By Kathleen A. Major

    The American Antiquarian Society is a learned society founded by Isaiah Thomas in 1812 in Worcester, Massachusetts. The third oldest historical society in the country, it is the first to be national rather than regional in its purposes and in the scope of its collections. The library contains twenty miles of bookshelves on which are preserved more than 600,000 volumes, an equal number of manuscripts, maps, engravings, broadsides and prints, and two million seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century American newspapers. The American Antiquarian Society holds two-thirds of the total pieces known to have been printed in this country between 1640 and 1821 and possesses useful source materials and reference works printed since that period.

    The card catalogue of the Society’s collection of manuscripts has been published in a four-volume set: Catalogue of the Manuscript Collections of the American Antiquarian Society (Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1979). The printed catalogue in turn acts as a comprehensive index to the more detailed, unpublished collection descriptions filed in the manuscripts department and in the main reading room.

    For an inquiry into the development of law in colonial Massachusetts, the manuscript holdings of the American Antiquarian Society can be best divided into four categories: (1) Lawyers’ Papers, (2) Justice of the Peace Records, (3) Court Records, and (4) Town Records. The Society’s holdings of early Lawyers’ Papers are limited, but noteworthy. The first lawyer in the colony was Thomas Lechford, whose notebook, 1638–1641, is located in the Society’s manuscripts department. (See Thomas G. Barnes, “Thomas Lechford and the Earliest Lawyering in Massachusetts, 1638–1641,” above, 3–38.) Lechford became a controversial figure. After he was censured in 1639 for attempting to influence a jury outside the court, he returned to England, where he published Plain Dealing: or Newes from New-England. Lechford’s notebook is a detailed record of every legal document and/or transaction drawn by him in Boston. He also included accounts of compensation he received for his work. The records reveal much concerning seventeenth-century New England political and legal history. The notebook has been published in the Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 8 (1885).

    Two other manuscript collections may be placed in the category of Lawyers’ Papers. Although John Winthrop (1587/88–1649) and Samuel Tompson (1630–1695) were not strictly speaking members of that profession, their manuscripts are representative of the type of work that is often performed by counsel today. Governor Winthrop certainly influenced the development of law in seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay. The Winthrop manuscript, dated 1642, 1s apparently a contemporary copy of Governor Winthrop’s brief in the famous Sow Case of 1642, which led to the establishment of a bicameral colonial legislature in 1644. The manuscript details Winthrop’s support of the magistrates in the case and includes a history or “breaveate” of the case and the general opinion of the court. It has been published in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 30 (1920).

    The notebook, 1678–1695, of Samuel Tompson of Braintree, Massachusetts, is entitled “Magnum Parvo; or, the Pen’s Perfection,” and contains instructions for the preparation of legal forms, such as bonds, subpoenas, bills, and wills, and several copies of legal documents, such as bills of sale and articles of agreement.

    The manuscript records of justices of the peace reflect the responsibilities and powers of colonial judges in Massachusetts. The Society’s holdings include “Justice of the Peace Records” for Suffolk County, 1731–1763. These contain notes on forms and precedents relating to the office and duty of the magistrates, and papers of a wealthy Charlestown merchant, Joseph Lemmon (1692–1750), who served as Justice of the Peace in Middlesex County, land deeds, summonses, and other legal documents issued by Lemmon, 1708–1767. The “Justice of the Peace Records” also include the account book, 1758–1802, of Leominster merchant Thomas Legate (1735–1807) containing entries concerning his duties as Justice of the Peace, such as debtor records, fees paid for his magisterial services, and marriages performed; and several papers, 1750–1777, of Jedediah Foster (1726–1779) in the Foster Family Papers. The Foster Papers document his position as Justice of the Peace in Brookfield and include business letters, warrants, and writs issued by him.

    Colonial Court Records include (a) those legal documents that are found in many collections of family papers, such as wills, land deeds, court summonses, petitions, powers of attorney, and the like; and (b) actual court logs. The American Antiquarian Society possesses, as an example of the latter, the Hampshire County Court Records, 1677–1696. These two volumes document the probating of wills and court trials for a wide variety of offenses, both civil and criminal. The Worcester County Papers also contain judicial records for 1731 to 1775, including warrants, declarations of indebtedness and examinations of the poor, criminal indictments, summonses, petitions, probate records, writs of attachment, court orders, jury lists, transcripts of court testimony, and colonial jail records for the period 1748–1775.

    Family collections also provide information relating to courtroom law in colonial Massachusetts. Examples are the Lincoln Family Papers, 1731–1937, and the Thayer Family Papers, 1735–1836. William Lincoln (1801–1843), noted Worcester lawyer, historian, and librarian, collected four volumes of material, 1731–1840, relating to the judicial process, including a volume of memoranda, 1731–1743, from the records of the Worcester County Court of General Sessions, and three volumes of miscellaneous legal papers, 1750–1840, such as briefs and case studies. The Thayer family of Mendon included members who appear to have participated often in the judicial process through lawsuits, receipts of debt settlements, wills, and land deeds. There are other collections of family papers in the manuscripts department that contain similar material. These have not been necessarily catalogued under the usual legal history subject headings in the published catalogue because of the broad scope and content of those collections.

    The fourth category is “Town Records.” Their value lies in the information they provide concerning the quasi-judicial function that town officials often exercised. In the Worcester, Massachusetts Collection, 1686–1775, are records that deal with the poor laws, license records, vital records, and other forms of colonial regulation. The Shrewsbury, Massachusetts Papers, 1723–1877, include court summonses and arrest warrants, while many other manuscript collections of local records contain similar legal material, as well as occasional records of proprietors’ meetings. Among these are the papers of Sudbury, 1642–1834; Sutton, c. 1683–c. 1868; Shutesbury, 1742–1781; and Brookfield, 1673–1860. For more information concerning the Society’s holdings in all of these areas, the researcher should consult the published manuscripts catalogue under the subject headings: “Court Records,” “Local Records,” “Law,” and “Lawyers.”