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What the law was and is: federal

(Note: Updated from an earlier version of this post that originally ran in June 2012.)

Statutes at Large

One thing The Legal Genealogist preaches (to the point where some people are tired of it for pete’s sake already yet) is this:

We need to understand the law at the time and in the place where our ancestors lived in order to understand why they did what they did.

Cataloging state legal sources is a daunting task, given the wide variety of charters, constitutions, statutes and more that governed our ancestors’ lives in the territories and states of the United States.

The feds, on the other hand, are a whole lot easier.

We had one set of Articles of Confederation and we’ve had only one Constitution that took the place of those Articles. And we’ve had one set of federal laws.

All of these are really easy to get to online in easily downloadable and/or searchable formats. (That’s my way of saying: no excuses, now!)

The Articles of Confederation

The First Continental Congress wasn’t really a lawmaking body and it didn’t set out to govern as a Congress at all. It was a meeting of representatives of 12 colonies (Georgia stayed home) that basically agreed to do two things: announce the colonists’ grievances to the King and the rest of the world; and meet again if the grievances weren’t redressed.1 And we all know how well King George III redressed those grievances.

So along came the Second Continental Congress which began meeting in Philadelphia in May 1775. Even that body didn’t get around to the question of governing documents until the representatives of the soon-to-be-openly-rebellious colonies met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776.2

At that point, they knew they had two tasks ahead of them. Yes, they were there to draft a Declaration of Independence. But they also needed rules of the road. So the day after the Second Continental Congress appointed the committee to draft the Declaration, it also appointed a committee to draft some document to bring union to the soon-to-be-states.3 The Continental Congress approved the document in November 1777, and it wasn’t finally approved by the states until March of 1781.4

The Articles of Confederation were an abysmal failure.5 Only six years later, in 1787, Congress called for a “Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several States (to) be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”6

But for whatever they’re worth, they’re easy to find, search, read and understand online:

     • The first draft of the Articles of Confederation as presented to the Continental Congress on July 12, 1776 is online at the Library of Congress website.

     • The final version of the Articles of Confederation as adopted is online at Yale Law School’s Avalon Project, along with a 1775 draft by Benjamin Franklin, a 1776 draft by John Dickinson, and a discussion of the Articles in Jefferson’s autobiography.

The Constitution

We’ve only had one, produced on 17 September 1787 with unanimous assent from the Constitutional Convention.7 It took effect with the seating of the first Congress on 4 March 1789.8

And there are many places online where the Constitution and all of its amendments can be found. Some of the best are:

     • The U.S. Constitution at Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

     • The Constitution of the United States, with the Bill of Rights and all of the other amendments, from the National Archives.

     • The U.S. Constitution at

     • U.S. Constitution Online from in numerous alternative formats to be read online or off. (You can even buy a pamphlet copy to carry around with you!)

Federal Statutes

Every single law that’d ever been passed since the Constitution took effect on 4 March 1789 was gathered up by direction of Congress in 1845 and published in a set of volumes called the Statutes at Large.9 The Statutes to 1845 were published first in numbered volumes, and then the laws continued to be published thereafter under contract by a private firm until 1874, when the Government Printing Office took over the task.10 So Volumes 1-17 were published by Little, Brown & Co. of Boston; all the subsequent volumes — now numbering more than 120 — were published by the Government Printing Office.

As of 1874, the Secretary of State was charged with the responsibility for seeing that the Statutes at Large were printed.11 In 1950, that duty was transferred to the Administrator of General Services,12 and, in 1984, to the Archivist of the United States.13

And the law stipulates that those published volumes are all anybody ever needs to know in terms of what the federal statutory law is or was at any given time: “The United States Statutes at Large shall be legal evidence of laws, concurrent resolutions, treaties, international agreements other than treaties, proclamations by the President, and proposed or ratified amendments to the Constitution of the United States therein contained, in all the courts of the United States, the several States, and the Territories and insular possessions of the United States.”14

There are two free government online sources for some of the Statutes at Large — the earliest and the most recent.

     • Volume 1 (1st-5th Congresses, 1789-1799) through Volume 18 (43rd Congress, 1873-1875) are available in both HTML and digital image formats at the website of the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress, at the section for “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates.” Use the direct link to the Statutes at Large and either browse or search the collection.

     • Volume 65 (82nd Congress, 1st Session, 1951) through Volume 125 (112th Congress, 1st Session, 2011) have been digitized by the Library of Congress and Government Printing Office and are available in PDF format from the Government Printing Office (GPO)at this GPO Federal Digital System link.

Additionally, all of the public Statutes at Large from Volume 1 through Volume 127 (113th Congress, 1st Session, 2013) are available online as free, fully-searchable PDF downloads from the website (Note that private laws are not included in these downloadable files after about volume 25 or so.) Use the direct link to the website’s Complete Collection of United States Statutes at Large and download any PDF file.

There you have it: for the feds, all the law you need, what it was at what time and in this place.


  1. First Continental Congress,” ( : accessed 27 Jun 2012).
  2. Second Continental Congress,” ( : accessed 27 Jun 2012).
  3. Wikipedia (, “Articles of Confederation,” rev. 12 Jun 2012.
  4. Primary Documents in American History: The Articles of Confederation,” Library of Congress ( : accessed 27 Jun 2012).
  5. Israel Ward Andrews, Manual of the Constitution of the United States (New York : American Book Co., 1900), 36-38; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 24 May 2012).
  6. Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, 34 vols. (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1904-1937), 32: 74; digital images, Library of Congress, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875 ( : accessed 24 May 2012).
  7. Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 3 vols. (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1911), 3: 20-27; digital images, Library of Congress, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875 ( : accessed 24 May 2012).
  8. See Resolution, 13 Sep 1788, Journals of the Continental Congress, 34: 522-523.
  9. See Resolution 10, 5 Stat. 798 (3 Mar 1845).
  10. See “Statutes at Large,” Library of Congress, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875 ( : accessed 24 May 2012).
  11. See 28 Stat. 114 (1874); 61 Stat. 636 (1947).
  12. See 64 Stat. 979 (1950)
  13. See 98 Stat. 2291 (1984).
  14. 1 U.S.C. 112, as amended.
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