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Statutes in the Show Me State

Reader Melissa Weaver loved reading earlier this week about the widows’ appraisements in Pennsylvania under a statute adopted there in 1851.

But, she said, her research problems weren’t focused on Pennsylvania.

She really needed some help a bit further west: “I would like to understand how to go about learning about laws in the State of Missouri in the 1850-1870 period,” she wrote, “and I don’t know where to start. If you have any suggestions, I would appreciate it!”

So… how do we go about finding the laws for a particular time period in a particular state?

Well, first off, we remind ourselves of the three big sources for digitized materials where we might look for published versions of state laws:

Google Books at https://books.google.com/

HathiTrust Digital Library at https://www.hathitrust.org/

Internet Archive at https://www.archive.org/

MO.lawThere may be other sources in a particular state, but even if we can’t find a good local source for digitized legal materials, we can always start with these three.

And when we do, what we want to look for first are codified versions of the state laws for the time period we’re researching.

By definition, a codification is the end result of a “process of collecting and arranging the laws of a country or state into a code, i.e., into a complete system of positive law, scientifically ordered and promulgated by legislative authority.”1

So instead of just being a straight chronological set of the laws as they were passed year after year, legislative session after legislative session, a codification organizes them into topics — with all the marriage laws in one place, and all the criminal laws together.

Sometimes these are called codes. And sometimes they’re called revised statutes. Sometimes they’re just called the laws. We need to be fairly inventive — and certainly comprehensive — in using search terms to find all the various versions of the codified laws we need.

Now, in Missouri, the laws were codified about every 10 years during the mid-19th century. So you may be able to find, online, any of the following:

• The Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri Revised and Digested by the 13th General Assembly (1845). There are at least two versions of this revision, one published in St. Louis under the auspices of the State Printer J.W. Dougherty,2 and the other edited by Evans Casselberry and published in St. Louis, by Chambers & Knapp.3

• The Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri Revised and Digested by the 18th General Assembly (1855). This two-volume work edited by Charles H. Hardin was printed in Jefferson City by James Lusk, State Printer, in 1856.4

• The General Statutes of the State of Missouri Revised by … the 23rd General Assembly (1866). This was edited by A.F. Denny was printed in Jefferson City by Emory S. Foster, State Printer, in 1866.5

• The Statutes of the State of Missouri (1870). This was a two-volume work edited by David Wagner, printed in St. Louis by W.J. Gilbert in 1870.6

So now that you have the codifications, then what?

Well, you’d read through the laws on the topic you’re interested in through all of the codes for the place and time you’re researching.

How old did someone have to be to marry in Missouri without parental consent in the codes of 1845, 1855, 1866 and 1870? If the answer stays the same in all of that time period, if the law never changes, then you can be pretty much sure that you’re done. It’s not terribly likely that it would change, then change back to what it had been.

If it does change during those years, then it may be necessary to figure out exactly when it changed. And for that, there are two places to look.

First, look at the notes in the codification (if there are any) that tell you what the source is for the version you’re looking at. In the 1870 Missouri code, for example, each section has a reference to the provision of the earlier General Statutes where it originated — or to a particular act of the Legislature if it was changed. So that’s a clue.

Next, you want to consult the specific laws for the year when the change was passed. Those are called session laws, because they’re the laws passed during that session of the legislature, and they’re usually published after the end of every legislative session.

If the notes in the code tell you what year the change occurred, then all you’ll need is to search for and find a published copy of that particular set of session laws. If there aren’t any notes, you’ll need to work backwards from the latest code through each set of session laws until you find the exact statute that made the change.

And, of course, there’s no guarantee that every set of codes has been digitized and put online or that every set of session laws is online either.

Sometimes (gasp) we simply have to hit a library and go for the books.

But this is a place to start… and the method — finding the codes and filling in with the session laws — will work in any jurisdiction for any time period.

Go ahead and look.

You can Show Me.


SOURCES

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 216, “codification.”
  2. W.C. Jones, compiler, The Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri Revised and Digested by the 13th General Assembly… 1845 (St. Louis: J.W. Dougherty, State Printer, 1845).
  3. Evans Casselberry, editor, The Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri Revised and Digested by the 13th General Assembly… 1845 (St. Louis: Chambers & Knapp, 1845).
  4. Charles H. Hardin, compiler, The Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri Revised and Digested by the 18th General Assembly … 1855, 2 vol. (Jefferson City, Mo. : James Lusk, State Printer, 1856).
  5. A.F. Denny, compiler, The General Statutes of the State of Missouri Revised by … the 23rd General Assembly… 1866 (Jefferson City. Mo. : Emory S. Foster, State Printer, 1866).
  6. David Wagner, editor, The Statutes of the State of Missouri, 2 vol. (St. Louis: W.J. Gilbert, 1870).
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