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Let’s hear it for the law geeks

Judge John Bouvier 1787-1851

I tend to use and quote Henry Campbell Black’s Law Dictionary1 for a lot of the legal terms I use and that we all need to understand. In part it’s because it’s what I’m used to; it was the law dictionary students were encouraged to use when I started my law studies and his work survives even in this 21st century as a continually updated publication.2 And, in part, it’s because Henry was such a law geek,3 and I have an uncommon fondness for law geeks.

So today let’s hear it for yet another law geek, because there is another law dictionary out there — readily available, for free — for genealogists to use as we struggle to understand the records our ancestors left us.

John Bouvier wasn’t born in America. He was born in 1787 in the village of Codognan, department du Gard, France, and attended school in Nimes. His Quaker parents brought him and a younger brother Daniel to America in 1802.4

He first worked in the printing business and then ran a book shop. He married Elizabeth Widdifield in Philadelphia in 1810, had one daughter Hannah Mary in 1811, and became an American citizen in 1812. He didn’t become a lawyer until 1818.5

And that’s when he ran into trouble. Much of what he needed to know as a lawyer was information he couldn’t easily find. Writing of himself in the preface to the first edition of his dictionary, he explained that his efforts to get ahead were “constantly obstructed and … for a long time frustrated for want of that knowledge which his elder brethren of the bar seemed to possess.”6

He looked in English law dictionaries of the time, but found himself too much an American to find them useful: “What … have we to do with those laws of Great Britain which relate to the person of their king, their nobility, their clergy, their navy, their army; with their game laws; their local statutes…? ”7 And so he wrote his own.

It only took him, oh, 20 years or so. Twenty years of struggle, 20 years of working his way up the legal ranks to become recorder of Philadelphia in 1836, and associate justice of the court of criminal sessions there in 1838 — a position he held until his death in 1851.8 The dictionary — two volumes — was finally published in 1839.9

It was a hit. It was first cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 184710 and is still cited occasionally by courts today.11 The dictionary was so well-received in legal circles that he’d already published three editions and was working on the fourth edition when he died.

It was revised and updated periodically until the early 20th century12 and is still occasionally reprinted today.13 And several complete versions are readily available free online.

Google Books offers at least these versions as free eBooks:

     • Bouvier, 1856, vol. II
     • Rawle & Bouvier, 1892, vol. I
     • Rawle & Bouvier, 1897, vol. I
     • Rawle & Bouvier, 1914, vol. II

And there are various versions online at Internet Archive as well.

But better than any of those for ease of use is the plain-text online reprint of the entire 1856, 6th edition, of the dictionary at Constitution.org.

In some ways Bouvier was every bit as much of a law geek as Black was. Like Black, he also published other scholarly works on the law, including a four-volume compendium entitled Institutes of American Law.14 And like Black his dictionary became and remained his most enduring legal legacy.

The one big difference between the two law geeks was that, unlike Black, Bouvier married early and had a child. And it just might be that a genealogist could use the writings of Hannah Mary Bouvier Peterson in writing a family history too. Not only did she author cookbooks that might be useful in describing what an American family would eat at the time,15 but remarkably she wrote a guide to astronomy “for the use of schools, families and private students” that was published in the 1850s.16

So when you’re not figuring out what that legal term in your ancestral record means, you can figure out what your ancestral family was eating for breakfast, dinner and tea… and what they knew about the heavens.

Gotta love those geeks.


SOURCES

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891).
  2. Bryan A. Garner, ed., Black’s Law Dictionary, 9th ed. (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 2009).
  3. Henry Campbell Black (1860-1927),” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Jan 2012.
  4. Background, Inventory of the John Bouvier Collection, ca. 1783-1895,” Huntington (Cal.) Library (http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf1q2n985p/ : accessed 13 Mar 2012).
  5. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “John Bouvier,” rev. 12 Mar 2012.
  6. John Bouvier, “Preface to the First Edition,” A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of Several States of the American Union With References to the Civil and Other Systems of Foreign Law, 12th ed., Vol. I (Philadelphia : George W. Childs, 1868), v; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 13 Mar 2012).
  7. Ibid., v-vi.
  8. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “John Bouvier,” rev. 12 Mar 2012.
  9. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of Several States of the American Union With References to the Civil and Other Systems of Foreign Law, Philadelphia : T. and J.W. Johnson, 1839).
  10. Jones v. Van Zandt, 46 U.S. 215, 227 (1847).
  11. See e.g. United States v. Leal-Felix, 625 F.3d 1148, 1159 (9th Cir. 2010), vac. 641 F.3d 1141 (9th Cir. 2011).
  12. See e.g. Francis Rawle, editor, Bouvier’s Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of Several States of the American Union With References to the Civil and Other Systems of Foreign Law, (Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott and Co., 1889).
  13. See e.g. Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, 2d edition reprint (Clark, N.J. : Lawbook Exchange, 2004).
  14. John Bouvier, Institutes of American Law, vols. 1-4 (Philadelphia : Peterson, 1851).
  15. Hannah Mary Bouvier Peterson, The young wife’s cook book : with receipts of the best dishes for breakfast, dinner and tea Philadelphia : T.B. Peterson & Brothers, 1870); digital images, Hathi Trust Digital Library (http://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 13 Mar 2012). Also Hannah Mary Bouvier Peterson, The National Cook Book, 9th ed. (Philadelphia, Hayes & Zell, 1856); digital images, Hathi Trust Digital Library (http://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 13 Mar 2012).
  16. Hannah Mary Bouvier Peterson, Bouvier’s familiar astronomy : or, An introduction to the study of the heavens ; illustrated by upwards of two hundred finely executed engravings (Philadelphia : Sower, Barnes & Potts, 1855); digital images, Hathi Trust Digital Library (http://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 13 Mar 2012).
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