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Fine and Private Press -- Online Exhibit


Words are the most basic tools of a lawyer, and precise definitions are necessary. The Law Dictionary Collection at the Tarlton Law Library has existed in some form as long as the library itself. In the 1980s Tarlton began systematically collecting law dictionaries to support the Oxford Law Dictionary Project which the Law School was hosting. Many of the dictionaries in this exhibit were acquired at that time. The somewhat decrepit condition of some of the volumes is a testament to the genuine utility of these law dictionaries.

Dictionaries unique to the jurisprudence of the United States arrived relatively late. For the hundreds of years following the initial colonization of the British Colonial North America, the dictionaries lawyers and jurists turned to were those of England. The first legal dictionary published in the United States was a New York 1811 reprint of a late edition of the law dictionary of Giles Jacob published in 1809 in England. This and other reprints of English law in the United States would often contain notes for US lawyers, but they were fundamentally English works. Legal literature in the United States really dates from the decades of the 1820s and 1830s with the publications of work by James Kent, Nathan Dane, and Joseph Storey, among others. However, it was not until 1839 that the United States was to have a law dictionary of its own.

Early US Legal Dictionaries
US Law Dictionaries

Examination of the contents of the founding fathers’ libraries – as much as is known – reveals that if one was to have an English law dictionary in the eighteenth century, it was likely to be that by Giles Jacob. The two other most commonly held legal dictionaries were that of Timothy Cunningham, and Malachy Postlethwayt’s translation of the commercial dictionary by Jacques Savary des Brûlons. The 1743 edition of Jacob's law dictionary was included in John Adams’ library.

Jacobs 1743, title page  
Giles Jacob. A New Law Dictionary. [Abridged ed.] [London]: Printed by Henry Lintot, for R. Ware et. al, 1743.

For information on these and other non-US law dictionaries in the Tarlton Law Library's collection please visit our Law Dictionary Collection online exhibit.

Reconstructions of US Founding Father's Libraries online:

John Adams (also Library Thing)

Benjamin Franklin (also the Library Company of Philadelphia)

Alexander Hamilton

John Jay (not available)

Thomas Jefferson (also Library Thing)

James Madison

George Washington

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