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A walk through early law

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

The Legal Genealogist knows already yet.

ThorpeYou’re tired of hearing it.

Sounds like a broken record.

To understand the records, we must understand the law, in the time and at the place where the records were created.

But finding the law is hard, you say — and nowhere near as much fun as finding, say, that probate file or the deed that finally gives us that woman’s maiden name or…

I know. Trust me, I know.

So here’s a little bit of help, with a kind of law we as genealogists often need to look at — but rarely do.

It’s constitutional law — all those early colonial charters and state constitutions that have long since faded into legal history but that inform and explain the records we as family historians work with and need to understand.

And there are readily-available resources to help you find that early constitutional law so you can apply it to your own research.

In the second session of the 59th Congress, the House of Representatives published a report as Document 357, or H.Doc. 357 for short. It was printed in the early 1900s in that great big set of government documents known as the United States Serial Set.

Its title? The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America.1

Compiled and edited by Francis Newton Thorpe, Ph.D., LL.D., H.Doc. 357 takes up seven full volumes in the Serial Set:

Volume 1 (United States — Alabama — District of Columbia): Serial Set Vol. No. 5190
Volume 2 (Florida — Kansas): Serial Set Vol. No. 5191
Volume 3 (Kentucky — Massachusetts): Serial Set Vol. No. 5192
Volume 4 (Michigan — New Hampshire): Serial Set Vol. No. 5193
Volume 5 (New Jersey — Philippine Islands): Serial Set Vol. No. 5194-1
Volume 6 (Porto Rico — Vermont): Serial Set Vol. No. 5194-2
Volume 7 (Virginia — Wyoming — Index): Serial Set Vol. No. 5194-3

And these seven volumes pull together in one handy reference just about everything you might need to know about the early fundamental documents of American law.

Taking Massachusetts as one example, Volume 3 of Thorpe’s work includes:

• the Charter of New England–1620;
• the Agreement between the Settlers at New Plymouth–1620;
• the Charter of the Colony of New Plymouth Granted to William Bradford and his Associates–1629;
• the Charter of Massachusetts Bay–1629;
• the Act of Surrender of the Great Charter of New England to His Majesty–1635;
• Bradford’s Surrender of the Patent of Plymouth Colony to the Freemen, March 2d, 1640;
• the Commission of Sir Edmund Andros for the Dominion of New England, April 7, 1688;
• the Charter of Massachusetts Bay–1691;
• the Explanatory Charter of Massachusetts Bay–1725;
• the Constitution or Form of Government for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts–1780.2


Except, of course, for the minor little detail that most of us don’t have all of the thousands and thousands of volumes of the U.S. Serial Set on our bookshelves.

But we can all have these seven volumes at our fingertips.

Because they’ve been digitized.

At Google Books (, you can find the volumes quickly by entering Francis Newton Thorpe Federal and State Constitutions in the search box. But the first results are current printed volumes you can’t read online, so use the Search Tools drop down menu, then change the Any Books option to Free Google eBooks.

At Internet Archive (, the volumes can be found by using the Advanced Search box, and entering “Federal and State Constitutions” in the Title field and “Francis Newton Thorpe” in the Creator field.

And at HathiTrust (, click on the Catalog tab of the search box, then choose Advanced catalog search, enter “Francis Newton Thorpe” in the Author field and “Federal and State Constitutions” in the Title field.

So go ahead… take a walk through your state’s early constitutional law.

It’s easy, when you know where the path is.


  1. Francis Newton Thorpe, The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America, 59th Cong., 2d sess., House Document 357, 7 vols. (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1906-1909).
  2. Thorpe, The Federal and State Constitutions…, 3: 1827-1923.
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