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An excerpt from To Put Asunder: The Laws of Matrimonial Strife

The following excerpt comes from To Put Asunder: The Laws of Matrimonial Strife by Lawrence H. Stotter. Examining court proceedings, the policies of church and state, scholarly literature, and the anger and frustration of unhappy spouses, Lawrence Stotter reports on the path of the domestic relations laws adopted in Western civilization. This excerpt discusses the first legal bibliographies written in America.

American Legal Bibliography

If we date the origins of American legal literary history to the Mayflower Compact in 1620, then over two hundred years were to pass in America before an interest in legal bibliography was sufficient to result in a completed publication. This honor went to J.W. Wallace, born in Philadelphia in 1815, who learned the law from his father. Wallace was distinguished in his later years as a reporter for the Supreme Court of the United States from 1863 to 1875, during which time he published twenty-three volumes of reports of the high court. In 1844 Mr. Wallace, while serving as a Master in Chancery for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, published the book The Reporters, based upon essays written by him for the American Law Magazine. The book contained a chronology of the common law, chancery, and ecclesiastical reporters from the earliest times until the close of the reign of George II, with remarks. It is generally regarded as the first American legal bibliography.

The second American legal bibliography, entitled Legal Bibliography, or a Thesaurus of American, English, Irish, and Scotch Law Books, was published three years later in Philadelphia by J.G. Marvin. He attempted to identify the “most popular” law books from the earliest period until 1847. We now know that numerous titles were omitted from his work. However, it is still one of the most comprehensive works of its kind compiled as of that time, and contains almost five thousand entries.

Within a year of the publication of the last edition of The Reporters, the third major American legal bibliography was published: The Lawyer’s Reference Manual, by Charles C. Soule. The history of the impact of these bibliographies, and those that followed, on American law if reported in great detail in the book Anglo-American Legal Bibliographies: An Annotated Guide, by William L. Friend.

In 1913 a noteworthy event had a significant impact on the history of Anglo-American legal bibliography. The Harvard Law School purchased, en bloc from his estate, the legal library of George Dunn, an English lawyer, scholar, and collector of early printed books. The acquisition of the Dunn collection, in the words of Roscoe Pound, transformed what had been the largest collection of early English law books in the United States, maintained in the Harvard Law School Library, into one “far beyond the possibility of rivalry.” The purchase was accomplished largely through the efforts of Joseph Henry Beale, a member of the Harvard Law School faculty since 1890. Professor Beale then undertook a catalogue of all the holdings of the Harvard Law School Library from the earliest books in print until the year 1600. His effort, first published in 1926 under the auspices of the Ames Foundation, entitled A Bibliography of Early English Law Books, remains to this day one of the most important, comprehensive, and detailed compilations of early English law books ever written. Professor Beale, who was neither a trained librarian nor an experience bibliographer, simply went through the laborious process of identifying each of the volumes appearing on the shelves, one by one. He made the following comments at the outset of his bibliography:

Sins of omission and of commission in this book are better known to the author than they can be to any user. The author is neither a trained bibliographer not an experienced copyist. He had no sufficient chance to examine the books in any large library except that of the Harvard Law School…With no qualifications and few opportunities, it may be asked why did the author attempt the task? The answer is simple if not sufficient; because no one else had done it or seemed likely to do it. The work claims no scientific merit; it is only a check-list by which those who handle law-books of the period may estimate their wares.

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