By Edith G. Henderson

    The Harvard Law Library, located in Langdell Hall, Cambridge, has an unusually full collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century legal materials, both English and American. In general, English imprints up to 1700 and American imprints to 1820 are housed in the Treasure Room, while most eighteenth-century English imprints are kept in other closed stack areas.


    A useful starting point for research is the collection Charters and General Laws of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay. It was edited by Nathan Dane, Joseph Story, and William Prescott, and published in Boston in 1814. This was an official compilation based on public records and early printed books, with a brief but useful statement of method in the preface. Dates were given for each act or provision where possible. After 1692 the collection appears to be a complete reprint of the session laws, year by year through 1779. There is an index and an appendix, the appendix containing more statutory matter whose relation to the main body of the book is not entirely clear.

    Other statutory compilations:

    The only known copy of The Capitall Lawes of New-England, a broadside reprinted in London, 1643, from an original printing “first in New England.” It seems highly unlikely that some of these “laws” were ever enforced, and the whole work seems more like some good Puritan’s notion of what the laws ought to be than actual legislation.

    A photographic facsimile of the Huntingdon Library’s unique Book of The General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning The Inhabitants of the Massachusets (Cambridge, Mass., 1648.)

    The Book Of The General Lawes and Libertyes (Cambridge, Mass., 1660, also the revision of 1672 as printed in Cambridge, Mass., 1672, and London, 1675.)

    Laws of the Dominion of New England, 1686, a pamphlet, reprinted in Concord, N. H., 1928, from the only known copy of the original edition. It deals largely with the judiciary.

    Book of the General Laws for New Plymouth, 1672 (facsimile) and 1685.

    Acts and Laws, 1699, 1710, 1721, 1726, 1759, 1781. Perpetual Laws to 1788 (Worcester, Isaiah Thomas). These give the impression that they were compiled on the “statutes now in force” principle, and so are useful only for years close to their publication dates.

    We have also the Whitmore compilations of colonial laws from 1660 to 1686 (Boston, 1889.)

    Charters are generally printed at the beginning of compilations of statutes. We have also the 1780 constitution: The Debates on its adoption are in the “open” stacks in an 1832 reprint.

    Session laws (published year by year as the General Court met): Our collection is fairly full from 1661 to 1680 and 1699 to 1774 as well as for later years, but there are some gaps. We have also a series of Massachusetts Resolves, from 1776 to 1806, a series of Temporary Acts, 1743 to 1774, and a few volumes of collected Tax Acts.

    Miscellaneous legislative and governmental material:

    Collection of the Proceedings of the Great and General Court, 1729.

    Massachusetts Bay, Council. Proclamation for Proroguing the General Court (25 Sept., 1757) (broadside.)

    Conference between the Commissaries of Massachusetts-Bay and the Commissaries of New-York at New-Haven,

    Proceedings of the Council and the House of Representatives, 1770 (relative to having the House meet outside Boston, for example, in Cambridge.)

    Continuation of the Proceedings of the House of Representatives, 1770 (likewise.)

    Case Law

    As is well known, it is more difficult to find American case law before 1800 than English cases of the thirteenth century. We have (in the Treasure Room, unless otherwise stated):

    Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Superior Court, covering cases 1761–1772, printed Boston, 1865, in eluding some grand jury charges and a learned appendix attributed to Horace Gray, J., on the Writs of Assistance.

    The Legal Papers of John Adams, 3 vols., edited by Kinvin Wroth and Hiller Zobel, Boston, 1965, on the “open” shelves.

    The Pynchon Manuscript, a notebook kept by William Pynchon and others as Justices of the Peace in Springfield, about 1639–1690. This was edited by Joseph H. Smith and printed under the title Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts (1639–1702): The Pynchon Court Record (Cambridge, 1961.)

    Notebook of Nathaniel Blagrove, probate judge in Bristol County, with notes of cases from 1733 to 1737. The individual notes are very brief, little more than listings.

    The (William) Cushing Manuscript of cases heard in the Supreme Judicial Court from 1772 to 1789.

    Photographic copies of the original papers for cases heard in the Middlesex County Court, 4 vols., approximately 1649–1664. These copies were made when the papers had been neatly pasted into books as a WPA Project; they are numbered and the arrangement is roughly chronological, but there is no index or table of contents.

