Guide to World Legal History
Today, we take for granted the fact that the law will protect you from crimes and allow you some form of recourse. Legality, however, was not always so established and has a long history with roots dating back to 2350 BC. Developing societal standards to guide the actions of a populace, after all, proves extremely difficult and we still have not perfected the process today. Through an understanding of how law began, and the basic tenets it aims to protect, the goals of the legal system and its future become easier to ascertain.
Urukagina’s Code – 2350 BC
Its creator, Urukagina, ruled the state of Lagash in Mesopotamia from 2380-2360 BC and in this time created the first documented set of laws. Though we have no records of this legal treatise, we know it existed through other records which mention the document. From what we have gathered, the document seems to offer protection and basic rights for the poor against exploitation by those more powerful. In this way it can also be viewed as a kind of political action against the injustices of the time.
Tablet of Ur-Nammu’s – 2050 BC
Although broken into fragments and eroded by time, the stone tablet of Ur-Nammu comprises the oldest surviving document of law. This code details a sophisticated judiciary comprised of judges and courts and includes details of judicial conduct. Importantly, this code introduced causally, in “if-then” arguments, a form followed today in most legal systems. Although named for Ur-Nammu, historians generally believe the code was actually produced by his son Shulgi, around 2050 BC.
First Legal Ruling – 1850 BC
Writings on a clay tablet show evidence of the first documented legal proceeding. This record tells the story of a temple worker murdered by three men. The man’s spouse somehow had knowledge of the crime and the perpetrators. In court, the three men were convicted of the crime and sentenced to death, but the woman, who had witnesses testify to the fact that she was abused and did not act in the murder, was pardoned of the crime.
Draco’s Law – 621 BC
Draco was the first lawmaker of Athens in ancient Greece. He transformed what was an oral legal tradition into a codified set of laws recorded on wood and displayed in public places. Perhaps because he prescribed the punishment for many laws as death, his name provides the etymology for “draconian”, used to describe antiquated laws today. Despite his penchant for capital punishment, he was adored by the populace. Unfortunately for him, a typical Grecian applause included the throwing of capes, hats and other garments. Draco was asphyxiated under a pile of cast off clothing.
Early Legal Education – 250 BC
By 250 AD, both Rome and Beirut, then known as Berytus, hosted legal schools. We have records of these schools from political documents of the time which also reference the established position of legal professors. These institutions taught and theorized on the Code of Justinian, the source of legal authority for the time. This code even sets out an educational resource for students of law in its Institutes section. The education system developed by the Roman Empire remained popular even into the medieval period, when scholars could charge high prices for its teaching.
The Trial of Socrates – 399 BC
Best known through his teachings to Plato and other Greek philosophers, Socrates claims a title as one of the originators of western philosophy. Although Socrates espoused rational arguments and discussion to foster intellectual change, philosophers in those days were viewed with suspicion. Socrates method of teaching, however, involved publicly outwitting and embarrassing prominent members of society with his musings. This, combined with Grecian anger over the recent loss of the Peloponesian Wars, led to the trial of Socrates in 399 BC. He was found guilty by jury of 501 of the Grecian populace of tainting the youth and refusing the state prescribed gods. When asked how he should be punished he recommended the state furnish him wages and board him in a mansion for his value to Greece. As a result of his obstinacy, Socrates was sentenced to death by hemlock.
The Laws of Aethelbert – 600
During the Dark Ages, Europe saw slow development of the legal system. Warfare, however, between the Germanic Saxon’s and the tribal cultures of Great Britain necessitated a system for governing the populace. King Aethelbert, a Saxon conqueror, proposed the first set of laws in England sometime around 600 AD. Here law served not as a way to benefit and guide the the populace, but as a way to control and subjugate former barbarians who were accustomed to tribal hierarchy. Accordingly, Aethelbert referred to his laws as “domas” or dooms to be pronounced upon any who would oppose them.
Fingerprinting – 700
The ubiquitous use of fingerprinting today has actually served law for many centuries. Fingerprinting allows a very sophisticated and unique identification system to work for every person. Since it is based biologically, it does not require the person to submit any paperwork or carry any identifying material. All humans have distinct and complex grooves on their fingers, and due to this there is little possibility of two individuals with matching sets of fingerprints. This innovative system of identification came into use during the Qin Dynasty in China. Records from the period show the use of fingerprints as legal evidence in proving a suspects presence at the crime scene.
