Why Was the English Common Law Important

Why Was the English Common Law Important in the Development of the American Legal System?

The English Common Law, comprising customary rules that had been developed over the course of several centuries, forms the basis of many legal systems in the British Isles and in former British colonies, including the United States. While states like France, Germany and Italy rely on codified civil laws written in the Roman tradition, the unwritten common law became the basis for civil law in England and all other legal systems following English traditions.


  • The English Common Law can find its beginnings in the systems of unwritten customary law that were common among the Germanic tribes prior to their conversion to Christianity. In particular, English Common Law began with the customary laws of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, all of whom had originated in modern Denmark and northern Germany, but invaded former province of Britannia following the Roman withdrawal from the island. These customary rules formed the basis of the English legal system, even after the Norman Invasion. As English criminal law began to take the form of written statutes, civil, procedural and administrative law continued to follow the ancient tradition of unwritten law inherited from the Germanic tribes. As England, and later Great Britain, colonized new lands, it exported this legal system to those places, along with its people.

American Common Law

  • Every one of the original 13 colonies that came to form the United States was organized under a legal system derived from that of their Britannic motherland. When the colonies declared independence, they nevertheless continued to follow in this tradition. As a result, English Common Law, as it had existed prior to the American Revolution, formed the basis for American civil, procedural and administrative law. However, since that time, the severance of American legal connections with England forced the development of a uniquely American Common Law.

Basic Characteristics

  • The common law is a law of precedent, building upon past decisions like the layers of an onion. These decisions tend to come in the form of judicial rulings, made where the statutory law has not otherwise provided. But even the very basis of the American judicial system, that questions of fact are decided by juries of free citizens, is itself inherited from the common law.

Legal Hierarchy in Federal Law

  • Within the context of United States federal law, there presently exists a hierarchy of laws that helps to cover every potentiality. At the top of the hierarchy is the Constitution — anything that contravenes it does not stand. Next are the statutory laws, the legal enactments of Congress, which are inferior to the Constitution but superior to common law. Finally, the common law, built upon centuries of judicial decisions, fills in for things not handled by the Constitution and statutes — but the common law is null whenever it disagrees with them where their provisions have relevance.

In State Law

  • Every state in the Union, with the sole exception of Louisiana (which operated under a civil code in the French tradition) has its own similar hierarchy of constitutions, statutes and common law. Due to the fact that the United States Constitution only delegates a finite number of powers to the federal government, these systems in the states tend to cover more cases than federal law. However, state laws of all types are inferior to federal law whenever Congress has exercised its constitutionally granted authority.