New Netherland's Legacy

Law and Jurisprudence

The Dutch West India Company established New Netherland’s legal system according to the statutes of the Dutch states of Holland and Zeeland. These laws reflected Germanic customary law, the Roman code of Justinian (corpus juris), canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, and special corporate privileges granted by various overlords. Under the English, no changes were immediately introduced into New York’s administration of justice, except for the introduction of the English jury system.[1] Hugo Grotius’s Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Holland (1630) and the writings of Flemish jurist Joost van Damhouder (1507–1581) remained the standard legal texts for New York customary law.[2] Their works offered models for constructing legal instruments covering ordinary contracts and deeds.[3]

After 1664 New Yorkers gradually incorporated Dutch legal liberties into New York’s English judicial system. The Duke’s Laws of 1665, written for Long Island’s English communities, only gradually expanded province-wide, yet allowed customary Dutch features in inheritance, property, and family matters.[4] The 1691 Judiciary Act, which became the basis for New York’s legal system thereafter, failed to provide a system to supplement English common law, known as Equity Jurisdiction, except when considering the revenues of the Crown. In this area, New Yorkers supplemented the English judicial with Dutch constitutional principles, particularly in the New York Assembly maintaining the tradition of the Dutch States in controlling finances and appointments. Also, the Right to Petition for redressing grievances in the Dutch Republic was seen as an absolute right in New York. Modern New York property law, laws on limitations for civil claims, known as general obligations, and aspects of incorporation laws treating a corporation as a legal body all contain remnants of laws introduced by the Dutch.[5]

1. See Albert E. McKinley, “The Transition from Dutch to English Rule in New York” American Historical Review 6 (July 1901): 695.

2. An English-language translation is Hugo Grotius, The Jurisprudence of Holland, Robert W. Lee, trans. (Clarenden Press, 1896).

3. Donna Merwick, “A Genre of Their Own: Kiliaen van Rensselaer as Guide to the Reading and Writing Practices of Early Modern Businessmen,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, LXV (October 2008), 4:687.

4. Charles T. Gehring, trans. and ed., Laws & Writs of Appeal 1647-1663 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991), xviii–xix.

5. J. de Vries and A. van der Woude, The First Modern Economy. Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815 (Cambrdge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), Robert Ludlow Fowler, History of the Law of Real Property in New York (New York: Baker, Voorhis & Co., 1895), 65–71, Joost Jonker, Oscar Gelderblom, Abe de Jong, “The Formative Years of the Modern Corporation: The Dutch East India Company VOC, 1602–1623,” in The Journal of Economic History 73 (December 2013), 4: 1050–1076)

Articles of Capitulation on the Reduction of New Netherland, 1664.

Articles of Capitulation on the Reduction of New Netherland, 1664

Articles about the transfer of New Netherland on the 27th of August, Old Style, Anno 1664. The articles, agreed to on September 8th by six deputies commissioned by Director-General Petrus Stuyvesant and his council and seven English commissioners including Admiral Richard Nicolls, allowed the residents to retain their customary Dutch legal forms. This broadside, probably printed in Holland, used the word "overgaen" meaning transfer.

New York Public Library, Rare Book Division

Robert Ludlow Fowler, History of the Law of Real Property in New York 

"While the [New York State] constitution of 1821 declared that the common law in force in the colony on April 19, 1775, should continue to be the law of the State, it did not abrogate the small residuum of the ancient Dutch law left standing by that postulate of the common law which gives effect to the laws of the conquered until abrogated. Yet this portion of the ancient Dutch law was very slender and rather a rule of property: the burden of proof was on the proponent to show the particular institute of the Dutch law in force, as the presumption was that the common law controlled in the absence of such proof. The adjudged cases give evidence of the extent of this slight survival of Dutch law. For example, in 1830, in the canal cases, eminent counsel, including the attorney-general, contended that the Dutch law still determined the right of certain riparian owners. In 1817 even Chancellor Kent, who, in a desire to invoke the entire ready-made system of English law, often ignored the differences observed in the province of New York held that by the Dutch law a grant to the inhabitants of Hempstead constituted them a corporation. Still later cases, such as Dunham v Williams, have given effect to a particular rule of the ancient Dutch law."

(New York: Baker, Voorhis & Co., 1895), 150.

About the New Netherland Institute

For over three decades, NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

The New Netherland Research Center

Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. More


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