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Help in finding the laws

Okay, The Legal Genealogist has a quick quiz for you:

How do most genealogists refer to the law that allowed settlers to get federal land if they filed some paperwork and then lived on the land for a period of time?

TOPNHow about the statute under which the State of Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, that also prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line?

And what would you call the law that set up the federal courts for the very first time?

Got them firmly in your mind?

Chances are you got them all right.

Chances are you knew the first was the Homestead Act, the second the Missouri Compromise and the third the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Pretty easy, huh?

Now… tell me where they are in the statute books.

Could you answer, that quickly, that easily, that the Homestead Act was the act of 20 May 1862, and appears at page 392 of volume 12 of the United States Statutes at Large?

Or that the Missouri Compromise was passed on 6 March 1820, and can be found at 3 Stat. 535?

Or that the Judiciary Act of 1789 can be found at 1 Stat. 73 (24 Sep 1789)?

Not so easy now, is it?

Because the names we use for some of our laws — their popular names — don’t give us the information we need to find them in the reference books.

As explained by Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute (LII):

Laws acquire popular names as they make their way through Congress. Sometimes these names say something about the substance of the law (as with the ‘2002 Winter Olympic Commemorative Coin Act’). Sometimes they are a way of recognizing or honoring the sponsor or creator of a particular law (as with the ‘Taft-Hartley Act’). And sometimes they are meant to garner political support for a law by giving it a catchy name (as with the ‘USA Patriot Act’ or the ‘Take Pride in America Act’) or by invoking public outrage or sympathy (as with any number of laws named for victims of crimes). History books, newspapers, and other sources use the popular name to refer to these laws.1

So, it then asks: “Why can’t these popular names easily be found in the US Code?” And it explains that the process of organizing the federal laws into the structure of the United States Code tends to break up any one statute so “often the law will not be found in one place neatly identified by its popular name. Nor will a full-text search of the Code necessarily reveal where all the pieces have been scattered.”2

The answer is a Table of Popular Names: a tool that we can use to find a particular statute when all we know is how it’s commonly referred to.

LII has one, and you can access it here. It’s an alphabetical list of federal laws by popular name. All of the statutes have citations to the Statutes at Large, and many of them have hotlinks to an official source for the statute.

And there are other options as well:

• The Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives has a Popular Name Tool that you can browse or search. It also has a downloadable PDF file you can search offline.

• has a United States Code Table of Popular Names that you can browse or search, with some hotlinks to actual statutes.

There’s a Popular Names Table published in the major versions of the United States Code that you can expect to find in any law library: both the U.S. Code Annotated and the U.S. Code Service.

Using any of these tables, online or offline, you’ll be able to make the translation from statute name to statutory citation quickly.

And using the statutory citation, you can then turn to either the Library of Congress’ wonderful site, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, where you can access volumes 1-18 of the Statutes at Large free online, or the Constitution Society’s collection of downloadable PDF files of the public Statutes at Large volumes 1-127.

So no excuses now. Go ahead… pick a statute, find it, and read it:

• Abolition of Slavery Act (Territories), 19 June 1862, 12 Stat. 432
• Alien Enemy Act, 15 June 1798, 1 Stat. 570
• Civil Rights Act of 1866, 9 Apr 1866, 14 Stat. 27
• Civil Rights Act of 1964, 2 July 1964, 78 Stat. 241
• Court of Private Land Claims Act, 3 Mar 1891, 26 Stat. 854
• Declaration of War against Great Britain, 18 June 1812, 2 Stat. 755
• Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, 18 Sep 1850, 9 Stat. 462
• Indian General Allotment Act (Dawes Act), 8 Feb 1887, 24 Stat. 388
• Ku Klux Klan Act, 20 Apr 1871, 17 Stat. 13
• Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787, 13 July 1787, 1 Stat. 51
• Penitentiary Act, 2 Mar 1831, 4 Stat. 448
• Sedition Act, 14 July 1798, 1 Stat. 596
• Texas Annexation Resolution, 1 Mar 1845, 5 Stat. 797

Go on. You know you want to…


  1. What’s in a popular name?,” TOPN: Table of Popular Names, Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School ( : accessed 18 Sep 2014).
  2. Ibid., “How the US Code is built.”
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