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U.S. Treaties: A Beginner’s Guide

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This post is coauthored by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer, legal reference specialists.

Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states that the President “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur… ” An early attempt by the President and Senate to negotiate the exercise of this power provided an interesting anecdote. According to the Senate Historical Office, on August 22, 1789, President Washington traveled to the Senate to submit a treaty concerning Native American Indian Tribes. While the President waited, the Senate decided to postpone consideration of the treaty rather than debate the questions in front of the President.  According to Maclay’s Journal an irritated, President Washington exclaimed, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” and resolved to submit subsequent treaty communications to the Senate in writing. To learn more about the development of the treaty power and its application, please refer to the United States Constitution: Analysis and Interpretation’s discussion of Article II, Section 2.

There are several options for researchers trying to find copies of treaties to which the United States is or was a party.  In fact, we were inspired to write this post by the new Treaties digital collection added to the Law Library of Congress website. As of now, the digital collection includes a digital copy of the first four volumes of Charles I. Bevans’s Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949, which includes copies of the English version (or English translation) of multilateral treaties to which the United States was a party.  Digital copies of the remaining volumes (5-12), which include the bilateral treaties to which the United States was a party during this period, will be added in the near future.

Wm. Penn's treaty with the Indians when he founded the province of Pennsya. 1661. Lithograph by N. Currier. (Created between 1835 and 1856). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
Wm. Penn’s treaty with the Indians when he founded the province of Pennsya. 1661. Lithograph by N. Currier. (Created between 1835 and 1856). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

The Treaties page also links to the United States Department of State’s Treaties and Other International Acts webpage, which includes PDF copies of the “executed English-language original of [each published international] agreement and certain other key documents” for published international agreements entered into from 1996 to the present.  The Treaties and Other International Acts series (also known as TIAS), which is “the official print publication format for treaties and agreements that have entered into force for [the] U.S.,” was published by the Government Printing Office in paper form from 1945 to 2006, but is now available online.

In addition to the sources listed above, we suggest utilizing these other helpful resources for your treaty research:

  • For treaties entered into by the United States before the mid-1940s, researchers can also turn to the Treaty Series (TS) (1795-1945) and the United States Statutes at Large (1795-1948). The TS collection can be found in either bound form, or as separately-published pamphlets produced for each treaty.  Treaties reprinted in the United States Statutes at Large are organized chronologically.
  • The United States Treaties and Other International Agreements (UST) collected TIAS prints in one chronologically-organized bound collection from 1950 to 1982.  Each UST volume also includes a subject index for ease of use.
  • The Library of Congress also provides information about treaties, from 1967 to the present, in the THOMAS legislative information database.  Full text of the treaties can also be found on THOMAS from 1995 to the present.  To find the treaty or treaties that interest you, simply enter either the treaty number or keywords of interest into the search box, select the Congress(es) of interest, and click “Search.”
  • In addition to TIAS, the U.S. Department of State has also, since 1944, produced Treaties in Force.  Published yearly, this resource provides a listing of all the bilateral and multilateral treaties and agreements to which the United States is a party that, as the name suggests, are still in force.  The bilateral treaties and agreements are organized “by country or international entity, with subject headings under each entry,” while the multilateral treaties and agreements are organized by subject. The most recent edition of Treaties in Force can be found online at the U.S. Department of State’s Treaties in Force website.
  • Often, citations to treaties will include either a “TIAS” or a “KAV” number.  The “KAV” number is referencing the Guide to the United States Treaties in Force, by Igor I. Kavass (see our catalog records for the 1982-2007 and 2008-present editions).  Kavass’s Guide provides more extensive indexes to U.S. treaties and international agreements, including both a more wide-ranging subject index and a chronological index.
  • If you are most interested in reviewing the treaties that have been submitted to, and are currently being considered by, the Senate, you might want to visit the U.S. Department of State’s Treaties Pending in the Senate page.
  • Finally, you may want to visit a public law library or federal depository library in your area, as they may have access to subscription databases, such as ProQuest Congressional, ProQuest Legislative Insight, or HeinOnline, that contain treaty documents.

In addition, we suggest reviewing these very useful online treaty guides for more assistance:

We hope you find this guide to be helpful.  If you have any reference questions regarding treaties, please do not hesitate to use our Ask-a-Librarian feature, or call or visit your local federal depository library for more assistance.

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