Connecticut has an important place in the historical development of American law and government, as well as in the evolution of legal publishing. Connecticut is home to several important-- albeit debated -- firsts, such as the first Constitution and the first law reporter and legal text in the United States. The library endeavors to collect and maintain a comprehensive collection of Connecticut materials, from our oldest item – a book of statutes published in 1750 – to the current books and electronic resources that are critical to the practice of law in Connecticut.
To showcase our extensive collection, we have put together a display on the library’s main floor. Here is some of the backstory behind the items in the display:
The Connecticut Constitution
We have displayed a copy of the 1818 Constitution, which was in effect until 1965. Connecticut’s original governing document was the Fundamental Orders, which was in effect from 1639-1662. This document set forth the structure of the government for the original three settlements in Connecticut – Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield. Although one nickname for the state, “The Constitution State,” is derived from the view that the Fundamental Orders was the first written constitution in the world, this view is very far from universally accepted. Nevertheless, the Fundamental Orders formed the basis for Connecticut’s system of governance.
In 1787, Ephraim Kirby, a Connecticut lawyer, set out to compile the first state law reporter in the United States. At that time, Connecticut courts followed English common law in some circumstances, and departed from it in others. However, the only published law reporters were English. Connecticut lawyers relied on their own personal records and other lawyers to understand how particular judges may rule.
Kirby believed Connecticut law was in a state of confusion due to the lack of published reports, and decided to compile reports of the Connecticut Superior Court. He reviewed English reports for guidance in reporting style, and attempted to raise money for the publishing cost. He was not able to raise enough money from subscribers, but did persuade the Connecticut General Assembly to provide 180 pounds in exchange for delivery of copies of the Reports for each of the towns in the state. Kirby’s Reports were finally published in 1789. Although other state law reporters were published soon thereafter, Kirby has the distinction of publishing the first reporter of American law.
Zephaniah Swift was an important figure in the late 18th and early 19th century in Connecticut. He served in Congress and on the Supreme Court of Errors, and had a part in bringing about the 1818 constitutional convention. Swift also authored the first attempt to describe Connecticut common law as a whole. Swift’s A System of the Laws of Connecticut is considered to be first American legal text.
Code of 1650
On April 9, 1646, the Connecticut General Court requested that Roger Ludlow take “some paynes in drawing forth a body of Lawes for the gouerment of this Comon welth.” In other words, Ludlow was asked to draft the first code of laws for Connecticut.
Roger Ludlow was one of the early Puritan residents of Windsor, arriving around 1635. He was a lawyer and played a prominent role in the creation of the Fundamental Orders. He founded Fairfield, but later permanently returned to England.
The laws contained in the Code of 1650 are typical of what one would expect from a colonial Puritan society. For example, a person committing burglary or theft would be branded on the forehead with the letter B upon his first offense. The second offense was punishable by another brand and a severe whipping. On the third offense, the individual was considered to be in corrigible and was put to death. Other capital crimes included smiting or disobeying your parents, witchcraft, blasphemy, murder, and perjury.
The Code also prohibited cruelty toward domestic animals, outlawed shuffle board, and for cursing or swearing imposed a fine, or up to three hours in the stocks if unwilling or unable to pay the fine.
Tapping Reeve founded Litchfield Law School in 1789. At the time, apprenticeship was the only avenue to becoming a lawyer. Reeve offered a legal education consisting of 18 months of lectures that systematically covered all areas of legal practice.
Students listened to lectures and took notes in the morning, and then recopied their notes in the afternoon. As there were few law books widely available, students took these notebooks with them into practice as reference works. We have a collection of copies of representative notebooks in our special collections. Yale Law Library has recently digitized a large number of these notebooks, and Harvard Law Library has also digitized a number of the notebooks.