Court Architecture and the
Development of Democracy



Courts in Colonial Virginia

Duties of the Local Courts

Local Court Procedures and Personnel

Colonial Punishments

Court Architecture & Democracy

Order in the Court Web Adventure

18th C. Legal Terms


Mock Trial of Abigail Briggs

Order in the Court Teacher Guide

Other Classroom Activities

As the population of the Virginia colony grew, so did the number of courts needed to handle conflicts and disputes based on local laws and contracts. These included boundary disputes, and crimes ranging from petty theft to failure to attend church (as required monthly). Enslaved persons and people of color were tried in the local courts for all types of crimes. By the time of the American Revolution there were 60 county courts including the James City County Court pictured below.

James County Court Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

The Courthouse pictured above was built in 1770 and served as both the James City County Court and the Hustings Court or the court of the City of Williamsburg. This building handled much of local government. To reinforce the fact that it was the center of local government, the court building was located in the very center of the town on Market Square. Here the community gathered to participate in the training of the Williamsburg Militia Company, to exchange the news of the day, and to buy and sell the goods required in daily life.

Map of Market Square
Colonial Williamsburg Official Guide, p. 36

Since Market Square was in the center of the town’s activities, the courthouse steps became a favorite location for events. Public announcements, celebrations and elections for members of the House of Burgesses were all held there and gradually led to public participation in government.

The architecture of the court building reinforced this role. The court had a raised front porch, with no pillars or railings to block people’s view. An overhang of the roof (cantilevered pediment) also added to this public focus. It sheltered speakers from the rain and sun. They could be seen and heard, but were not too far above the people assembled below. This opportunity for assembly in the people’s own element was as important an influence on the development of the spirit of independence as were the outspoken voices of Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson in the House of Burgesses. In fact, attorney Benjamin Waller made the first Williamsburg public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 25, 1776 from the courthouse steps.

“…the building itself became a sort of community center that brought
together all levels of Tidewater society. Democracy started here.”
Michael Olmert

Reading the Declaration of Independence from James County Courthouse Steps

Other elements of court architecture reinforced the respect with which the court was held in the community. These were elements used only or mostly in public buildings, the cupola and the arched shuttered windows. Cupolas have a long history of representing power. From the Pantheon of Rome to the Duomo of Florence, the dome has adorned public building and has meant power based on knowledge and skill. The dome atop the Williamsburg courthouse also represented the classical origins of rule of law. And, though modest in comparison to the domes mentioned above, it towered gracefully above all but the Capitol and Governor’s Palace, its weather vane reaching to the sky.

Inside, architecture and ornament reinforced the power of the court without overlooking its democratic functions. For example, power was reinforced by the central placement of the king’s coat of arms above everyone in the court. Then too, the area for the magistrates was fenced off from the rest of the court by a mahogany railing. Here cushioned benches for the magistrates were built into the mahogany paneling along the rounded rear wall of the court room and raised above the level of the rest of the court several steps. The chief magistrate had a tall chair reminiscent of the king’s throne.

Mock Trial in James County Court, Colonial Williamsburg,
Colonial Williamsburg Magazine, Summer 1991

On the other hand, the furniture of the courtroom accentuated the democratic nature of the building and its function. The clerk’s table sat in the center of the room, at the floor level of the people, but still separate. With the magistrate’s railing behind it, and a second railing or “bar” separating the table from the public, the clerk’s function as go between was established. Interestingly, it was the clerk who understood the law more than any of the judges or magistrates.

Court Clerk at His Table

Lastly, since trial attendance was frequent and part of the growing ideas of democracy, there had to be a place for the public in the building. The court proceedings were as much theater as justice and there was always a big turnout on court days. However, loitering was discouraged in that the public was required to stand (behind the bar, of course) while all the members of the court itself were seated when not speaking or performing some court function.

Modern Audience “Behind the Bar” Watching a Trial