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The Intersection of Law and History

Updated: Jun 11, 2023


I am often asked why I went from history to getting a law degree. Actually, it's not that

uncommon for the two fields to merge in a career. In my personal experience, besides

the value of a law degree teaching you how the world really works, is the historical

aspect of it. Like others there were certain law courses I enjoyed more than others. I

also I clerked in the Criminal Law for about three years with a short stint in

Administrative. Where am I going with all this? To one simple point - understanding the

legal system of a period time, or field of law a person, program or period of history

operated under can aid the researcher by preventing them from analyzing the past from

a 21st century view. A case in point, prior to the ratification of the the Constitution and

Bill of Rights in America colonies operated under different legal structures and

procedures. When looking at court transcripts from 17th century New England under the

body of law they operated under in the Massachusetts Bay Colony the things we take

for granted, the jury, protection from involuntary search and seizure, the right to mount a

defense and protections from cruel and unusual punishment existed only under certain

circumstances or not at all. It made all the difference in the outcome of the case.

Equally as important is what constituted a crime and if common law prevailed (laws

were imported from the mother country) or if in later times Statutory laws applied.

Although these questions may seem mundane, they were the difference between life

and death or banishment for individuals unfortunate enough to be caught up in the legal

net or in many ways dictated the actions and reactions of great events in history.

Many people do not realize that in some place such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony

there was no police force. Citizens had direct access to the court to seek recompense

for wrongs committed against them. This was huge in an era when women served as

the backdrop to the lives of men. Women, not just widows had access to the courts

without being represented by their fathers, brothers or husbands. As a historian the

complaints brought and the judgements meted out rebuild a society, its norms and

tolerations. We can see this in the complaints but

unfortunately, when it comes to trial transcripts that recorded the proceedings in the

court room they are often scattered and incomplete or missing. There was no court

reporter recording every word spoken on the record. There was only what the

magistrates chose to write down and of those the ones that survived time enabling us to

read them now.

The legal framework then as now often kept records such as birth certificates, marriage

recordings, death statements, wills, land grants, fines, deeds, receipts of purchase,

indenture contracts, ships lists and contracts. These were an integral part of conducting

any transaction. In tracing a person in a specific historical period or conducting

genealogy these documents literally form the skeleton of the person's life and they all

had to be conducted according to the laws of the time. Then, as now lives and event

revolved around legal records, court cases and the laws of the time. Understanding

them in depth can prevent many historical errors.

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