Law, Legalism, and Community Before the American Revolution

The connections between law and community are difficult to identify, let alone explain. It may be best to begin by seeing how law and the ways people used it changed, and then attempt to relate those changes to the surrounding economy and society. One must, of course, be wary of finding what one looks for. Nonetheless, as with objects against a dark background, it is sometimes easier to see things when they move than when they remain still. To illustrate the interactive nature of legal change and community, I will draw on examples from Connecticut before the Revolution – not because I think Connecticut was representative or typical, but because I know something about it. As it happens, there were significant changes in the legal system from the end of the seventeenth century to the eve of the Revolution, both in the ways people used the legal system and in its internal characteristics. There were also perceptible changes in the economy and society of the colony during the same period. The juxtaposition may have been coincidental, but I think not. The changes were linked, however loosely, by the growth of a legalist paradigm, in which the formal legal system supplanted ways of dealing that were rooted in communities and became the standards for all forms of disputing.