This essay examines the role of justices of the peace in upholding local credit networks among small farmers, tenants, artisans, and small traders in late colonial New York. Bolstered by a colonial statute enlarging their jurisdiction, New York’s justices handled a heavy volume of small debt cases, predominantly based on book debts or informal promissory notes. These were typically debt obligations arising from ongoing personal exchanges, in which the exchange of goods and services was the main objective, not the extension of credit itself. Partly in accordance with the traditionally acknowledged summary adjudication of individual justices and partly to adapt to the informal nature of debt cases that were brought to them, New York’s justices handled these cases in a distinctively informal but effective manner. Fully acknowledging and even taking advantage of the personal bases of such debt, justices’ courts offered a low cost, speedy alternative to higher courts such as inferior courts of common pleas. These findings suggest that well into the eve of the American Revolution, New York’s middling and lower sorts maintained vibrant local credit networks undergirded by the single justice’s court. At least for the case of New York, then, recent scholarship on early American law emphasizing the increased use of written credit instruments and the concomitant formalization of legal procedure, which, understandably, paid scant attention to the single justices’ courts, may have categorically discounted the lasting viability of localized legal and economic practices in early America.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Kim on Small Debt Litigation in Colonial New York
“In a Summary Way, with Expedition and at a Small Expence”: Justices of the Peace and Small Debt Litigation in Late Colonial New York, by Sung Yup Kim a visiting assistant professor of history at Pacific Lutheran University,is available on-line now and in print late in the American Journal of Legal History (2017):