    A small group of bills of lading for shipments from London to Boston, 1766 to 1771. (These are printed forms, bound into a little book.)

    Extracts of leases from the Selectmen of Boston, 1678 (manuscript.)

    Bridgman, Sarah, Testimonys Taken on Behalf of Sarah, the Wife of James Bridgman of Northampton (11 August 1656) (manuscript). (This includes the testimony of several people, including “Goodwyfe Bridgman,” as to the acts of one Mary Parsons, accused of witchcraft and tried in Springfield.)

    Parsons, Theophilus, Office Book; Docket. (1774–1800) (manuscript.) (This is a list of court cases for each court term during the period in question.)

    ———, Precedents. (Top right of first page dated Sept. 1775) (manuscript.) (These are samples of the forms necessary for bringing various causes of action.)


    The Harvard Law School Library has quite a large collection of individually printed trials. Those printed in this country before 1820 are in the Treasure Room, together with the English imprints before 1700. Not many of them relate to Massachusetts, but if the defendant’s name is known, and it is a trial that might have been printed, it could be worth investigating. The following is an attempt at a complete list for Massachusetts before 1800. We have rather more for 1800–1820.

    The trial of William Wemms, James Hartegan, William McCauley, Hugh White, Mathew Killroy, William Warren, John Carrol, Hugh Montgomery, Soldiers in His Majesty’s 29th Regiment of Foot for the Murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr. (Boston, 1770.) (These are the “Boston Massacre Trials.” John Adams and Josiah Quincy, Jr., represented the defendants. Quincy’s brother, Samuel Quincy, appeared with Robert Treat Paine for the Crown.)

    The state of the action brought by William Fletcher against William Vassall, for defaming him. Tried in the Superior Court at Boston August term, A.D. 1752 and now pending by Appeal to his Majesty in Council. (Boston, 1753.) (A collection of documents concerning an action of trespass on the case for defamation, with a preface by the plaintiff. James Otis appeared for the defense, while his father “Colonel” Otis represented the plaintiff.)

    Flagg, James, A short vindication of the conduct of the referees in the case of Gardiner versus Flagg, against the unjust aspersions contained in two anonymous pamphlets lately published and handed about. (Boston, 1767.) (This is an interesting account of litigation growing out of the rental and maintenance of a mill dam owned by Dr. Sylvester Gardiner. It is significant both for the use of other businessmen as referees to settle the dispute, and the use of pamphlets to gain public support for each side.)

    Chisholm v. Georgia. (Boston, 1793.) (This account of the famous case on whether a state could be sued by a private citizen of another state was printed for the Massachusetts legislature at its direction.)

    The interesting trials of the pirates, for the murder of William Little, Captain of the ship American Eagle. (Newburyport, 1796.) (This was an Admiralty trial held at the Old Bailey. The ship was an American vessel.)

    The proceedings of a general court martial, held at Cambridge, on Tuesday the Twentieth of January, and continued by several adjournments to Wednesday the 25th of February, 1778. Upon the trial of Colonel David Henley. (Boston, 1778.) (These were court martial proceedings against an American officer for mistreatment of British prisoners.)

    Trial of Jeremiah Hill, Esq. for heresy, before the Church of Christ in Biddeford May 2, 1703. (There is no place or date of printing. This was not a judicial proceeding, but a meeting of the “Association” of the Church of Christ.)

    A narrative of the Life and conversion of Alexander White, Aet. 23. who was executed at Cambridge, November 18, 1784 for the murder of a Captain White, at sea. (Boston, 1785.) (This is not an account of a trial, but rather of the religious conversion and repentance of the defendant while awaiting trial. One paragraph describes the defendant’s confession at trial.)


    The Treasure Room is famous for its collection of sixteenth-century English legal treatises. It also has a very full collection of English and American legal treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Coke, Dalton, Matthew Hale, and Blackstone are merely examples of the well-known authors represented. If it concerns colonial law, the chances are very good that it is in the Treasure Room.

    Editions printed in the United States before 1821, and in England before 1701, are kept in the Treasure Room, while eighteenth-century English editions, with a few exceptions, are in another closed area of the stacks.

