system. Yet while war raged, the existing colonial legal systems mostly came to a halt. The top priority of the colonists was to win the war. One crime of major interest to the colonists, treason, was prosecuted throughout the war. Treason is the attempt to overthrow one's own government by assisting another country. Charges of treason were brought against those colonists remaining loyal (called loyalists) to Britain. The colonists applied a broad definition of treason to the loyalists' actions. If loyalists provided any support to the British, colonists assumed authority to seize their property. Though treason became more specifically defined in the U.S. Constitution, it remained the most serious of crimes in the new democratic republic.

The colonists fought a difficult, bloody battle for their freedom. With victory in 1783, the successful rebellion resulted in political independence and the creation of a new federal legal system. In addition, ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 transformed the thirteen colonies into a confederation or union of thirteen states.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawThe Early Years of American Law - Colonial Freedom, Britain's Push For Greater Control, A New Start, A New Criminal Court System