Origin of U.S. Law

Government Before the United States Constitution(1)

  • The British Constitution
  • Blackstone on Rights and on Marriage
  • The Declaration of Independence
    The American legal system has several layers, more possibly than in most other nations. One reason is the division between federal and state law. To understand this, it helps to recall that the United States was founded not as one nation, but as a union of 13 colonies, each claiming independence from the British Crown. The Declaration of Independence (1776) thus spoke of “the good People of these Colonies” but also pronounced that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.”(2)

The Government of Early American States

Relevant Comparisons:

Actions of the Confederated States

The United States Constitution

  • The United States Constitution, without amendments
    The drafting and ratification of the Constitution reflected a growing consensus that the federal government needed to be strengthened. The legal system was one of the areas where this was done. Most significant was the “supremacy clause,” found in Article VI:
    “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”(3)

    Given that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and was ratified with that understanding, it is important to note that it contains no reference to the Judeo-Christian God (or any other divinity), Jesus Christ, Christianity, the Bible, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Ten Commandments nor does it offer any religious doctrines as the basis for its authority.

    The un-amended Constitution contains only one reference to religion – Article 6 which states that there shall be no religious test as a prerequisite to holding public office.Later, the 1st Amendment clarified, in writing, the intention of the Founding Fathers to keep the affairs of government separate and apart from the religious preferences of its individual citizens.  It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”

  • The Ratification Debates
  • The Bill of Rights: Proposing Amendments
  • Meaning of the First Amendment

Early Federal Practice

The Marshall Court

The Common Law

The Taney Court

The Fourteenth Amendment



Sources and References:

  1. The topical outline, for the section entitled Government Before the United States Constitution, was taken from the American Legal History website.  The summaries following each topical heading are my own with acknowledgements where appropriate.
  2. Outline of the US Legal System – A Federal Legal System Overview published by International Information Programs at USINFO.STATE.GOV
  3. Ibid,  SOURCES OF FEDERAL LAW, The United States Constitution, Supremacy of Federal Law