The Salem Witch Trials – 1692
The Salem witch trials provide a particularly poignant milestone in legal proceedings. During 1962 two cousins fell ill and displayed symptoms the town doctor could not find the cause of. Eventually, three women were accused of witchcraft in the matter, which set off witchcraft hysteria and led to the largest witch hunt in US history. Over the course of a year, Salem and surrounding towns accused more than 300 people of witchcraft and performed a total of twenty executions on suspected witches. Although these horrific trials traumatized and convicted many innocent people, ultimately they raised skepticism in the legal community over the prosecution of witchcraft. Due to these convictions, legal scholars realized many problems in the law and its potential for abuse. There were no later witch trials in Salem and the greater New England region.
Slave Codes – 1740
Slavery, one of the United States’ greatest embarrassments, required a legal framework to survey in the highly codified environment of English common law. On this basis, around 1740 colonies participating in slavery created codes by which they could define slaves and limit the abilities of slaves within a free society. South Carolina enacted codes which would become the basis of Southern slavery for years to come. These laws basically said that a person was a slave if they ever had been or were going to be sold as property. Similar codes in other states also included codes requiring written leave from the plantation, granting absolution of a master killing his slave during punishment and outlawing the right of slaves to read. Although slavery marks an especially somber chapter of US history, the laws which enabled and perpetuated it show how much legal proceedings and judicial authority have changed over the years.
The Constitution of the United States of America – 1787
The US Constitution provides a landmark study of how the Enlightenment shaped legal thought. Enacted in Philadelphia in 1787, this document created the first example of democratic government the world had ever seen, and remains the basis for our legal system today. The Constitution carefully lays out a system of checks and balances among separate branches of government. This means each branch of government has its own duties and powers in relation to the law and each can deter the actions of the other branches. As a foundational document it has inspired other nations to adopt similar frameworks to promote democratic processes.
The Founding of Australia – 1788
In 1770, James Cook became the first European explorer to map and land on what is now called Australia. Australia was developed by Britain as a penal colony for its worst offenders. Sydney was the first site of this colony in 1788, but it quickly expanded with help from the prison’s work crews. New colonies began popping up to serve an expanding criminal population. Over time, Australia’s citizens gained freedom from the penal system as well as Great Britain and went on to form the country it is today.
The American Bill of Rights – 1791
Shortly after the adoption of the US Constitution, the founders amended the document to include a Bill of Rights detailing certain inalienable rights of US citizens. Drafted in 1791, the Bill of Rights provides cherished privileges such as freedom of speech, protections against unjust legal proceedings and the now controversial right to bear arms. Many civil rights documents across the globe owe their inspiration to the Bill of Rights and the civil liberties it guarantees.
Marbury versus Madison – 1803
In 1803, with the country still struggling to define its political processes, the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison solidified the power of the judiciary. The second president, John Adams, in an attempt to secure power for his party attempted to fill newly created judicial positions with political sympathizers just before his term expired. As power shifted to the third president, Thomas Jefferson, many newly appointed judges were denied writs validating their status. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the judges were not allowed their positions, since the act which created those positions was deemed unconstitutional. In this way the checks and balances of the constitution were tested and the process of judicial review was established for practice in US law.
The Thirteenth Amendment – 1865
As the US began to define itself as a political power more amendments were added to the Bill of Rights. In 1865, the thirteenth amendment proclaimed end of US slavery and the culmination of the Civil War and Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation. This action marked a huge turning point in law and has led to great strides in civil rights and equality legislation.
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial – 1945-46
After World War II, the atrocities of the holocaust still seemed unpunished, despite Germany’s loss. The Allied powers met in Nuremberg, Germany where they debated appropriate punishments for crimes committed during the war. Although war generally tends toward grotesque, the judges identified specific instances in which Nazi officials perpetrated crimes beyond the necessities of the situation and disregarded international rules of conduct. These trials served as a basis for how modern war crimes such as Saddam Hussein’s bombing of Kurdish settlements are handled judicially. In addition it asserted that even in war time, people must obey by a legal standard, even if it means defying their commanding officer.