Colonial Government and Politics

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Did the early American colonies have English Common Law?

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The early American colonies did have English Common Law, though not in identical form. Common law is law that is derived through legal precedents identified in specific legal decisions. This reliance on precedence leaves much of the law in common law systems uncodified in statutory form, which can make it difficult for all people to fully understand the law. It also means that different court systems can create different laws based on unique circumstances or even based on the judges in charge.

The early American colonies used a foundation of English Common Law in forming their governing systems; however, the unique geographical and social concerns of the colonies, as well the individual personalities of the jurists, led to a divergence from the common law that was concurrently developed in England. Likewise, because the colonies were governed independently from each other, the common law that developed in each colony was different despite being based on the same foundation.

Once America gained independence, many of the new states, as well as the federal court system, incorporated elements of English Common Law into their procedures, though the ensuing development of American Common Law did diverge from the English version.

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