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Gaspee HistoryPage Up
Law as Weapon II
Law as Weapon III
Ship Providence Case
Constitutional Law
Legal Profession
RI Court System


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American use of courts and law as a weapon
against the English.

Law as Weapon: courts enforced English law to void Parliament's laws.

To completely understand the reasons for Rhode Island colonial actions before and after the attack on the Gaspee, you need to understand the colonist's successful use of law as an American weapon that prevented the enforcement of English customs taxes. 

English common law applied by local magistrates, and tax collections actions decided by Rhode Island  juries and judges were instruments actively used by the colonists, not by the crown.  It was American control of the law and its processes that allowed the conditions for a successful revolution.   Americans soon discovered that their control of the law was a weapon in their resistance to British laws.

Rhode Island appointed their own judges and took the legal position that just as in England, the King could not remove judges at pleasure. [Quincy Reports 302-303 (1767)]  This American constitutional fact of life B that justices of the peace could not be removed by the crown C short of armed force by the crown C allowed the common law court system of Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island to threaten the British navy and officials into ineffectiveness as long as open war was not declared.

The judiciary of Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island during the pre-revolutionary period were professionally competent and sophisticated. They knew the law and they used it to protect the Whig (American) position. The law that was practiced was an American version of English common law, locally controlled and administered.   The American lawyers were trained in England and in English common law, and they understood it.

Statutes were passed by the local legislatures to void the effect of English law. For example during the Stamp Act crisis, the Rhode Island legislature simply passed a statute to indemnify local officials who suffered by disobeying the Stamp Act statutes. This is why Rhode Island kept its courts open without interruption despite the fact litigants and courts did not use the stamps required by imperial law for legal documents to be valid.

Click to read more about American Colony use of law This article continues. Read more on how the legal maneuvers that lawyers appreciate, and historians usually overlook. These maneuvers by the Americans made it almost impossible for the English to enforce English tax law. Click to read more about American Colony use of law

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