University of Richmond Law School Dean Publishes Book on 17th Century Virginia Law
February 5, 2003
The plight of a poor, indentured maidservant and her illegitimate child took University of Richmond School of Law Dean John R. Pagan on an extensive journey to examine how Virginia colonists borrowed English law and shaped an American legal system.
In his recently released book, "Anne Orthwood's Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia," published by Oxford University Press, Pagan looks at the cultural, religious and economic values of a 17th century community and shows how they contributed to the formation of uniquely American legal doctrines and institutions.
The book is "a major contribution to the scholarship of 17th century Virginia," said Warren M. Billings, chair of the history department at the University of New Orleans who has also written extensively about that period in Virginia history.
Orthwood was an indentured servant caught in an unacceptable romance. She and her caddish, young lover create an illegitimate child, a host of legal problems and a revealing portrait of a place and time. The book sheds light on how the law functioned in an early American community and on how the men who operated the legal system manipulated the law to their advantage, eventually shaping it to conform to their social and economic goals. "Innovative settlers, often working in their own self-interests," Pagan said, "fashioned a distinctive legal system by adapting English statutes to the demands of the frontier."
"Within a couple of generations, they had constructed a legal regime far different from England's, a system reflective of the tobacco economy and labor market on which it was based," he said.
Pagan uses four court cases arising from the illicit relationship to reveal this divergence. To reconstruct the story, Pagan researched extensively the oldest continuous series of county court records in the United States - those of Northampton and Accomack counties on Virginia's Eastern Shore - along with English sources such as parish registers. His research and writing show clearly that 17th century justice was very much a community affair that allowed people of status "to rule in the king's name while governing in their own interests," he said.