“We are not makers of history. We are made by history” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
More than any other area of societal interaction, the impact of history on the law is both explicit and profound. With a common law system expressly reliant on precedent for stability, the Western legal system – particularly the English/American system – leans heavily on history as a foundation for decision making and setting a course for the future.
The power of precedent has impacted the development of law, and the continued expansion of the state and the complexity of legislation. Our increasingly complex society relies more on the precedent of principle than the precedent of practice in the application of the law. The limitations of our legal history and precedent become more profound when discussing issues such as privacy in a cell phone age. The creation of additional statutory law is the direct result of the increased complexity limiting the application of pure case precedent but also emphasizing the application of historical principle.
The student of the law still needs a strong working knowledge of legal history to both understand the development of society and the laws that governed it. Additionally, a study of legal history will bring forth not only insights into societal and legal principles of behavior, but the road traveled that made us who we are today, and some visibility into the road ahead. As King notes in the quote above – our collective legal history has brought us to this point and made our legal system what it is – and that system will be a significant influence on our collective societal future.