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The Revised Statutes of the United States: Predecessor to the U.S. Code

Capitol.  Prints and Photographs Division.  http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08312

Capitol. c. 1860. Prints and Photographs Division. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08312

The following is a guest post by Andrew Winston, a legal reference librarian with the Public Services Division of the Law Library of Congress.  Andrew has previously provided an interview with this Virginia State Law Librarian for the blog.

Imagine researching federal statutory law without using the United States Code, the official, current, subject-organized codification of federal statutes of a general and permanent nature. Without the U.S. Code, you would not be able to browse federal statutes by subject; more importantly, it would not be readily apparent whether a statutory provision is still in effect in its original form, or whether it has been amended or even repealed.  Researchers familiar with the U.S. Code, however, know that it was first published in 1926.  What did lawyers and other legal researchers use to find current federal statutes before the U.S. Code was first published? For nearly nine decades after the Constitution was ratified, those who needed to research federal law had no official codification of laws passed by Congress upon which they could rely. It was only in the 1870s that the first codification of federal statutes was approved by Congress. This predecessor to the U.S. Code, first published in 1875, is known as the Revised Statutes of the United States.

In 1866, Congress authorized the president “to appoint three persons, learned in the law, as commissioners, to revise, simplify, arrange, and consolidate all statutes of the United States, general and permanent in their nature,” in effect at the time (ch.140, 14 Stat. 74).  The commission completed its work in 1873, reporting its proposed revision of the federal statutes to the House of Representatives’ Committee on the Revision of the Laws (Ralph H. Dwan & Ernest R. Feidler, The Federal Statutes–Their History and Use, 22 Minn.L.Rev.1008, 1013 (1938)).  That committee, however, decided that, in preparing its proposed statutory compilation, the commission had changed the statutes so much that Congress would not accept the revision.  Congress subsequently authorized a joint committee to discharge the commissioners and to appoint someone to complete the statutory revision. (ch. 241, 17 Stat. 579)

The joint committee hired a Washington, D.C. lawyer named Thomas Jefferson Durant to finalize the revision and undo the substantive changes that the revision had made to the statutes. Durant’s version of the revision was authorized for publication by Congress on June 20, 1874 (ch.333, 18 Stat. 113), and was published in 1875. This first edition of the Revised Statutes is sometimes referred to as the Revised Statutes of 1873, because it included all statutes of a general and permanent nature in effect as of December 1, 1873, and sometimes as the Revised Statutes of 1874, as it was enacted into law in that year. (We will use the latter designation for purposes of this discussion.)

The Revised Statutes of 1874 was an official codification of the statutes it included. Section 5596 of the Revised Statutes repealed all prior federal statutes passed before December 1, 1873 that were covered by the revision. Additionally, the act of Congress authorizing the publication of the Revised Statutes of 1874 provided that when enacted, the Revised Statutes of 1874 would constitute “legal evidence of the laws and treaties therein contained.” (ch. 333, 18 Stat. 113)

Soon after the Revised Statutes of 1874 were published, complaints arose about errors in it. The American Law Review criticized the Revised Statutes for not being a complete codification of all federal statutes, as well as for its “inconvenient and clumsy” use of sequential numbering of all sections in the Revised Statutes from beginning to end (without starting section numbering over within individual titles) (Summary of Events, 9 Am.L.Rev. 767, 767-68 (1875)). In December 1875, Secretary of War William W. Belknap submitted a collection of reports of heads of bureaus of the War Department setting forth numerous corrections to the portions of the Revised Statutes of 1874 relating to that department.  Congress authorized the president to appoint a commissioner to prepare a second edition of the Revised Statutes in 1877, to include statutes enacted after December 1, 1873. (ch. 82, 19 Stat. 268) Unlike the 1874 edition, the Revised Statutes of 1878 were not enacted into law by Congress, and constituted only prima facie evidence of the law.

In 1880, Congress authorized the publication of a supplement to the Revised Statutes, prepared by Judge William A. Richardson of the Court of Claims. (No. 44, 21 Stat. 308) This supplement was published in 1881. Ten years later, Congress authorized another supplement, (ch. 73, 26 Stat. 50) which was published in 1891. In 1893, Congress approved additional supplements to the Revised Statutes, to be published after each session of Congress. (ch. 167, 27 Stat. 477)

If you are interested in determining whether and to what extent a provision of federal law originally included in the Revised Statutes may still be in effect today, you can find where sections of the Revised Statutes of 1878 were classified to the U.S. Code by using Table II of the US Code. An online version of Table II is available through the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives. You can also find this table in a volume at the end of the print version of the U.S. Code.

To determine what changes may have been made to a statutory provision included in the Revised Statutes prior to its inclusion in the Code, you can consult a reference work entitled Index to the Federal Statutes, 1874-1931. This book includes a table of repeals and amendments that lists each section of the Revised Statutes that was amended or superseded by a later statute, indicates the United States Statutes at Large citation of the amending or repealing statute, and indicates whether the change constituted an amendment or a repeal in whole or in part.

Print Resources

You can find print versions of the Revised Statutes of 1874 and the Revised Statutes of 1878 in the Law Library’s Reading Room.  The Revised Statutes of 1874 was published in two volumes. The Revised Statutes of 1878 was published as a one-volume book, and also as part of volume 18 of the United States Statutes at Large.

You can look for print versions of the Revised Statutes in libraries that are part of the Federal Depository Library Program.  To find a federal depository library in your area go to the Federal Depository Library Program Library Directory, click “FDLP Public Page,” and click on your state.  In addition, you can search for copies of the Revised Statutes of 1874 and the Revised Statutes of 1878 in libraries near you by using the Online Computer Library Center’s WorldCat database, which enables you to search “collections of libraries in your community and thousands more around the world.” When you view the record for a search result in WorldCat, you can enter your zip code in the search field under the heading “Find a copy in the library” to locate libraries near you that hold the item.

Print copies of the supplements to the Revised Statutes can be challenging to locate in libraries. You can contact the Law Library of Congress’s Reading Room for help searching for print copies in our regular collection and Rare Book Collection.  You can also search for copies of supplements in the WorldCat database described above.

Internet Resources

A complete copy of the 1874 edition of the Revised Statutes currently does not appear to be available online. You can, however, find a copy of the first volume of the Revised Statutes of 1874 on the website of the Internet Archive.

The 1878 edition of the Revised Statutes can be found in two places on the Library’s website.  The first place is a PDF which is available from the Digitized Material section under the Law Library’s Research & Reports page.  A copy of the Supplement to the Revised Statutes of the United States, volume 1, 2d ed. 1874-1891 is available from this page.  You can also find the Revised Statutes of 1878 on A Century of Lawmaking For a New Nation.

Additionally, both editions of the Revised Statutes can be found in the HeinOnline legal research database, which is available in the Law Library of Congress Reading Room and in many academic law libraries, and college and university libraries.  The 1881, 1891, and 1901 supplements to the Revised Statutes are also available through HeinOnline.


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