Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court opens its October Term. Most Americans these days will not mark this first Monday in October with any fanfare, but in 18th-century Virginia, the celebration of “Court Day” established the legal and social rules for the entire community.
While the law defined public authority, the rituals observed on Court Day proceeded like a dramatic play whose setting and actions upheld communal customs and societal order.
In colonial Virginia, courthouses were impressive places-- constructed of red brick, in contrast to the more common wooden structures of homes, businesses and churches. Often they were located at a crossroads, near the center of the county, on a green with a tavern nearby. Inside, portraits of the British Royal family and prominent colonial families hung on the walls.
Virginians marked their lives by the Court’s opening and closing, with everyone coming to Court, even just to listen and be seen. Lawsuits were brought in March, Grand Inquests took place in May, September saw crop complaints, and November dealt the annual examination of petty sins and misdemeanors.
While order and routine reigned over legal proceedings, social customs proved equally powerful in upholding community power. From top to bottom, everyone knew their place. Gentlemen arrived in coaches drawn by horsemen, while servants, slaves and small property holders occupied their positions outside on the porch.
Tobacco planters served as justices, passing their seats down not to the most gifted jurist, but to their sons, visibly proclaiming the public rank of a family to the community.
And so, Court Day served as both a legal and customary demonstration of power. The law rarely was enforced through the mere fear of punishment, but rather it promoted acquiescence among a people persuaded of its common value.
As long as the routine, rituals and repetition of these acts provided a shared perception of public value, the Court’s ability to control social and political order kept Court Day alive as the stage upon which the dynamic between authority and custom persisted in colonial Virginia.