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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Common Law

by John V. Orth, 2006

Common Law is the system of legal rules developed over the centuries by English judges in their decisions on cases. Being familiar to the early settlers of North Carolina, the common law was naturally applied during the colonial period; a statute of 1715 required it. After American independence, legislation was passed making the common law the rule in the state unless specifically altered; the North Carolina Supreme Court has consistently defined the "common law" referred to in this statute as that which was in force in England on 4 July 1776. This interpretation remains valid in the state. Undoubtedly, the best source for eighteenth-century common law is Sir William Blackstone's four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England, first published between 1765 and 1769.

Additional Resources:

The Common Law in Colonial America: Volume II: The Middle Colonies, by William E. Nelson. View libraries carrying this book:

Common Law, NCGA:




My, perhaps erroneous, understanding is that in 1776 slavery was illegal in Britain. The slave trade, however may have been legal. If so, did the NC state legislature later pass laws specifically legalizing slavery? Or perhaps nobody ever pursued the issue in NC courts?



Slavery became illegal in England in 1807. Here is an article about it.

Hope that helps,


Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library

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