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Civil law’s influence on early United States law

It is a law-school maxim today that the United States is a common-law country, while most of Europe uses civil law: English-derived common law has as its most basic tenet the binding nature of judicial precedent, while Roman-derived civil law privileges statutes. But the more I investigate the history and details of each, the more clear it becomes to me that the United States, at least, owes (almost?) as much of its legal system to civil law as it does to “pure” common law.

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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“Roman law” by Eugene Yurevich. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It is a law-school maxim today that the United States is a common-law country, while most of Europe uses civil law: English-derived common law has as its most basic tenet the binding nature of judicial precedent, while Roman-derived civil law privileges statutes. But the more I investigate the history and details of each, the more clear it becomes to me that the United States, at least, owes (almost?) as much of its legal system to civil law as it does to “pure” common law (see, e.g., Civil law and courts of equity: the common law is hybrid law and Civil law’s influence on American common law: the appeal).

Another interesting story of the influence of civil law involves a push early on in the history of the United States to bring in civil law approaches, in part as a means to distinguish American law from English law, as well as to help unify the laws of disparate states. Then as now, too, civil law–which emphasizes statutory rules over judicial lawmaking–was seen to reduce the potentially arbitrary power of an unelected judiciary.

In “The Attraction of the Civil Law in Post-Revolutionary America,” Peter Stein quotes Sir Henry Maine as saying in 1856 that the Unites States was not part of “the common-law camp,” but instead had ceased to adhere to the single English (or New English) common-law model by 1825 (403). Instead, claimed Maine, Roman law was “fast becoming the lingua franca of universal jurisprudence” as many newer American states were looking to it for their “substratum” instead of English common law (404).

Early legal education, both in America and in England, contained civil-law materials, including Justinian’s Digests and Institutes, along with treatises (in English translation) on international and natural law by Grotius and Pufendorf, among others (405). Also, many early American legal educators were Scots, and Scotland is a civil-law country (405). James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all engaged with the civil-law tradition in their educations (405-06).

Unlike the perceive chaos of the common law, “[i]n eighteenth century eyes the civil law was associated with order, clarity and coherence” (406). After the Revolution, there was a sense that the United States needed its own legal approach based on the best the world had to offer:

efforts should be made to develop a particular American jurisprudence, which would not be a slavish imitator of the English common law, but would be eclectic–selecting the best principles and methods from whatever system they might be found in (407).

Additionally, although the common law had been seen as a check to the King’s power, it was also viewed with “considerable distrust … as an English product and a corresponding sympathy for things French” (410). Is it any wonder, then, with this desire to create a new nation, along with the positive perception of civil law, that civil law influenced early American jurists?

In the early part of the nineteenth century, American judges cited approvingly to both English legal precedent and to civil law treatises: “in New York, at least, they adopted a policy of eclecticism, considering the common-law and civil-law authorities respectively and then choosing one or the other” (409).

Especially in the areas of commercial law, maritime law, and international law, the civil law was particularly influential. English commercial law was revolutionized by Lord Mansfield in the period just before and after the Revolution, but his influence had little impact initially on the new nation (412). Instead, jurists turned to well-developed mercantile principles in civil law. In maritime and international law, Roman law–since so many European nations based their system on it–had especially force, and continue to do so today (421).

Although English precedent and English cases were used extensively in early America, early nineteenth century jurists lacked today’s judges antipathy to foreign precedent and approaches. Caleb Cushing wrote in the early 1800s:

The common, civil, and customary law of Europe have each precisely the same force with us in this branch; that is, our courts study them all, and adopt from them whatever is most applicable to our situation, and whatever is on the whole just and expedient, without considering either of course obligatory (422).

But by 1850, writes Stein, civil law had faded from American consciousness. Why?

  1. The most zealous champions of the civil law held high office, but their ideas “never permeated down to the humdrum practitioner of the law.”
  2. Codifiers of American law continued to turn to civil law statutes as models, but not to its general unifying principles; they looked instead to its practical implementations (like the Code Napoleon), and drew on English thinkers like Jeremy Bentham instead of Justinian.
  3. Historians of Roman law then took over, emphasizing “questions of learned jurisprudence” and not “point[s] of great practical import.” (432)

Nonetheless, even though Stein sees the 1840s as the decline of civil law’s influence in America, I see point 2, above, as indicative that it continued to play a role in the development of American statutes–but one that is less obvious and more subtle than direct cites to civil-law authorities by American judges.