Colonial Lawyers and Their Books: Connecting Legal History to the History of the Book

Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:30 PM
Conference Room K (Sheraton New York)
Sally E. Hadden, Western Michigan University
The field of legal history has only recently begun to consider the influence that books have had upon the individuals who practiced law in the past. Work by scholars such as Michael Hoeflich (Legal Publishing in Antebellum America, 2010) offers a glimpse of the potentially rich realm that links the history of the book to that of legal history. In particular, lawyers –at all periods of American history—needed books to accomplish their work, whether that was to construct briefs for court in the twentieth century, or to build persuasive oral arguments as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, access to law books, whether they were reporters, handbooks of practice, or more general reference works of jurisprudence, was highly constrained in colonial America. One of the benefits of clerkship for a colonial attorney-in-training was access to his teacher’s collection of law books. Following clerkship, personal acquisition and borrowing became the standard practice for most eighteenth-century lawyers in America. Analysis of lawyers’ libraries via probate inventories is one method of reconstructing the lost libraries of colonial attorneys; this paper will review data from probate inventories of lawyers in Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia in the eighteenth century, with a view to understanding the priorities of such collectors and influences these volumes had upon the local practice of law. This paper will also consider the impact of specialized subscription libraries in the law. These new fee-based libraries—founded in 1803 (Philadelphia, Law Library of the City of Philadelphia) and 1804 (Boston, Social Law Library)—provided lawyers a potential replacement for creating their own personal law libraries at the start of the nineteenth century. How these libraries may have democratized the practice of law will be considered.
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