Zephaniah Swift's First Legal
Texts in America
Judge Swift has been
praised as one of the greatest early American jurists by Wesley W.
Horton in his book, The Connecticut State Constitution. Swift
studied at Yale before entering the practice of law, and represented
the town of Windham in the General Assembly of Connecticut. He was
elected to the U.S.
Congress where he served from 1787 to 1793. A
brief paragraph in the Biographical Directory of the United
States Congress states he "also engaged in literary pursuits."
More specifically, Swift
wrote the first legal treatise published in America. This work, A
System of the Law of the State of Connecticut, published in
1795, presents Swift’s observations on government, the constitution
of the state, and differences between English and American common
law. In 1810, Swift published the first treatise on the law of
Appointed a judge of the
Superior Court in 1801, Swift rose to the position of Chief Judge in
1815. Judge Swift sometimes generated controversy as in Lung’s
Case, 1 Conn. 428 (1815). Peter Lung was convicted of murder and
sentenced to death, with Swift as one of the three presiding judges.
Lung appealed to the State Legislature and, citing irregularities in
the grand jury proceedings, the Assembly ordered a new trial. Judge
Swift published a pamphlet criticizing the action stating in part,
"…the legislature should never encroach on the judiciary…"
With the adoption of the
Connecticut Constitution of 1818, Judge Swift lost his position on
the bench, and returned to Windham to represent the town once again
in the General Assembly. During this time, he completed his best
known work, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Connecticut.
Swift’s digest and his judicial opinions are still cited today.
For further discussions
of Judge Zephaniah Swift and the legal developments of the time, see
19 Conn. Bar J. 181, and 27 Conn. Bar J. 419.
of Connecticut Legal History