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Sources for federal laws

Since this appears to be Resource Week here at The Legal Genealogist, it’s time to review one particular type of resource that comes up time and again:

How do we find federal statutes?

This came up just recently in a reader question after I mentioned, on the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into World War I, that it was a joint resolution of Congress that actually authorized that event. On 6 April 1917, the Congress resolved “that the President be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Imperial German Government ; and to bring the conflict to a successful termination all of the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.”1

“Where,” the reader asked, “do we find the laws like that one?”

First off, we need to understand that every single law that’s ever been passed by the federal government has been published at one time or another in a set of volumes called the Statutes at Large.

The first group, those passed in the early years after the Constitution took effect on 4 March 1789, was gathered up by direction of Congress in 1845.2 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.3 So Volumes 1-17 were published by Little, Brown & Co. of Boston; all the subsequent volumes — now numbering nearly 130 — were published by the Government Printing Office.

These volumes are purely chronological: each statute was added in the order in which it became law. So you can imagine that, over time, as statutes were passed and amended and added to, it became harder and harder to find just exactly what the law was on a particular topic. You might have to look in a dozen books to get the answer.

Enter codification. That’s a term that means the “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.”4 In other words, it means taking all of the laws about, say, immigration and putting them in one place, and taking all of the laws saying what’s a crime and what isn’t and putting them in one place.

The first effort to organize the federal laws took place in 1874, with what was called Revised Statutes of the United States,5 and then updated in 1878.6

That was replaced in 1926 with the United States Code, with errors corrected in 1928 and 1929.7 The code organizes the law into titles by subject matter, and is updated every six years. So we’ve had new editions in 1934, 1940, 1946, 1952, 1958, 1964, 1970, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1994, 2000, 2006, and 2012.8

So… where do we find these things?

There are a number of great sources for federal statutes — the laws passed by Congress and signed into law by the President (or passed over a presidential veto). Let me highlight some key ones:

For early U.S. laws (1789-1878), from the adoption of the Constitution through the Revised Statutes of the United States, the go-to site has to be 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.

For published U.S. laws (1789-1950), you can get downloadable PDFs of each volume from volumes 1-81 of the Statutes at Large (sometimes in separate parts) from the Law Library of Congress website. This site contains a link over to the “Century of Lawmaking” area for volumes 1-18, but also allows you to have your own personal available-even-if-the-internet-is-down research library of searchable PDF files on your hard drive. It’s a great resource because the PDFs on this site include the private laws (laws passed for the benefit of a person or family) as well as public laws (laws that impact everyone the same way).

For published U.S. laws (1951-2011), you can get downloadable PDFs of each volume from volumes 65-125 of the Statutes at Large (sometimes in separate parts) from the Government Printing Office (GPO)at this GPO Federal Digital System link. This isn’t my favorite site for a lot of reasons (including an occasional warning from my web browser about the site security!) but it works.

And for the modern U.S. Code (1994-current editions), the entire Code is online at the website of the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives. You can search for a specific law or browse a specific title, and you can see earlier editions back to 1994 by using the dropdown menu next in the “Current change” area to the right of the “Browse the United States Code” heading near the top of the page.

Laws of the federal government…

That oughta keep you busy for a while…


  1. “Joint Resolution Declaring that a state of war exists between the Imperial German Government and the Government and the people of the United States and making provision to prosecute the same,” 40 Stat. 1 (6 April 1917), cited in Judy G. Russell, “To end all wars,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Apr 2017 ( : accessed 12 Apr 2017).
  2. See Resolution 10, 5 Stat. 798 (3 Mar 1845).
  3. See “Statutes at Large,” Library of Congress, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875 ( : accessed 12 Apr 2017).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 216, “codification.”
  5. Act of 20 June 1874, 18 Stat. 113.
  6. Act of 2 March 1877, 19 Stat. 268 as amended by Act of 9 March 1878, 20 Stat. 27.
  7. See Act of 29 May 1928, 45 Stat. 1008, as amended by Act of 2 March 1929, 45 Stat. 1540.
  8. See generally LLSDC, “United States Statutes and the United States Code: Historical Outlines, Notes, Lists, Tables, and Sources” ( : accessed 12 Apr 2017).
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