Colonial American Law Books

Erik Berner turns this week to some surprising pre-Revolutionary War law books in the collection of the St. Ignatius College Library.

Charter Granted by Their Majesties King William and Queen Mary to the Inhabitants of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England (Boston: 1726, B. Green).

Images in Flickr Archive.

Samuel Peters, Blue Laws of New Haven Colony (Hartford: 1838, Case).

The remaining eighteen books in the secular legislation section all deal ostensibly with American law. It is not surprising that most of the books in this section were American titles. The late nineteenth century was a time when education, particularly the type offered at St. Ignatius College, was largely an effort to help assimilate and “Americanize” the poor and immigrants into “civilized” American life. As I discovered in my research on the development of legal education, the law was mostly a local practice at this time. If a young man had higher legal ambitions, he would hope to become a part of the Washington legal community or a politician; international law was not often practiced outside of politics.

It was difficult to juggle so many titles while doing research, so I broke them into rough categories which has shaped how I organize my remaining posts. My categorization encompasses: pre-revolutionary (or colonial) law, laws and statutes (the actual text of post-revolutionary law), reference and commentary (interpretation and explication of the law), and, lastly, books expressly intended for academic purposes. In this post, I start with the earliest American law books on the college library shelves.

The copy of the 1726 Charter survives in Loyola’s Special Collections today.

There are two titles that address colonial law in British North America before the American Revolution. The first is a Charter Granted by Their Majesties King William and Queen Mary to the Inhabitants of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England (1726). The other is the Blue Laws of New Haven Colony (1838) by Samuel Peters. The latter is a difficult book, as will be discussed, consisting not of real laws, but fake ones.

The Charter is short, simply granting the colonists of Massachusetts Bay the right to form a colony, and is bound with the much longer Acts and Bylaws of the colony. Published in 1726 in Boston, the purpose or audience of the book is hard to glean. Though at first it was my guess that the two texts were bound together by the librarians at St Ignatius College (or their Loyola successors) after acquisition, similar printings of the Charter, in digital surrogate, suggest that the Acts and Bylaws may have been bound together with the Charter from the start. At any rate, the two that I have viewed bound them together and the connection makes sense; why not have all your official documents pertaining to the laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony bound together in one handy volume?

Signature of a previous owner of the 1726 Charter.

The Acts and Bylaws contains an almost obsessively detailed table of contents which one can easily reference any number of legal topics, leading me to conjecture that it may have been used for the sort of legal education common at the time or for individual reference. It seems that this is useful for its historicity and common law precedent to later US law, and one can see why it would be kept by the Jesuits. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was, after all, one of the earliest permanent European settlements in the present United States and its elaborate statutes and cases still serve as common law foundation for the country’s laws today. (This particular colony could, perhaps, be of even more specific interest to religious scholars for its associations with religious courts, and witchcraft persecution, but I cannot say whether the founding Jesuits of St Ignatius found such topics as intriguing as I do).

A curious work of fake colonial laws.

Though no longer held in Loyola’s collection, a copy of the 1838 edition of the Blue Laws of New Haven Colony is available as a digital surrogate on the Internet Archive. This edition was printed by Case, Tiffany and Co. in Hartford, Connecticut. (An internet search turns up little about the publishing house, besides it being founded in Hartford sometime in the 1840’s and having its beginnings in printing mail-order Bibles.) The digital edition, in tandem with background information from my research, almost caused me to move the book to a different category. In reality, it was not a book of colonial law at all, but was written as propaganda in England. Yet I ultimately included it in the colonial category for its subject matter and because it, apparently, was long confused with a real book of law on the Continent and in England.

I originally expected the Blue Laws to be simply a codex of law, or a charter like that granted to the Massachusetts Bay colonists. I was quite wrong. This is actually a work of fictional law created by an Anglican priest named Samuel Peters in London in 1781. Peters had been expelled from the Connecticut Colony for his opposition to the American Revolution and chose to write a scathing diatribe against the “backwards colonials” and their strange sectarian Protestantism. The pamphlet claims to lay down the barbaric and religiously austere laws of the Colonists to shock a Loyal Tory readership. According to Peters, colonists basically must follow a strictly Puritan guideline for life, or risk banishment, imprisonment, fines, or execution. Adultery merited execution, and priests of different sects of Christianity were to be banished or imprisoned. These guidelines go right down to the stipulation that all men must have their hair cut around a cap! It is quite entertaining reading, to be completely honest, but I cannot imagine what use it held for the Jesuits. (I pray that this use was not as a basis for constructing their own disciplinary codes…) It is conceivable, given that my research has indicated that this was sometimes confused with real law in Europe, that the European-born Jesuits might have been misled, but it is probably just as likely that they were aware of the nature of the text and kept it for other purposes.


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