2.3.6. The Mid-Atlantic States (1825-1865): The Empire State's Empire of Law

At the end of the Revolution, American states had to make a choice:  should they adhere to the English law they had observed as colonies?  Should they break completely from English law?  Or should they adopt some mix of the two?  There was much debate over the subject.  A small but vocal minority advocated a complete break, but most of the new states took the middle course:  they preserved British common law but gave their legislatures power to move away from British law at will.  During the first 50 years of independence, the common law was largely “Americanized,” and New York more than any other state determined the new shape of the law.


Court reporters and treatise writers:

  • New York quickly developed the largest economy and acquired the largest population of any state.  Other states looked to New York for guidance in building their own economic systems, including the law necessary to enable them to enter the industrial age smoothly.
  • After his retirement, Chancellor James Kent wrote Commentaries on American Law the first comprehensive treatise of American law.  The treatise earned Kent the title of the “American Blackstone”:  it was read widely by lawyers and judges throughout the United States.  In many frontier states, Kent’s treatise was one of the few legal works available that provided an easy guide to the law; as a result, lawyers often relied on Kent in arguing their cases and judges relied on Kent as authority for their decisions.
  • In 1803, New York became one of the first states to provide for systematic publication of all decisions of its higher courts.  Then as now, New York was one of the publishing centers of the United States:  publishing houses in New York City and Albany developed networks of booksellers, which saw to it that their publications – including the New York state court reports – were distributed throughout the United States.   
  • During the early 19th century, thousands of New Yorkers migrated to the new states of the Midwest and to other regions.  They had a large say in shaping the new legal systems of those states.

A strong but not exclusive voice:

  • Even at its peak, New York had no monopoly of legal influence.  Throughout the first half of the 19th century, courts in most states continued to rely on English court decisions more than any other courts as authority for their decisions. 
  • Massachusetts, which was also a leading economic center, a national legal publishing center and an early leader in publishing its state court decisions, ran a close second to New York in legal influence.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, who began his legal career in Massachusetts and taught at Harvard Law School throughout his life, published an astonishing number of treatises on __, __ and other aspects of the law, which collectively reached more lawyers and judges and were cited more often than Kent.
  • As the 19th century progressed, more and more states published their own courts’ reports and developed their own bodies of law.  As a result, by 1860 most state courts were relying primarily on their own case law as authority for new decisions; New York continued to be influential throughout the nation, while the use of English decisions declined steadily.

Percentage of  cases cited in American state courts

coming from:

1800  

1825  

1840  

1860  

Home state

9%

17%

22%

35%

New York

1%

7%

14%

12%

Massachusetts

<1%

6%

6%

7%

English cases

71%

61%

39%

24%

Percentage of total citations of treatises by American courts:

 

 

 

 

James Kent, Commentaries (NY)

NA

NA

6%

3%

Treatises of Joseph Story (MA)

NA

NA

7%

9%



James Kent (New York, 1763-1847)
- courtesy New York Public LIbrary

Joseph Story (Massachusetts, 1767-1845) - courtesy Wikipedia