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The History of the Legal System

Sumerians are known more for cuneiform script than the origins of formally written law. The evolution of the code of law over the past 4000 years depicts mankind's cultural revolutions:

2050 BC: Ur-Nammu's Code

Written on two pieces of clay tablets , Ur-Nammu's Code, is the earliest known written legal code. Most scholars agree that his son, Shugli, wrote the ancient rule of law which predates the Code of Hammurabi. The only known copy is in poor condition and only five articles have been decoded.

1850 BC: The Earliest Known Legal Decision

The earliest known legal decision involved murder and spousal abuse. The case involved three men who murdered a temple employee. The victim's wife knew of his murder, but elected to remain silent and was subsequently charged along with the trio of men for murder. Nine witnesses sought the death penalty but the woman's life was spared when she related the spousal abuse and consequent lack of quality life after her husband's murder.

1700 BC: Hammurabi's Code

Hammurabi's Code of Law was literally written in stone, designed to end the senseless cycle of violence passed down through generations after the original crime took place. There are nearly 300 laws including preamble and epilogue. The preamble is said to contain the world's longest run-on sentence.

1300 BC: The Ten Commandments

Judeo-Christians believe that Moses received the Ten Commandments directly from God on Mt. Sinai. The list of commandments is found in Exodus 20 of the Biblical Pentateuch. The commandments provide moral laws that laid the basis for many laws of the land today.

1280 BC: The Laws of Manu

The Manava Dharmasastra are commonly known as the Laws of Manu. Ancient Hindu Indians who strictly adhered to Brahminism compiled the laws, or code. There are twelve chapters and 2684 verses or laws.

621 BC: Draco's Law

Draconian law is known as unreasonably harsh law vetted by government instead of private justice. Draco was a revered Greek citizen appointed by the Athenian government to write Greece's first formal laws.

600 BC: Lycergus' Law

Lycergus was the King of Sparta, a Southern Greece province, who orally mandated Spartan law.

450 BC: The Twelve Tables

The Romans earliest attempt at creating a canon of laws, it took two sets of ten appointed men to write twelve bronze tablets of law that would apply to all citizens and be enforced by consul.

529: Justinian's Code

The Roman Emperor Justinian deemed that existing Roman law be codified into public and private law areas. Public law was law for the government and the private law was law for individuals. Individual law was comprised of natural, national and civil law.

604: The Seventeen Article Constitution of Japan

Written by Prince Shotoku, the laws were rather less a constitution as they were social principles heavily based on Confucian teaching.

653: T'ang Code

The first complete and still existing set of Chinese code, the T'ang Code consisted of over 500 articles and 12 sections.

700: Fingerprinting is Invented

Prehistoric ridge patterns on hand prints discovered in Nova Scotia and Babylonian hand prints on clay tablets sealing transactions are arguably the first fingerprinting.

1100: First Law School

Irnerius, a popular teacher from Bologna, Italy, was forced to hire other teachers because students flocked to be taught by him. By 1150, this first criminal justice school boasted over 10,000 students studying Justinian Code and Roman Law.

1215: Magna Carta

Also called the Great Charter, the Magna Carta established that no one, including kings, are above the law.

1689: The English Bill of Rights

King William III signed off on the English Bill of Rights in 1689 which was essentially a bill declaring the rights and liberties of English citizens.

1692: The Salem Witch Trials

Trials were held from June through September 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts creating mass hysteria. Over 200 were accused of witchcraft and 20 were executed--19 by hanging and one elderly gentleman pressed to death under stones. His death took two days. The Salem Witch Trials were later deemed a grave mistake and the families were compensated.

1787: The Constitution of the United States of America

The founding fathers gathered May 14, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to write a list of principles to guide the new nation of the United States of America. The Preamble to the Constitution: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

1791: The American Bill of Rights

James Madison created the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

1804: Napoleonic Code

Still existing in amended form in France, Napoleonic Code is a revision of Roman civil law governing business affairs between individuals.

1864: The Geneva Convention

An international humanitarian set of laws protecting the dignity of those caught in the throes of wartime conflicts.

1865: The Thirteenth Amendment

Abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude.

1945-46: The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial

Trials held by an International Military Tribunal to determine justice for those accused of war crimes during the Holocaust.

1948: The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)

The predecessor of the World Trade Organization.

Additional Resources:

Junto Society History Timeline B.C. to Present

General Historical Timeline and Research Resources

Western Legal History Timeline

Timeline of Laws Protecting Human Subjects

American Legal History Timeline