Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Website on New York Legal History, 1776-1846

[The Historical Society of the New York Courts has brought online an excellent gallery on the legal history of the Empire State in the early national period and after, entitled Revolution and the Emerging State: Canals, Railroads & Steamboats, 1776-1846.   Here is the introduction.]

Although New York adopted the Declaration of Independence at a meeting of the Fourth Provincial Congress in White Plains on July 9, 1776, it was not until November 25, 1783 that British troops finally departed from New York. In the midst of the ongoing war, New York drafted and adopted its first constitution, and set up a functioning government.

The New York State Constitution of 1777 continued the English statutory and common law, provided that it did not conflict with the State's constitution. In 1788, chapter 46 of the laws enacted that year rendered English statutory law invalid, providing that "none of the statutes of England or Great Britain shall operate or be considered as laws of this State." The common law was unaffected by this provision, and the State's second constitution, adopted in 1822, stated that "such parts of the common law and the acts of the legislature of the colony of New York would continue unless altered or repealed or found unconstitutional."

Looking at cases decided in those first 70 years, we can see how the New York judiciary resolved the issues encountered by the nascent State. The impact of the War of 1812 and the growing importance of international relations is readily apparent. Case law from this time shows the ongoing chilling effect of criminal libel actions on political speech, and controversies arising from slavery and colonial land tenure continued to populate court dockets. Judicial resolution of cases associated with New York's growing industrialization and rapidly-developing technology (canals, roads, steamboats and railways) enabled commerce to thrive.

The Bench and the Bar included men of outstanding intellect and achievement, who made a tremendous and lasting contribution to the State and the Nation. In their capable hands, jurisprudence developed through the arguments lawyers presented in court and the judicial decisions that resulted. New York's involvement in the development of the legal framework of the new nation, the ratification of the Federal Constitution and the drafting of Bill of Rights was significant and of lasting value.