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Chapter 21

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Early History of Illinois

by
Sidney Breese

published by E. B. Myers & Company,
Chicago, 1884

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 23
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 p217  Chapter XXII

Civil jurisdiction and the courts — how justice was administered

About this time "the Court or the Audience of the royal jurisdiction of the Illinois," was established. The record of its proceedings is still extant among the lumber of a county recorder's office.

They were carried on before a single judge, without the machinery of "gentlemen of the bar," or "clerks," or "sheriffs," or "reporters," — either ore tenus, or by written petitions, the judge himself entering his decrees in a book called "the register."

Here is one from it: Opinion of the court by Mr. Justice Bucket:

"Between Louis Chancellier, plaintiff, by petition on the 18th of this present month — stating that having abandoned the prosecution of the suit which he had formerly brought against the defendant hereinafter named (on  p218 the subject of his negro woman, to whom a fright caused by the son of the defendant has produced dangerous consequences, since the said negro woman is afflicted with a falling sickness in consequence of this fright), on the one part, and Peter Pillet, called de la Londe, defendant, who plead that he would not answer for the deeds of his son, but would say in his defense of his son that this negro woman fell sick of this sickness before the fright, and, therefore, the plaintiff could not claim any damages on account of the fright which his son gave her, since the cause of her sickness is anterior to that which he pretends to rely upon."

Here was a case to puzzle the worthy judge, but he did not, as so many others do, "take time to consider," but forthwith pronounced his decree as follows:

"The parties having been heard, we condemn the defendant to make proof, within eight days, of what he advances, in order that it may be made appear to whom the right belongs. Done at Kaskaskia. Court held 20 May, 1752. Bucket."

And the judge acted very correctly, for the  p219 defendant did not deny that his son had frightened the negro woman, but insisted that she had the "falling sickness" before the fright, and of course, should have been held to the proof of it, and allowing eight days for that purpose, was very liberal and indulgent.

Here is another case arising "ex contractu," and against an administrator.

"The said note being examined, the parties heard, and all things considered, we condemn the defendant to pay, without delay, to the plaintiff the sum of sixty francs (livres), the amount of the said note, and also the costs  p220 of suit, which we have taxed at twenty-eight francs (livres), and ten cents (sols). Done at New Chartre, in our hearing, we holding court, Saturday, the fifty of June, 1756. — Chevallier."

The trial by jury, that boast of the Anglo-Saxon and his descendants, was unknown here, the law and facts in every case being decided by the judge. If this unlucky "manager and administrator" could have demanded a jury, he might have fared much better than he did — they might have required proof that he had other assets of the deceased Langlois, besides his widow, and in default thereof found against the plaintiff.

The "all things considered" by the able magistrate were no doubt, in part, the youth and beauty of the widow, and the snug little property she brought to the defendant, reasons amply sufficient why he should pay the note and the costs also.

The debt in this case was only twelve dollars, yet the costs were taxed at nearly one‑half of it, making justice very expensive, and warranting the supposition that the aid of the judge was not often invoked to settle difficulties.

 p241  In fact, the most common and usual mode was by the commandant himself, and by arbitration of friends and neighbors.

The mode pursued in "the court" was after the forms of the civil law, certainly very simple and brief, and perhaps as well calculated to promote the true ends of justice as those more cumbrous forms, filled with technical jargon, which we practice, and which have descended to us, through a long stream of years, from the time when the vaunted common law attained its greatest vigor.

Deeds, modeled after the same forms, marriage contracts, and other private instruments were valid, by being executed before a notary in the presence of witnesses.

Judgments and decrees were executed, by an order of the captain of the militia, or the provost marshal, and no "stay laws" or "valuation laws" impeded its operation, and no "redemption" after sale. Occasions, however, were not frequent, calling for the exercise of judicial authority or rendering a regular administration of justice necessary, for the inhabitants were generally peaceable, and honest and punctual in their dealings, each one knowing how far it was safe to  p222 extend confidence, and the beauties of the "credit system" then but partially unfolded.

Trifling matters — such small difficulties as will arise even with the best regulated communities — were usually settled by the mild interposition of the commandant or of the priest.

In those little disturbances which would naturally arise from Antoine's saying hard things of his neighbor, Baptiste, who had killed his dog, or whipped his child, the offended party would carry his complaint to the good curé and in the confessional, or somewhere else, the "tort-feasor" would be required to make the proper atonement. It must not be supposed, however, because the priest was a Jesuit, that his punishments partook of the cruelty of the rack and the inquisition — an additional ave and credo was, in general, sufficient penance.

Thus were exercised executive and judicial powers — of legislative, there was none. Their code of laws was the customs of Paris, then the common law of France, and introduced into all her American colonies, changed and modified, more or less, by the ignorance or arbitrary will of those called upon to expound and apply them. Their own peculiar local usages, of course, had the force of law.


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