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Thursday, June 30, 2016

From Our Stacks: Historical US State Law

This summer we have begun re-organizing and shifting parts of the rare books collection, including our collection of historical US state and territorial law. In undertaking the project, we are without the advice and help of our friend and colleague, Ed Gale, who passed away recently. His insights and presence are sorely missed. 

The state law collection is one of the Riesenfeld Center's areas of strength and takes up several rows in our stacks. A large part of the material comprises session laws and law reports, and we have journals of state constitutional conventions, digests, local ordinances, justice of the peace manuals, chancery reports, draft penal codes and a variety of other, often very interesting, material. 

One example, a copy of Documents of the Convention of the State of New York, 1867-68 (Albany, 1868), is witness to important local and national history. The records reveal the deep opposition faced by attempts to expand voting rights for African-Americans, in the wake of the Civil War and in the heart of the "free" northern states. Though slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, African-Americans without property or with criminal convictions were disqualified from voting; the property stipulation was unique at the time to New York. During the '67-'68 convention, the report of the committee on the right of suffrage noted that equal voting rights amendments were defeated 223,884 to 85,306 in 1846, and 337,984 to 197,503 in 1850. The committee advised that the matter be sent again to a state-wide referendum, and it was not until 1874, four years after the Fifteenth Amendment, that the property requirement was abolished by state amendment. For more, see Jim Crow in New York, by Erika Wood and Liz Budnitz.

Another example, from territorial New Orleans, reflects an interesting debate over early US libel laws. In a case reported by Francois-Xavier Martin in the Superior Court of New Orleans Territory in 1810, a judge dismissed an appeal against a libel conviction, where the appellant argued for the liberty of the press and invoked the truth of the libel as a defense. The court cited English common law - which had been adopted in the territory only several years earlier - that the truth of a libel was not admissible evidence. The court then cited Spanish and French law, which previously had jurisdiction in the territory, and invoked other US state laws, in rejecting the appeal. The court even acknowledged New York's People v. Croswell (though not the Zenger trial), from which arose the first statute allowing truth as a defense against libel. In the end, the New Orleans court found other state evidence (and the lack of contradicted English tradition) more persuasive in the early republic.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections



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