We recently purchased The Yale Law School Guide to Research in American Legal History, a new resource to help you find historical legal information that is very specialized or pre-dates the information that is readily available online. Some of the resources are digitized, and some only in print. It is available to use in the Reading Room at the Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building.
For example, if you are looking for the laws on witchcraft, this source tells you step-by-step how to find them. Witchcraft was originally designated as a felony in the United Kingdom and carried the death penalty. Later revisions passed by Queen Elizabeth I reduced the severity of the penalty if nobody got hurt. This change enabled herbalists to practice their craft. Maybe this was the origin of the No Harm, No Foul standard.
Later chapters address later eras. Apparently practice manuals were widely used in the Colonial era by justices, officials, and educated citizens. Some states had constitutions that predated the adoption of the Federal Constitution, and this reference has information on both, as well information on how to access statutes and cases from the early days of the Republic. Later chapters explain how the Reporter system for publishing case law was a pioneering innovation, how to do archival research, searching administrative law, and the advent of legal forms.
Another chapter discusses how international law and treaties affect U.S. law. Another introduces the use of dictionaries and biographical sources. The book concludes with tips for researching newspapers, statistical resources, and public records.
If you don’t know where to find the historical legal topic you are researching, we may just look here first!