Recently, I was asked to find an earlier version of the U.S. Code in order to find some specific language. This instance dealt with an Act that was passed in 1912, and I was looking for the language as it appeared in the U.S. Code.
Checking the Gallagher catalog, I found that we had the official version of the code back to 1940. This would not do. I then checked the Hein Online database containing pdf copies of the official code. According to Hein Online, the earliest version of the U.S. Code was a 1925-1926 edition. I assumed that there must be an earlier edition of the code that just was not digitized yet.
Then I noticed two editions of something called the Revised Statutes of the United States, listed under “Earlier Codification of Federal Law.” The perplexing part was that these were dated 1875 and 1878. This forced me to wonder where I would find the missing codifications of federal law that fall into the almost 50 year gap between these two sources. That is where it got interesting…
Prior to June 22, 1874, a person looking for the law would have to sort through the Statutes at Large. Perhaps you are familiar with these characters – they are published chronologically and the index is not cumulative. That means that a researcher would have to find the exact volume of Statutes at Large containing the law they were looking for. For all the curious people out there, by 1874 this was as many as 17 volumes to look through for a particular law. The people of 1875 were lucky enough to have the Revised Statutes of 1875 published. This collection organized federal statutes into 74 subject titles and was submitted to Congress. This is the beginning of the positive law issue, which I will not get into. If you are interested in knowing what positive law is and the arguments surrounding it, take a look at this pdf file from the Office of the Law Revision Counsel. The Revised Statutes of 1878 was published in an effort to correct errors present in the first edition.
So what happened between 1878 and 1926? 27 more volumes of Statutes at Large! There were enactments of a Criminal Code and a Judicial Code between 1909 and 1911, but nothing that covered all federal statutes. Some commercial vendors attempted to compile the new laws, but these had their own difficulties aside from being unofficial. Finally in 1926, the United States Code arranged the legislation in the Revised Statutes of 1875 and the legislation found in each volume of the United States Statutes at Large into 50 Titles. This is the first version of the U.S. Code you know and love today. So the next time you are having a hard time scanning through a massive pile of information, take a break, go to Hein Online and browse the United States Statutes at Large to get a better perspective on finding a needle in a haystack!
-- Joe Cera