    Some Massachusetts Imprints (Other than Massachusetts Statutes and Trials) From 1620 to 1800. The list is intended to be complete up to 1774, but for later years it is not. The treatises are grouped by place of printing.

    Boston, Massachusetts:

    Boone, Nicholas, Military discipline: the compleat solder. (Boston, 2d ed., 1706.) (This is a guide to soldiering, with a section on the military law of Massachusetts Bay.)

    ———, The constable’s pocketbook, being a guide to their keeping the peace. (Boston, 1710, 2d ed., 1727.) (This is a guide to constables in the form of a dialogue between an old and a new constable. It contains samples of warrant forms.)

    Breton, William, Militia Discipline. (Boston, 1733.)

    Dummer, Jeremiah, Defense of the New England Charters. (Boston, 1745, 1765.) (First printed in 1721, the defense is in response to attempts in Parliament to curtail the colonial charters.)

    Whitefield, George, A brief account of the occasion, process, and issue of a late trial at Gloucester, March 3, 1743, 4 between some of the people called Methodists Plaintiffs and certain persons of the Town of Minchin-Hampton, in said county, defendants. (Boston, 1744.) (Reprinted from a London print, 1744.) (The Methodist plaintiffs were victims of riots and successfully sought redress in court. Whitefield, one of the most important Methodist preachers of his day and a leader in the Great Awakening, took part in the trial.)

    Sever, Nicholas, A speech on the occasion of Col. Lothrop’s death, delivered at the opening of the Court of Common-Pleas at Plymouth, on the 15th of May 1750. (Boston, 1750.) (Sever was Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Isaac Lothrop was justice of the same court. The book also contains a speech by Peter Oliver, another justice of the court and later chief justice.)

    Mathew, Jonathan, A discourse occasioned by the death of the honourable Stephen Sewall, Esq. (Boston, 1760.) (Sewall was Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, and General-Gaol-Delivery, and a member of His Majesty’s Council for the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. The discourse is a eulogy with enlightening comparisons between Samuel Sewall and his Old Testament namesake.)

    Observations on Several Acts of Parliament passed in the 4th, 6th, and 7th years [1763, 1766, 1767] of his present Majesty’s reign: and also on the conduct of the Officers of the customs, since those Acts were passed, and the Board of Commissioners appointed to reside in America. Published by the merchants of Boston. (Boston, 1769.) (The Acts in question imposed duties and bonding requirements on the importation of goods.)

    The County and Town Officer; or an Abridgment of the Laws of the Province of the Massachusetts. (Boston, 1768.)

    Hawles, Sir John, The Englishman’s right, or a dialogue between a barrister at law and a jury man. (Boston, 1772.) (The “right” mentioned is the right to trial by jury, and the tract is an attempt to educate the populace on how to be good jurors. There is also a 1798 Philadelphia printing which also contains Francis Bacon’s “An Introductory essay on the moral duty of a judge.” This tract was originally printed in London.)

    Hutchinson, Thomas, A collection of original papers relative to the history of the colony of Massachusetts-Bay. (Boston, 1769.) (Contains various documents pertaining to the history of the colony, including “An abstract of the laws of New England,” originally published in England in 1655. In the preface Hutchinson wrote: “He who rescues from oblivion interesting historical facts is beneficial to posterity as well as to his contemporaries and the prospect thereof to a benevolent mind causes that employment to be agreeable and pleasant which otherwise would be irksome and painful.”)

    ———, Speeches of his excellency Governor Hutchinson. (Boston, 1773.)

    Parsons, Theodore and Pearson, Eliphalet, A forensic dispute on the legality of enslaving the Africans, held at the public Commencement in Cambridge, New-England, July 21st 1773 by two candidates for the Bachelor’s degree. (Boston, 1773.)

    Eliot, Andrew, Christ’s promise to the penitent thief. A sermon preached the Lord’s Day before the execution of Levi Ames, who suffered death for burglary, Oct. 21, 1773 Aet. 23. (Boston, 1773.) (This sermon was delivered at the desire of the prisoner, who was present at the occasion.)

    [Francis] Hargrave, An argument in the case of James Sommerset, a Negro, largely determined by the Court of King’s Bench: Where in it is attempted to demonstrate the present unlawfulness of domestic slavery in England. (Boston, 1774.) (Originally printed in England. Sommerset was a slave from Virginia who had left his master’s service in England and later was seized by men in the employ of his master, with the intention of taking him to Jamaica and selling him. Lord Mansfield granted a writ of habeas corpus and heard the case. Hargrave was one of Sommerset’s counsel. Sommerset was discharged from the custody of his former master.)

