The following is reprinted from a column in the UW Law School News. It was written by my colleague, Eric Taylor.
In this week’s column, we review three free online resources of historical legal documents relating to the formation and development of the United States of America. For students, scholars, history buffs, and interested citizens alike, there is a great deal of American treasure to be mined from these three resources.
Avalon Project : Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy (Yale Law School)
Online since 1996, this resource offers a truly remarkable and ambitious collection of historical materials. It includes documents from before the Magna Carta (1215) to the 9/11 Commission Report. A simple click on the “Documents Collection” link shows a list of discreet collections that looks much like a ladder through time. Listed below are just a few of the collections you’ll find:
- Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Documents;
- The American Constitution – a Documentary History;
- Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England : 1765-1769;
- The Jefferson Papers;
- Presidential Papers;
- The Barbary Treaties 1816-1836;
- Confederate States of America : Papers;
- Nuremberg War Crimes Trial;
- Soviet-American Diplomacy;
- United Nations – Documents
One drawback to this site is that the vast majority of documents are in html. Nonetheless citation is given to the source document and many of these can be cited by their title, chapter, article, paragraph, and section numbers. In terms of sheer volume and easy access to primary documents defining the broad outlines of American and Western legal history, the Avalon Project is an outstanding source.
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation : U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates (1774-1875)
This resource is one component of the Library of Congress’ “American Memory” historical collections. The focus here is on the records and proceedings of the U.S. Congress over the first century of our Nation. Quoting from the website’s introductory remarks: “These documents record American history in the words of those who built our government.”
One look at the homepage immediately reveals the scope of this collection. A short list of the titles one may find here, include:
- Journals of the Continental Congress;
- Letters of Delegates to Congress;
- United States Statutes at Large;
- American State Papers;
- U.S. Serial Set (selected documents and reports);
- Journals of Congress;
- The Debates of Congress, featuring:
- Annals of Congress;
- Register of Debates;
- Congressional Globe;
- Congressional Record
Most collections appear to be in PDF format, offering a digital facsimile of the original, though there are some in html. Readers can browse or search the content. Historical background, a citation guide and links to related information are also available.
ConSource : the Constitutional Sources Project
This is by far the most focused of the three online resources under review. ConSource offers a collection of primary and secondary sources related to the formation and ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For a quick overview of the site’s content, click on the “All Collections” link at the bottom-right of the homepage.
Some of the collections may already be familiar to you, such as, The Federalist Papers and James Madison’s Notes of the Constitutional Convention; other collections may not be, such as the Bill of Rights’ Legislative History, the Papers of George Washington, or the State Ratification Debates. The documents are available in both html and PDF of the original source.
ConSource features two useful tools for searching constitutional content. The first, the Clause Browser is a pull down menu which directs the user to a particular clause by number. There is also an advanced search feature which allows you to search by constitutional topic or keyword.
Another interesting feature is the “Documents by Author” link at the bottom of the ConSource Collections page which includes many letters of correspondence among the Delegates to the Convention.
Most of the most powerful features of this collection are the constitutional cross-references. Below the text of each constitutional clause, ConSource contains cross references to other titles in the collection that are connected to the clause.
Although many of the documents in this collection are also available at the Avalon Project and elsewhere, the biggest strength of ConSource is that it has gathered these core documents together in one place.