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American Women: Resources from the Law Library

Rare Book Collections

The Rare Book Collection of the Law Library of Congress contains a large and diverse assortment of materials. These unique holdings include:

  • laws from colonial America
  • historical laws of other countries
  • early court decisions and treatises
  • reprints and other copies of colonial records relating to court decisions, such as the records of the Massachusetts' executor of wills and other property records

Laws, court decisions, and treatises written and published before 1801 are considered rare, as are certain "one of a kind" items published after 1801. Most of these materials are in their original printings.

The bulk of the Rare Book Collection relates to American law materials contained in two categories, Territorial and State Session Laws and the American State Trials Collection, which are described in greater detail in separate subsections below.

In addition to these American law materials, the Rare Book Collection also includes historical laws and treatises from France, Spain, Russia, Great Britain, and other Commonwealth countries. The laws of Great Britain are the most extensive because of their significance in America and their influence on America's laws. Often the colonies based their original laws on the British or other European systems. The Statutes of the Realm of Great Britain, dating back to 1235, are the oldest. Law in Louisiana, the only civil law state, was, on the other hand, influenced by French and Spanish civil codes. The Coutumes of France, dating back to the fifteenth century and the precursor to the contemporary French Civil Code, are in this collection. The Castillian Leone Code, Las Siete Partidas, the precursor to the Spanish Civil Code, as well as a collection of Imperial Russian materials including the laws in force during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-96), can be found in the Rare Book Collection.

Although the Rare Book Collection consists primarily of laws, there are a number of treatises. One treatise pertaining to women is Laws Respecting Women as they regard their Natural Rights, or Their Connections and Conduct, published in Great Britain in 1777 (see bibliography at end of section on Married Women's Property Laws).

American Law Materials

An Act for Punishment of Scandalous Persons in A Complete Collection of the Laws of Virginia at a Grand Assembly held at James City 23 March 1662.[between 1684 and 1687]. American Women: A Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States.

Territorial and state session laws make up the major portion of the Rare Book Collection. They include a large number of early colonial and state marriage, property, and dower laws in their original wording. These laws date from late-seventeenth-century Massachusetts and early-eighteenth-century Virginia. An edition of The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusetts Colony in New-England, Revised and Reprinted (London, 1675) is one of the earliest.8 A section on dowries states:

It is Ordered by this Court and the Authority thereof, that every Married Woman, (living with her Husband in this Jurisdiction, or other, where absent from him with his consent or through his meet default, or inevitable providence, or in case of Divorce, where she is the innocent party) that shall not before Marriage be estated by way of joynture, in some Houses, Lands, Tenements or other Hereditaments for term of life, shall immediately after the death of her Husband, have Right and Interest by way of Dowry, in and to one third part of all such Houses, Lands, Tenements and Hereditaments. . . .9

These session laws contain a wealth of information about the lives of men and women during the colonial period. Interestingly, the laws on marriage in Virginia in 1722 indicate that a marriage license could be paid for in shillings and pence or in tobacco:

An Act concerning Marriages.

Ministers shall not marry People without License, of thrice Publication of Banes, according to the Rubrick.

...Fees for Marriage Licenses.
s.   l.
To the Government   20   or   200 of tobacco
To the Clerk of the County Court   5   or   50
To the Minister if by License   20   or   100
If by Banes   5   or   50
For publishing the Banes and Certificate   1 s. 6d   or   15

If these Fees be not paid in ready Money, they shall be paid at the Time of Year in Tobacco of the Growth of the Parish where the Feme shall live, and on Refusal of payment be leviable by districts as per Clerks Fees.10

Such laws, written in the script of the colonial period, reveal aspects of colonial life that were important enough to legislate and litigate.

In addition to laws relating to the original thirteen colonies, the Law Library's collection of territorial and state session laws also includes laws of the Hawaiian Islands before 1896, when they were ruled by Queen Liliuokalani, as well as laws relating to Native American Nations, including the Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee tribal codes. Some of these codes are written in the vernacular script of the tribe. The codes of several tribes show them as strongly matrilineal.

The American State Trials Collection is an extraordinary body of state trials published from colonial times through the first quarter of the twentieth century. Even today, when publishing court decisions is much more common, state trials are rarely among those that are printed. The judicial opinions and trial transcripts found in this collection include cases on adultery, murder, libel, and rape. Included are several domestic homicide trials in which a wife is charged with poisoning her husband or as acting as an accessory in a murder or is a victim of murder. Many of these trials took place before there were female attorneys or women jurors. Some resulted in interesting verdicts, considering the period and the views men held about women.

In the case of Commonwealth (Massachusetts) v. Fairchild, a Congregational minister was convicted of seduction in 1844 and banned from the church by an ecclesiastical court. In a subsequent civil trial, he was acquitted of adultery.11 In other trials, wives were acquitted of charges brought against them. In Commonwealth (Massachusetts) v. Kinney, 1840, “Hannah Kinney was acquitted of the charge of murdering her husband by arsenic poison.” The jury took only three minutes of deliberation to reach its decision.12

Books written about such trials or newspaper articles reporting the events of a trial as they unfolded show how highly publicized some of them were. Such complementary materials will be found not in the Law Library but in other Library of Congress collections, such as the General Collections or the collections of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division and the Serial and Government Publications Division.

Print Resources

The links below will connect to full bibliographic information for each title in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.


Links in the following notes will take researchers to the corresponding entries in the Library of Congress online catalog. Sources linked in previous note sections will not be re-linked.

  1. The Law Library owns a photostatic copy of the 1648 edition. According to the note included in the photostat reproduction of the earliest Massachusetts Code, “The existence of this, the first printed collection of the Laws of Massachusetts Bay, has long been known, but this is the only copy that has come to light. After many years of fruitless search it was discovered in 1906 in a small private library in England. No other book has been more earnestly sought for than this; . . .” — Church. Back to text
  2. The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusetts Colony in New England, Revised and Reprinted, by Order of the General Court Holden at Boston, May 15th, 1672 (London, 1675; KFM2430 1672 .A25), 42. Back to text
  3. An Abridgement of the Publick Laws of Virginia in Force and Use June 10, 1720 (London: F. Fayram and J. Clarke, 1722; KFV2430.5 .B48 1728 Jefferson Coll). Back to text
  4. Trial of Rev. Joy Hamlet Fairchild (Boston, 1845; BX5960.O6 A2). Back to text
  5. Morris Cohen, Bibliography of Early American Law: Criminal Trials, no. 12772, 542 (KF1 .C58 1998). Back to text