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Sources for Early American Legal History

Getting Started



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.

Archives Links

If the material you need isn't available here, it might be available from the state or federal archives. 

Print Research Guides

Books and Journal Articles

Finding Articles

Historical Newspaper Sources

Books About American Legal History

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.

Historical Legal Treatises

Early treatises can be an important source for discovering the law and early cases.

Finding Cases

Nominative Reporters

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:

  • *If possible determine the jurisdiction.  Table 1 of the Bluebook lists many of the nominative state and federal reporters by jurisdiction.
  • *Use an abbreviation index or dictionary to decipher the abbreviation.
  • *Use tools to search case databases by party name instead of citation. Check alternate spellings of the party names.
  • *Try finding the case cited in a more modern source with standardized citations.
  • *Check the treatise to see if the author provided a table or guide to the abbreviations used in the text.

Deciphering Legal Abbreviations

Subject Digests

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.

Sources for Early Case Law

Several historical databases include early case reporters and collections of laws:

Statutes and Codes

Legislative History Sources

If you are looking for sources for congressional documents and other legislative history materials, please see our Federal Legislative History Guide.

Deciphering Legal Abbreviations

Sources for Early Statutes and Codes

Several historical databases include statutes and codes:

Constitutional History

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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