    French, Jonathan, A practical discourse against extortion, from Ezekiel XII, 12. Delivered at a lecture in the South Parish in Andover, 1 January 1777. (Boston, 1777.)

    Backus, Isaac, Government and Liberty described; and ecclesiastical tyranny exposed. (Boston, 1778.)

    The lawyer’s promotion. To an excellent new tune, (n.p.n.d., ca. 1780.) (This is the story of a rich woman who persuades a lawyer to marry her. “Now he’s cloathed in rich attire/Not inferior to a Squire./Thus you see he raised his Fame,/But I can’t relate his name.”)

    Warren, Mercy Otis, Observations on the new constitution, and on the federal and state conventions. (Boston, 1788.) (This was formerly ascribed to Elbridge Gerry.)

    Freeman, Samuel, The Massachusetts justice: being a collection of the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, relative to the power and duty of justices of the peace. (Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer Andrews, 1795.) (This also includes legal forms and rules for converting pounds, shillings, pence, and farthings into dollars and cents. There was a second edition in 1802, and a third edition in 1810.)

    ———, The probate auxiliary: or director and assistant to probate courts, executors, administrators and guardians. (Portland, Me., 1793.) (This contains sample forms. There was a second edition in 1806, and a third edition in 1812.)

    ———, The town officer: or power and duty of selectmen, town clerks, town treasurers, etc., as contained in the laws of Massachusetts, with forms. (Portland, Me., 1791.) (Subsequent editions were printed in Boston: 1793, 1794, 1799.)

    ———, A valuable assistant to every man: or American clerk’s magazine, containing the most useful forms. (Boston, 1794.) (There was a second edition in 1795; third edition in 1797; and a fourth edition in 1800.)

    Minot, George R., Continuation of the history of the province of Massachusetts Bay (1748–65.) (Boston, 1798–1803, 2 vols.)

    Worcester, Massachusetts:

    Jackson, Jonathan, Thoughts upon the political situation of the United States—by a native of Boston. (Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, 1788.)

    Blackstone, Sir William, Commentaries on the laws of England. (Isaiah Thomas: Worcester, 1790.) (This work was the first edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries published in Massachusetts. Equally interesting was its publisher, Isaiah Thomas. With only six weeks of formal education, Thomas eventually became one of the most important printers of his day. Thomas was a staunch opponent of the royal government. The British occupation of Boston in 1775 drove him from the city. In April of that year, he moved to Worcester. During the same month he joined Paul Revere and others in alarming the countryside, and fought as a minuteman at Lexington and Concord. Thomas’ business prospered in Worcester. There were 150 employees, seven printing presses, a paper mill, and a bindery. Thomas founded the American Antiquarian Society in 1812.)

    Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, baron, The Spirit of Laws. (Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, Jr., 1802.) (This is the first American edition, taken from the fifth London edition.)

    Thomas, Isaiah, History of Printing in America with a biography of printers. (Worcester: Isaac Sturtevant, 1810.)

    Portland, Maine:

    Freeman, Samuel, The town officer. (Portland: Benjamin Titcomb, 1791.)

    ———, The probate auxiliary. (Benjamin Titcomb, Jr., 1793.)

    ———, General directions to executors and administrators in the county of Cumberland, (n.p., 1805.)

    Raithby, John, The study and practice of the law—By a member of Lincoln’s Inn. (Portland: T. B. Wait, 1806.)

    Blackstone, Sir William, Commentaries. (Portland: T. B. Wait, 1807.)

    Bath, Maine:

    Luders, Alexander, Tracts on various subjects in the law and history of England. (Bath: Richard Cruttwell, 1810.)

    Kennebunk, Maine:

    Peirce, Charles, The American citizen’s sure guide. (Kennebunk, Me., 1804.) (This was a compilation of documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution.)

    Historical records:

    We have quite a respectable collection of the publications of various historical societies, including the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the Essex Institute of Salem. Those volumes published by the Massachusetts Historical Society before 1820 are in the Treasure Room; the others are on “open” shelves.