Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 120 / Number 4
"Send us . . . what other Lawe books you shall thinke fitt": Books That Shaped the Law in Virginia, 1600–1860
- Warren M. Billings, pp. 314–39
Book history as a field of inquiry has increased in popularity over the past several decades. Scholars have drawn attention not only to book owners but also to all aspects of the book trade. Their endeavors have greatly enlarged modern understanding of early American print culture, but their exclusive attention to literary genres has led them to overlook the importance of law books to the shaping of the law in Virginia between the founding of Jamestown and the eve of the Civil War. Up through the Revolution, the main source of law books was Great Britain. After independence Virginians increasingly looked to an indigenous body of literature that grew exponentially as they distinguished their law from that of England. Thus, to overlook the legal texts that circulated in Virginia between 1607 and 1860 is to diminish a fuller understanding of how legal culture in the Old Dominion came to be. This essay draws notice to that trove of writing. Specifically, it will attend to particular types of book—how-to manuals, dictionaries, case reports, digests, statutory compilations, parliamentary manuals, and commentaries—each of which had a clear, demonstrable impact on Virginia law and practice.