Legal History

Legal History in the United States

See a comprehensive list of legal history topics here.

With the exception of Louisiana, which continued to follow the (French) civil law system, the U.S. legal tradition were developed essentialy from the English common law system, with some influences of some Spanish law concepts and principles in several states (like New Mexico, Texas and California), including the “community property” idea inspired in castilian law and later in existence in the Spanish civil code.

Some Resources


  • United States Supreme Court Digest, 1754 to Date.
  • Century Edition of the American Digest covers 1658-1896, continued by Decennial Edition of the American Digest covering 1896-1906. The Decennial Digest series has continued to the present and is updated regularly.


  • For historical statutes to be found, use citations from secondary sources and cases, and use indexes and tables in statutory sets.
  • Index to the Federal Statutes, 1874-1931.
  • Statutes at Large, the session laws of the United States Congress. Each volume contains an index.
  • HeinOnline Statutes at Large Library, digitized archive beginning with volume 1.
  • LLMC Digital includes digitized version of Index to the Federal Statutes, 1874-1931


  • American State Trials is a 17-volume set of background and transcript segments from criminal trials in the United States from the 1600s to the early 1900s.
  • (United States Congressional) Serial Set – Senate and House documents, reports, and Senate treaty documents for the period 1789-1969.
  • A Century of Lawmaking: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. Includes digitalized versions of the Statutes at Large, American State Papers, early volumes of the Serial Set, the Congressional Record and its precursor titles, House and Senate journals, and materials from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention.

Historical Documents

  • Yale Law Library Avalon Project:  Text of important documents related to law, including constitutions, treaties, statutes, and papers
  • Univ. of Oklahoma Law School Chronology of U.S. Historical Documents:  Text of important documents, including presidential speeches, statutes, and founding documents
  • Library of Congress American Memory Collection:  Digital documents related to U.S. history to browse by topic or search, including documents on government and law
  • Library of Congress:  Primary Documents in American History:  Includes select major legislation, constitutional amendments, treaties.  With links to Library of Congress and other historical document collections.
  • National Archives and Records Administration:  100 Milestone Documents.  Includes treaties, constitutional amendments, Supreme Court decisions, presidential addresses and orders, legislation.  Original document image plus transcript and background information.

References and Further Reading

  • Friedman, Lawrence M. A History of American Law (3rd ed. 2005)
  • Friedman, Lawrence M. American Law in the Twentieth Century (2002)
  • Hall, Kermit L. The Magic Mirror: Law in American History (1989)
  • Hall, Kermit L. et al. American Legal History: Cases and Materials (2010)
  • Horwitz, Morton J. The transformation of American law: 1780 – 1860 (1977)
  • Horwitz, Morton J. The transformation of American law, 1870-1960: the crisis of legal orthodoxy (1994)
  • Howe, Mark de Wolfe, ed. Readings in American Legal History (2001)
  • Johnson, Herbert A. American legal and constitutional history: cases and materials (2001)
  • Root and Branch: Contexts of Legal History in Alabama and the South, Pruitt, Paul, The Journal of Southern Legal History (2009)
  • Rabban, David M. (2003) “The Historiography of Late Nineteenth-Century American Legal History,” Theoretical Inquiries in Law
  • The Oxford international encyclopedia of legal history, Oxford University Press, 2009
  • Schwartz, Bernard. The Law in America. (Evolution of American legal institutions since 1790) (1974).
  • Glenn, H. Patrick (2000). Legal Traditions of the World. Oxford University Press.
  • Sadakat Kadri, The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson, HarperCollins 2005.
  • Kelly, J.M. (1992). A Short History of Western Legal Theory. Oxford University Press.
  • Gordley, James R.; von Mehren, Arthur Taylor (2006). An Introduction to the Comparative Study of Private Law.
  • Otto, Martin (2011). “Law”. European History Online.
  • Sealy, L.S.; Hooley, R.J.A. (2003). Commercial Law. LexisNexis Butterworths.
  • Stein, Peter (1999). Roman Law in European History. Cambridge University Press.
  • Kempin, Jr., Frederick G. (1963). Legal History: Law and Social Change. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  • Public and Private Laws: About
  • United States Code
  • U.S. Code collection at Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute
  • “United States District Courts”.
  • American Legal History Texts in Internet
    Columbine Review Commission report on the worst school shooting in U.S. history.
    AUDIO COLLECTION – HARVARD LAW SCHOOL FORUM. The Harvard Law School Forum is currently digitizing and posting to the web its collection of speeches and panel discussions from the last 40 years. Tapes (and even transcription discs) of some seventy historic programs have been lying in a file cabinet for years. Some probably have not been played since their recording. To release these important programs to the public, they are being posted on the Forum website.
    The Ames Foundation, based at Harvard Law School, supports research into legal history through publications (notably the yearbooks of Richard II) and grants. The site includes a catalog of their publications.
    The Southern Poverty Law Center
    Yale Law School Avalon Project
    National Constitution Center
    Independence Hall Association
    Colonial Williamsburg Official Website
    Documents in the news.
    Anti-Defamation League Website
    Catalog of U.S. Government publications. The Catalog is a search and retrieval service that provides bibliographic records of U.S. Government information resources. Use it to link to Federal agency online resources or identify materials distributed to Federal Depository Libraries. Coverage begins with January 1994 and new records are added daily. Start searching below or learn more about the Catalog and how to search it effectively.
    The Digital National Security Archive contains more than 35,000 of the most important declassified documents that led to policy decisions. There are twelve complete collections: Afghanistan, Berlin Crisis 1958-1962, Cuban Missile Crisis, El Salvador, Iran-Contra Affair, Intelligence Community, Iran Revolution, Military Uses of Space, Nicaragua, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Philippines, and South Africa. The National Security Archive is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
    Federal depository library gateways.
    Congressional Quarterly.
    Legal History Sources (UTexas)
    Literature of Legal History
    The Online US Constitution
    American Legal History Texts
    General Legal History Texts
    Documenting the American South — UNC at Chapel Hill Library
    WWLIA Access
    Documents for American Legal History (Robert Palmer, University of Houston Law Center.
    Famous American Trials (Douglas Linder, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law).
    Sweatt v. Painter Archive (Thomas Russell, University of Texas School of Law)
    A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1873.
    Confederate States of America, The Statutes at Large of the Confederate States of America, Commencing with the First Session of the First Congress;1862. Public Laws of the Confederate States of America, Passed at the First Session of the First Congress; 1862. Private Laws of the Confederate States of America, Passed at the First Session of the First Congress; 1862.
    Legal History website edited by Thomas D. Russell, University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

    Legal History


    Further Reading

    Legal History: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

    Federal Primary Materials

    The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Legal History. This part provides references, in relation to Legal History, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

    Federal primary materials about Legal History by content types:

    Laws and Regulations

    US Constitution
    Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

    Federal Case Law and Court Materials

    U.S. Courts of Appeals
    United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

    Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

    Presidential Materials

    Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

    Executive Materials

    Federal Legislative History Materials

    Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Legal History and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Legal History or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

    State Administrative Materials and Resources

    State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Legal History and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Legal History. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Legal History should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

    State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

    State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Legal History when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

    Tools and Forms

    Law in Other Regions

    *This resource guide is updated frequently. However, if you notice something is wrong or not working, or any resources that should be added, please notify us in any of the "Leave a Comment" area.

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