Sources of Western Law

There was much that was new in the creation of the United States between 1776 and 1789. Yet the new country and its founders also drew on centuries, even millennia, of prior human experience. While this background cannot be treated in much detail here, it is important to know that most of the literate cultures of the ‘Old World’ (Eurasia and North Africa) had sophisticated legal systems dating back to ancient times. The first detailed collection of laws to have survived, for example, is the Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylonia (in modern Iraq), which dates to ca. 1750 BCE—almost 4000 years ago! This code and other sources show that these societies were quite familiar with private property, the use of money, legal disputes, judges, and courtrooms. These cultures shared a number of principles that are essential in any legal system, such as: those accused of any wrongdoing deserve a fair hearing; individuals and families had a right to their own, private property; and no one should harm others or infringe on others’ property.

For some examples of legal ideas and principles from those cultures or traditions that had the most direct impact on later Western and Anglo-American law, see the following pages on: the Bible, Cicero’s Philosophy, Later Roman Law, Canon Law & European Common Law, and Medieval Customary Law.