A Primer for English Common Law (yes, we need to do this)

English Common Law can be summed up in just a few words: Everything Belongs to the King.
Ok, that’s a bit simplified. English Common Law, which has been around since the 11th century, established the system of courts and judges and juries “amongst they peers”). However, there were still those pesky kings (and earls and dukes and such) who kept meddling with the system and that led to confusion, grievances, wars and, from time to time, the odd revolt or two.

The American colonists presented new problems and challenges to English Common Law. The king and his meddlesome tricks were a long ways away, and his administrators – usually the guys who held the charters (fancy word for contracts, by the way) – were a motley lot of good guys, bad guys, or somewhere in between. Some had military roots, some were members of The Royals, and many of them were just plain greedy.

The Early English Settlers – the Puritans – were certainly frightened of the future in the New World, but they were already petrified of the future they faced in the Old World. Many of them had migrated from England to Holland, but were finding that religious freedom – actually, freedom of any type – was a little iffy there, too. The New World not only offered a fresh start, but a lot of distance from folks trying to tell them what to do.

We all learn in grade school that America was “discovered” in 1492, and the country-that-was-to-be was founded by the Pilgrims in 1620. Hopefully the previous chapters have dispelled that notion to shards, but the first English settlers actually plopped their collective asses down in 1607, in what is now known as Jamestown, and the in what is now known as Virginia. Jamestown was led by that John Smith of Pocahantas fame.

Jamestown was a business venture. Tobacco, which had been introduced to Europe by the Spanish, was the crop, and growing it in the lush, warm Virginia soil became the crop of choice. While the early Jamestownians had it tough the first couple of years (of the original 214 settlers, only 60 made it through the first winter – this is called The Starving Time in Virginia) tobacco eventually started bringing in money and Virginia became a popular destination.

As the Puritans landed, and more of them showed up, (including other Europeans, who had their own ideas) more land was absconded from the Native Americans to grow more crops, and with that, more labor-types of folks were needed.

It was a tough time and failure was always an option. Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States, that the population of the colonies was 250,000 in 1700; slaves made up 8 percent of the population. Aye, and there’s the rub, all right. More slaves. The Spaniards and Portugese had written the manual on the care and feeding of slavery; it’s one of the few things the English settlers embraced from their Iberian forefathers.

In England, slavery, and its cousin, indenture, were well-established from Roman times. Hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, marauding pirates along the Scot and Irish coasts sold villagers into slavery, but the numbers were small and the raids not particularly consistent from year to year.

The first African slaves were brought to England in 1555. While the English aristocracy had some need for slaves, the British Isles did not use them on a wide-spread basis. England is a small island, after all, and as I’ve mentioned before, there were no huge plantations to work, or silver to mine .

At first, African slaves were brought into the New World as indentured servants, who worked the lands with a promise of freedom. But that didn’t last long, maybe 30 seconds or so. After all, when the prevailing theory was that slaves were godless heathens at best, and not even human at worst, why give them anything?

The British colonists brought the laws that they were accustomed to: the King’s Common Laws, of course, and there were smattering attempts at imposing various and sundry religious laws throughout the first settlements (The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell) but there was a dearth of laws regarding slavery. NOT the treatment of slaves, mind you, but, well, managing slaves – specifically, controlling their sexual drive and the predictable outcome of having sex.

OMG! White men were having sex with black women! Children were being born to slaves! Something must be done!