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Finding early British laws

It was entitled “An act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, and other duties, in the British colonies and plantations in America, towards further defraying the expences of defending, protecting, and securing the same; and for amending such parts of the several acts of parliament relating to the trade and revenues of the said colonies and plantations, as direct the manner of determining and recovering the penalties and forfeitures therein mentioned.”

The explanatory (whereas) clause was equally long:

WHEREAS by an act made in the last session of parliament, several duties were granted, continued, and appropriated, towards defraying the expences of defending, protecting, and securing, the British colonies and plantations in America: and whereas it is just and necessary, that provision be made for raising a further revenue within your Majesty’s dominions in America, towards defraying the said expences: we, your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the commons of Great Britain in parliament assembled, have therefore resolved to give and grant unto your Majesty the several rates and duties herein after mentioned; and do most humbly beseech your Majesty that it may be enacted, and be it enacted by the King’s most excellent majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons, in this present parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, That from and after the first day of November, one thousand seven hundred and sixty five, there shall be raised, levied, collected, and paid unto his Majesty, his heirs, and successors, throughout the colonies and plantations in America which now are, or hereafter may be, under the dominion of his Majesty, his heirs and successors, …

And there followed 117 paragraphs covering everything from every document filed in court to the retailing of spiritous liquors.

It was, of course, the Stamp Act of 1765, passed 252 years ago today1 — and one of the most direct causes of the American Revolution.2

It’s a critical piece of United States and British history… and it’s not on the legislative website of the British Parliament. Or from the British Parliamentary Archives website.

Finding historical British statutes that are no longer in effect isn’t a particularly easy task, even for The Legal Genealogist.

There are some resources that will help, some free and some that require a subscription.

You can start by looking at the lists of statutes passed by the British parliament during various reigns on Wikisource for free. It has portals for the Acts of the Parliament of England (1216-1707) and the Acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (1707-present). Choosing a particular monarch from the list will give you a list of the acts during that monarch’s reign.

The hitch is… for the most part, these are just stub entries (effectively an index): an awful lot of these don’t have associated text files or links. And to find the exact statute we’re dealing with here, you’d have to know that is isn’t called the Stamp Act in the Wikisource list — the short title was the Duties in American Colonies Act.

Of course, with that short title and the statutory reference (it’s 5 Geo. III c. 12), you can search your favorite search engine and come up with a number of sources to read the full text.

And that British Parliamentary Archives website will guide you to a number of subscription services that can help, including the Justis Publishing website (institutional subscription required; free access on site at The National Archives, Kew) or the U.K. Parliamentary Papers website.

Or you could go to the 20-volume set The statutes at large, of England and of Great Britain : from Magna Carta to the union of the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland — and most of them can be found in one catalog on the digitized book service, HathiTrust Digital Library.

HathiTrust is “a digital preservation repository and highly functional access platform. It provides long-term preservation and access services for public domain and in copyright content from a variety of sources, including Google, the Internet Archive, Microsoft, and in-house partner institution initiatives.”3

And among its holdings are these early published British statutes.

The set covers the years from the 14th century through 1800, and it was published in 1811.

There are a few missing volumes — 1, 5, 11, 16 and 19 to be exact — but the others are there, including volume 12, covering the years from 1760 through 1767 … and so including our elusive Stamp Act.

So no… no easy one-stop shopping for every early British law, but at least some resources that can help.

Even if the early British law you’re looking for is mostly of interest to Americans, on this 252nd anniversary of its taking effect.


  1. See “The Stamp Act, 1765,” in American History Leaflets: Colonial and Constitutional, No. 21, May 1895 (New York: A. Lovell & Co., 1895); digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 1 Nov 2017).
  2. See generally University of Massachusetts History Club, Stamp Act History ( : accessed 1 Nov 2017).
  3. About: Our Digital Library,” HathiTrust Digital Library ( : accessed 1 Nov 2017).
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