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Law Enforcement in Colonial America


My career of choice is in the criminal justice system as a law enforcer. Throughout history, the law enforcers have been accredited as the preservers of law and order in society. Like many other professions, law enforcement has undergone changes through the years and the realities for a police officer of the 18th century greatly differ from those of an officer of the 21st century. In this paper, I will review the realities that faced a police officer in colonial America. His work conditions, salary, and social standing shall be illustrated so as to offer a comparison with today’s conditions.

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Law Enforcement in Colonial America

Law enforcement in colonial America was mostly necessitated by the need to protect the colonists from attacks from foreign enemies, rival colonists of the Native Americans (Dempsey & Forst 10). The most important law officer was the county sheriff, who was aided in his task of maintaining law and order by constables. The constable would be the equivalence of a modern-day police officer, and this is the job description that I would have. These officers who worked under the sheriff’s office were taxed with duties such as suppression of vices, correction of disorderly persons, and protecting the civilian population.

The colonial periods were marred with insecurity both from the natives and from other colonists. As such, law enforcement officers faced a lot of danger and had a lot of obligations in their quest to preserve peace and good order. Since the presence of police officers was sometimes not felt by the people due to their small numbers, citizens in most cases took the law into their own hands and exercised their own justice through vigilantism and regular lynching of alleged criminals (Knafla 5). This greatly hampered the work of the police force.

While there existed respect for the role that law enforcers played in maintaining security among the colonies, law enforcers were not greatly appreciated by the general public, and few people undertook this career. There were generally feelings of hostility towards constables and other officers of the law as they were seen to inform on offenders (Monkkonen, 212). The salary paid to an officer was about $3000 as of the 19th Century (Uchida 15).

Owing to the fact that this amount was relatively low, most police officers engaged in rampant corruption, such as allowing thieves and conmen to operate as long as they gave a share of their proceeds to the officers. This acts of corruption further alienated the law enforces from the people.

McManus notes that law enforcement was not a popular career, and that demand for officers was relatively high (33). I, therefore, reckon that I would have been able to pursue a career without much objection. In addition to this, the law enforcement field was male domain and as such, I would not have had any restrictions. If for some reason I was unable to pursue my career of choice, the next equally attractive career would have been a career as a ranch foreman. This career was also marketable since there existed many ranches especially in the southern colonies. Demand for good foremen who would also provide security against rustles was high.


This paper set out to research into the historical setting of my career of choice. A brief description of the work conditions and social standing of the career in colonial America has been made. From the arguments presented herein, it is evident that law enforcement has undergone dramatic changes especially with regard to police presence and the social perception of the law enforcers. This might be as a result of the advancement of our country and the realization of the important role that police officers play in maintaining peace and stability to our nation.

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Works cited

Dempsey, J and Forst, L. An introduction to Policing. Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

Knafla, Louis. Violent crime in North America. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003. Print.

McManus, Edgar. Law and Liberty in Early New England: Criminal Justice and Due Process, 1620-1692. University of Massachusetts Pr, 2009. Print.

Monkkonen, Eric. Police in Urban America, 1860-1920. Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Uchida, Craig. The Development of the American Police: An Historical Overview. Waveland Press, Inc. 2004.

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