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The nineteenth century was a time of astonishing change in technologies of transportation. When the Constitution was ratified, to travel from New Haven to Hartford would require an arduous and uncertain trip on a rough road that could span more than a day. At the start of the twentieth century, railroads conveyed thousands of people daily along that route in a few hours, and the first automobiles were motoring over roads. The great progress in infrastructure development radically transformed the commercial, physical, and cultural landscape of America.

This transformation required great mobilizations of capital and human labor, which, in turn, were dependent upon a variety of institutions: corporations, banks, courts to enforce contracts, regulatory bodies, and more. Behind the physical infrastructure of America lies a legal and institutional infrastructure which enables change even as it responds to it. This paper will explore the development of this more abstract infrastructure. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, business organizations and transactional structures progressed rapidly as they supported physical and economic development of the country. Vast mobilizations of energy and capital had to be coordinated; law served this function. Through a series of case-studies from New Haven the paper will consider the role of law in the development of the young nation.


Paper submitted by Thomas P. Schmidt for Urban Legal History course taught by Professor Robert Ellickson. December 17, 2010.