English Common Law in the Age of Mansfield

English Common Law in the Age of Mansfield

English Common Law in the Age of Mansfield

English Common Law in the Age of Mansfield


In the eighteenth century, the English common law courts laid the foundation that continues to support present-day Anglo-American law. Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, 1756-1788, was the dominant judicial force behind these developments. In this abridgment of his two-volume book, The Mansfield Manuscripts and the Growth of English Law in the Eighteenth Century, James Oldham presents the fundamentals of the English common law during this period, with a detailed description of the operational features of the common law courts. This work includes revised and updated versions of the historical and analytical essays that introduced the case transcriptions in the original volumes, with each chapter focusing on a different aspect of the law.

While considerable scholarship has been devoted to the eighteenth-century English criminal trial, little attention has been given to the civil side. This book helps to fill that gap, providing an understanding of the principal body of substantive law with which America's founding fathers would have been familiar. It is an invaluable reference for practicing lawyers, scholars, and students of Anglo-American legal history.


In 1992 the University of North Carolina Press, in association with the American Society for Legal History, published my two-volume work entitled The Mansfield Manuscripts and the Growth of English Law in the Eighteenth Century. the two volumes were made up of three parts: transcriptions of notes taken by Lord Mansfield of jury trials he conducted across his thirty active years as Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench (1756–86), my own explanatory essays, and a variety of appendixes. Together the two volumes reached almost 1,700 printed pages. Because of its length and cost, the work was aimed primarily at libraries and other institutional buyers; certainly adoption for classroom use was not anticipated.

Most of the reviewers of the original work commented on the value of the explanatory essays, noting, for example, that these “provide something like a modern textbook of eighteenth-century law and legal history” and that there exists no comparable source. These observations led naturally to the idea of the present volume—a one-volume updated abridgment of the explanatory essays that would be agreeable to most individual budgets and feasible as well for classroom use.

Were it possible to revisit England in the year 1750, it probably would not be evident that the common law courts over the next half-century would lay many of the foundation stones that would support the Anglo-American law of the twenty-first century. Yet this proved true, both in commercial areas (such as contracts, insurance, negotiable instruments, intellectual property, and international trade) and in protecting the rights of individuals (as in the law of negligence, nuisance, religious freedom, and slavery). Though assisted by the work of able contemporary and predecessor judges, Lord Mansfield was the dominant judicial force behind these developments.

The first two chapters of this book comprise a brief biographical summary of Mansfield and a fairly detailed description of the day-to-day business and procedures of the common law courts (and to a lesser extent of the Old Bailey), especially in the conduct of jury trials. Eighteen chapters then follow that are devoted to specific substantive areas of law. the choice of topics was dictated by the number and nature of the proceedings over which . . .

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