Because legal citation and publication didn't become regularized until the 19th century, researching early cases and laws can seem overwhelming. This guide contains suggested sources to help get you started.
If the material you need isn't available here, it might be available from the state or federal archives.
There are many books written on American legal history. These two give a general overview. You can also search or browse HOLLIS for more specific titles.
Early treatises can be an important source for discovering the law and early cases.
If you find case citations in early cases and treatises, they often don't follow the modern standardized citation format.
Early collections of case decisions were cited by the name of the clerk who reported the cases. For example, you may see Marbury v. Madison cited as 1 Cranch 137 after William Cranch, the reporter for the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801-1815. Frequently, the nominative report was later renumbered or republished into one of the modern official reporters. Marbury is now cited as 5 U.S. 137.
Here are some tips for finding and interpreting early nominative reporter cites:
Digests are a useful tool for finding case citations organized by subject. Use these general digests to identify early cases, or search HOLLIS or full-text databases to find subject-specific digests.
Several historical databases include early case reporters and collections of laws:
If you are looking for sources for congressional documents and other legislative history materials, please see our Federal Legislative History Guide.
Several historical databases include statutes and codes:
In addition to the databases listed under Statutes and Codes, the following sources can be useful for state and federal constitutional history.
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