Legal Turmoil in a Factious Colony: New York, 1664-1776

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When Colonel Richard Nicolls, the first English governor of New York, arrived in the fall of 1664, two quite different legal systems confronted him. On Manhattan Island and along the Hudson River, sophisticated courts modeled on those of the Netherlands were resolving disputes learnedly in accordance with Dutch customary law. On Long Island, Staten Island, and in Westchester, on the other hand, English courts were administering a rude, untechnical variant of the common law carried across the Long Island Sound from Puritan New England and practiced without the intercession of lawyers. The task for Nicolls was to control these Dutch and Puritan legal systems. The main argument of this Article † is that he did not perform that task well. On the contrary, he set in motion constitutional dynamics that his successors over the next 110 years either could not or would not change. In the end, those dynamics left the British crown impotent in its New York colony. Great Britain’s military failures in the American Revolution merely confirmed that longstanding impotence.

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