Law of New Netherland

From Roses, Tulips, & Liberty

The law of New Netherland is primarily based on statutory law and legal codes, though it is influenced by caselaw to varying degrees. The most important codified document is the 1903 Constitution and its amendments, which outline the constitutional and administrative law of the republic. The civil code Codex novus belgicus civilis, the Köpmanswetbück of 1762, and the Penal Laws of 1915 are the main codifications of private, commercial, and criminal law, respectively. These four documents are collectively known as the Vîr Regtsbücks ('Four Codes') and are recognized as the foundational documents of New Netherlandic jurisprudence.

Generally, the law of New Netherland is essentially built upon the civil law system of Roman-Dutch law, though it has incorporated a number of innovations from French civil law and English common law. Certain provinces are heavily influenced by foreign legal systems, most notably New Anglia, which is greatly affected by the legal traditions of neighboring New England. All legal matters are conducted in Amerikaens, though the Latin, Dutch, and French languages have a significant presence in pre-20th century legal material.

The sole legislative body in the New Netherland is the States-General, based in New Amsterdam. Provinces elect legislators to the First Chamber, and thus no significant decision-making power is devolved to provincial administrations.


In 1625, Director-General William Verhulst and his council were given explicit instructions by the Dutch West India Company (WIC) to fulfill New Netherland's executive, legislative, and judicial functions. These instructions also included updated law on matters such as the slaughter of animals, though generally the colony followed the Roman-Dutch law of the County of Holland. From 1644 to 1653, numerous subsidiary courts of law were established across the colony, initially triggered by a wave of immigrants from Connecticut and Europe.

Starting in the 1640s, patroonships such as Rensselaerswÿck attempted to attain legal independence from the central government at Manhattan, resulting in the eventual establishment of a handful of Patroon's Courts which functioned as the court of first and last recourse within a limited jurisdiction. At times, these Patroon's Courts were either suppressed and supported by Manhattan depending on the administration. The last Patroon's Court would be abolished 250 years later in the 1890s.

Not until the arrival of Peter Stuyvesant in 1647 did the colony's government began to show competency. The same year, the newly established advisory citizens' assembly, the Board of Nine Men, used their magisterial authority in the new three-judge Court of Arbitrators. The Board, dissatisfied with Stuyvesant's rule, petitioned the States-General for the reformation of the colony's administrative and legal structure to mirror that of Holland.

Subsequently in 1653, New Amsterdam gained a Court of Magistrates, an inferior court of law. The original court at New Amsterdam consisted of two burgomasters (mayors), a schout (sheriff), and five schepens (aldermen), a model which was replicated in soon-established magistrate courts in Beverwÿck, Rensselaerwÿck, Rutsdorp, and other settlements. The 1656 Municipal Charter ushered in by Director-General Adriaen van der Donck consolidated New Netherland's incorporation and allowed for the development of representative democracy. In 1658, the citizens of New Netherland decisively rejected the institution of the Burgher's Right, a title conferred on Amsterdam's citizens that granted them special legal, political, and commercial privileges.

The conclusion of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667 brought New Netherland the English territories of Maryland and New Haven and with them large Catholic and Puritan populations accustomed to British common law. It is through their influence that juries and caselaw became features of the law of New Netherland — juries were already in common use in Rutsdorp and Breuckelen by the end of the century.

Sources of law

The current hierarchy of sources of law in New Netherland were established in 1953.

  1. The Four Codes (1903 Constitution, Codex novus belgicus civilis, Köpmanswetbück, Penal Laws of 1915)
  2. Statutory law
  3. Legal treatises
  4. Judicial opinions
  5. Customary law


The doctrine of jurisprudence constante is implemented in courts, with judges seriously considering precedents, especially decisions of the Högraed (lit. 'High Council', analogous to a Supreme Court), which are considered by many to be de facto binding. Despite this, stare decisis has minimal to no recognition in New Netherland; they are instead de jure considered to be limited to a persuasive role.

Private law

New Netherlandic private law is based on two legal codes; the Köpmanswetbück for commercial law, and the Codex novus belgicus civilis for all other forms of private-civil law. The Codex is divided into five books:

  • Book I (Îrstbück) — Law of Persons
  • Book II (Twîtbück) — Real Rights
  • Book III (Drîtbück) — Law of Obligations
  • Book IV (Vîrtbück) — Law of Succession
  • Book V (Vÿftbück) — Law of Civil Procedure

Civil wrongs

Part of Book Third, civil wrongs are called delicts (also known as misdrÿfs). They are considered the equivalent of the law of torts in common law. The law of delicts in New Netherland is heavily influenced by Scots law. They are defined as the intentional or negligently inflicted breaches of the duty of care, of contract, or of trust between private parties.

There are three possible remedies for a delict:

  • Actio legis Aquiliae (Aquilian action) — patrimonial loss.
    • The elements of liability include i.) economic damage, ii.) conduct in the form of a positive act or omission, iii.) objectively unreasonable, wrongful conduct, iv.) blameworthiness (intention or negligence), and v.) proof of causation.
    • An example of an infringement actionable under Aquilian action is psychiatric injury.
  • Actio injuriarum (Unjust action) — infringement of personality rights.
    • The elements of liability include i.) a harmful violation, ii.) wrongful conduct, and iii.) intention.
    • Several types of infringements exist; of corpus (body, including assault, sexual harassment, etc.), of dignitas (insulting behavior, adultery, alienation of affection, gender discrimination, humiliation through breach of promise, etc.), or of fama (defamation).
  • Acsie van smartgeld (Action of pain and suffering) — action for solatium.
    • The elements of liability are almost identical to that of Aquilian action, except for i.) harm or loss (physical pain, mental distress, shock, loss of life expectancy, loss of life amenities, inconvenience and discomfort, disability or disfigurement).
    • The compensation does not serve a punitive purpose, rather it is intended to provide solace to the plaintiff insofar possible.

Succession and inheritance

Intestate succession is entirely defined by the VOC's Octrooi exception of 10 January 1661 and the Political Ordinance of 1580.

Criminal law

Judicial system


Legal professions and education

Notable caselaw

Notable statutory law

See also