Law in Colonial America

Law in Colonial America
Law in Colonial America

The law looked very different in the early American colonies. The more money you had, the more protection the rules gave you.

However, life was hard for everyone, and sometimes, following the law could make the difference between life and death for you and your neighbors.

The Original 13 Colonies

Before the United States of America existed, there were the 13 British colonies. Although these settlements weren’t always started by the British (New York was originally a Dutch colony), by the late 1700s, these 13 colonies all fell under British rule and had to follow England’s laws:

Who Ruled?

England ruled all 13 colonies, people often made local laws, especially in early settlements. Settlements like Jamestown were run by the Virginia Company, which funded colonists in return for the natural resources they found, so many decisions aimed to make the colony more profitable for people back in England. Meanwhile, colonies like Plymouth were founded on religious ideals, and laws were based on not only survival but strict moral codes.

  • Virginia was named for Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.”
  • People with the most money were usually the first in line to make new rules and had the most power in local debates and decisions.
  • Because no one represented the American colonists during lawmaking meetings in England, some began considering revolution.

Indentured Servitude and Slavery

Indentured servants were people who signed a contract with a wealthy landowner to work for free, without many rights or freedoms, for a set number of years. In exchange, the landowner gave them food, shelter, clothing, and transportation to the American colonies. The Virginia Company used this system a lot, especially in the earliest days of their new settlements. Since only landowners had a say in local politics, this meant very few people living in the colonies got to participate in government.

A wealthy landowner first brought African people as slaves to the colonies in 1619. Unlike indentured servants, slaves did not get to choose if they wanted to go to America, they had no promise of shelter and protection, and their masters did not have to give them freedom after a set number of years. Laws protected masters from losing money if servants ran away or didn’t do as they were told, and they turned people into property for slave owners.

  • Even kids could be indentured servants.
  • Not all indentured servants were really willing; in London, street children were rounded up and forced to make the voyage and serve colonial masters.
  • There were black indentured servants who came from England, though they did not always receive equal benefits and punishments.
  • Some indentured servants got their own land after their contracts ended.