I don't have an authoritative source for it, but given all the references to the "laws of the seas" in the English-language literature, I can only assume that the phrase "the law of the land" used to refer to the law on land as opposed to the law at sea.

Today, the US Constitution is commonly described as "the law of the land" and that's taken to mean "the law of this land" as opposed to other lands.

My take on it is that since the Constitution was written (essentially) by Englishmen and since Great Britain was a naval empire, it was a fact, more likely than not, that there was a clear distinction, on their minds, between "the law of the land" and "the law of the sea".

As a side note, "the law of the sea" is sometime called an "admiralty law". It is now clearly considered to be subservient to the Constitution. As a "side, side" note, this point is humorously explored in the last season of the show "Arrested Development".

To reiterate the question in the title, when did this change occur? Has it caused, or was it precipitated by, a change in the functioning of the US Federal Government?

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's based on a false premise. Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 6:26
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    The only place "the law of the land" occurs is Article 6 "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." It's an unambiguous usage.
    – agc
    Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 6:29
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    Honestly your questly is quite unclear to me. I'm not sure what the seas or admiralty has to do with anything regarding the meaning of "the law of the land". Can you cite some source that says the "law of the land" refers not to the land on which it was passed?? Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 10:17

1 Answer 1


According to Wikipedia's page on the law of the land which cites Black's law dictionary for the current meaning, the expression always meant the law on the land on which it was passed.

It refers to all of the laws in force within a country or region,[2][3][4][5] including statute law and case-made law.[6]

In the year 1215, this term was used in Magna Carta. Perhaps the most famous clause of Magna Carta states:

No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land.[7]

This is sometimes called the "law of the land clause". Magna Carta was originally written in Latin, and the Latin term is lex terrae, or legem terrae in the accusative case (i.e. when the term is being used as the object in a sentence).[1]

Half a millennium later, following the American Revolution, legislators looked to Magna Carta for inspiration, and emulated its "law of the land" language. Versions of it can be found in the Virginia Constitution of 1776,[8] the North Carolina Constitution of 1776,[9] the Delaware Constitution of 1776,[10] the Maryland Constitution of 1776,[11] the New York Constitution of 1777,[12] the South Carolina Constitution of 1778,[13] the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780,[14] and the New Hampshire Constitution of 1784.[15]

The only disputes were around how much of the laws on a given land were implied by this expression, but these precede the US stuff, e.g.

English jurists, writing of legem terrae in reference to the Magna Carta, stated that this term embraces all laws that are in force for the time being within a jurisdiction. For example, Edward Coke, commenting upon Magna Carta, wrote in 1606: "no man be taken or imprisoned but per legem terrae, that is, by the common law, statute law, or custom of England."[24][25] [...]

Littleton Powys, a judge of the King's Bench, wrote in 1704 with reference to Magna Carta: "lex terrae is not confined to the common law, but takes in all the other laws, which are in force in this realm; as the civil and canon law...."[31][32] In 1975, political scientist Keith Jurow asserted that the term "law of the land", as understood by Lord Coke, includes only the common law,[33] but that assertion by Jurow was called "manifestly wrong" in a 1990 article by Brigham Young Law School professor Robert Riggs.[34]

So I don't see any evidence it ever meant something else in the US. The parallels with the law of the sea seem a red herring to me.


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