Law Enforcement in Colonial America: Creation & Evolution

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Colonial America faced inconsistent law enforcement, leading to the development of more structured legislation and organization. Learn the key elements of the English predecessors, colonial law, sheriffs, constables & watchmen, and slave hunters in American history. Updated: 11/15/2021

English Predecessors

While we may be tempted to think that police departments have always existed, the truth is that they are a relatively new idea. Back in England, the law enforcement officials existed to maintain the following ideals and in this order: First, they protected the property of the monarch, the nobility, and the Church. Second, they protected public order. Protecting public order was a pretty good way to make sure rioters did not destroy anything that belonged to the king, nobility, or Church. Finally, they enforced the various warrants of the courts. These could be very varied - some dealt with things like property rights and claims of murder - but they were just as likely to be sent out to clarify property lines between peaceful neighbors.

Here we've got to look at an idea that is pretty strange for us today. People who lived under the protection of the law had all of these restrictions, but they also had some guarantees. For example, they couldn't just have their head chopped off for no good reason. Also, other people couldn't pursue their own vendettas - in theory, they were supposed to go through the courts. If you were not under the protection of the law, then you were an outlaw. It didn't necessarily mean that you were a criminal, but it meant that your rights to life and property were not exactly concrete.

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  • 0:02 English Predecessors
  • 1:19 Focus of Colonial Law
  • 1:53 Sheriffs, Constables,…
  • 2:57 Slave Hunters
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Focus of Colonial Law

The American colonies provided a natural continuation of this state of affairs. If you didn't like the way things were being done in your colony, you were often free to go off and do your own thing. Just don't complain when you suddenly find your farm being raided by natives. As such, the law enforcement of the early colonies was focused on maintaining both internal and external order. The rule of the courts and the governors was very important, and law enforcement officials were often sent out to make sure those rules were respected. However, they were also posted to watch for a native attack.

Sheriffs, Constables, and Watchmen

In the Northern colonies, this meant that officers were appointed to enforce the will of the courts and watch for attacks. If the official was appointed by the governor, he was often called the sheriff. This was similar to the court official for different regions back in England. However, if the officials were appointed by the people at large, they were constables.

In either case, they could find themselves doing a large number of missions that we wouldn't associate with police work today. Marking the boundary between two plots of land may come before delivering a warrant for arrest, for example. Also, these officials were often paid by the job, so that meant that they were more likely to take the higher paying jobs, like surveying, than unpaid work, like patrolling the streets for thieves.

In fact, many colonies took the approach that such thievery only needed to be guarded against at night. Also, this is when native attacks had the highest chance of happening. To that end, watchmen were appointed. Their job was simple - keep a look out for anything happening and start screaming if they saw something.

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