What Was the Law? Historical U.S. Statutes Online

What Was the Law? Historical U.S. Statutes Online

Genealogists and other historians often find it useful to know what laws were in effect in a particular location at the time an ancestor lived there, research that may mean delving into a combination of federal, state, and local laws. To that end, statutes can be a good starting point for tracing the legislative history of a particular law. The word statute refers to a law passed by a state legislature or federal government (e.g. U.S. Congress, British Parliament) sometimes called legislation or enacted law. This is in contrast to case law, which is a record of written opinions issued by judges in deciding cases, an important part of the common law legal system in force throughout much of the United States (except Louisiana), Canada (excluding Quebec), Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, most of India, Pakistan, South Africa, and Hong Kong.

In addition to understanding how the law may have affected the lives of our ancestors, published statutes also contain private laws which directly name individuals and may provide other information of historical or genealogical value. Private acts are laws which apply specifically to individuals or groups of individuals rather than everyone within a governmental jurisdiction, and may include early name changes and divorces, authorizations to build something or collect a toll, formation of a specific township or church, land grant disputes, petitions for monetary relief such as pension claims, requests for exemption from immigration restrictions, etc.

Types of Statutory Publications & Their Uses

Legislation at both the federal and state level is generally published in three forms:

  1. as individually issued slip laws, published immediately after passage of a law. Slip laws are the first official text of laws, or statutes, enacted by the legislative body of a jurisdiction.
  2. as session laws, the collected slip laws that have been enacted during a particular legislative session. Session law publications publish these laws in chronological order, by the legislative session in which they were enacted.
  3. as compiled statutory codes, compilations of laws of a permanent nature currently in force for a specific jurisdiction, published in a topical or subject arrangement (not chronological). Code or statutes volumes are periodically updated with supplements and/or new editions in order to reflect changes, e.g. addition of new laws, changes in existing laws, and deletion of repealed or expired laws.

Compiled or revised statutes are often the easiest way to begin to narrow down the period when a law change took effect, and will usually reference the session law enacting the change. Session laws are then the most useful for continuing research into the historical evolution of an area of law.

Determining the Laws in Effect at a Certain Time & Place

Although federal and state statutes and session laws, both current and historical, are fairly easy to access, locating a specific statutory law in effect at a certain period and place can be a little difficult. Generally, the easiest way is to begin with the most recent version of the compiled or revised statutes, whether federal or state, and use the historical information generally found at the end of each statute section to work your way back through prior enacted laws.

Federal Statutes

U.S. Statutes at LargeUnited States Codecurrent

Historical State Statutes & Session Laws

Cornell Legal Information InstituteLaw Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.current

Define your question: What was the minimum age for an 1855 marriage in North Carolina without parental consent?

Once you locate the current statute that addresses your question or topic of interest, scroll down to the bottom of that section and you'll generally find a history with information on prior amendments. The following section directly addresses our question concerning North Carolina marriage laws, including the minimum age at which two people can marry without parental consent.

Chapter 51-2 of the North Carolina Statutes states:

Capacity to Marry: All unmarried persons of 18 years, or older, may lawfully marry, except as hereinafter forbidden. Persons over 16 years of age and under 18 years of age may marry, and the register of deeds may issue a license for the marriage, only after there shall have been filed with the register of deeds a written consent to the marriage, said consent having been signed by the appropriate person as follows: (1) By a parent having full or joint legal custody of the underage party; or (2) By a person, agency, or institution having legal custody or serving as a guardian of the underage party…

At the bottom of Chapter 51, Section 2 is a history that points to previous versions of this statute:

History: R.C., c. 68, s. 14; 1871‑2, c. 193; Code, s. 1809; Rev., s. 2082; C.S., s. 2494; 1923, c. 75; 1933, c. 269, s. 1; 1939, c. 375; 1947, c. 383, s. 2; 1961, c. 186; 1967, c. 957, s. 1; 1969, c. 982; 1985, c. 608; 1998‑202, s. 13(s); 2001‑62, s. 2; 2001‑487, s. 60.

Historical State Statutes Online Once you have the history of your legislation of interest, or if you are looking for private laws, you will now need to turn to historical published statutes or session laws. Published versions can often be found on sites which digitize and publish historical or out-of-copyright books, such as Google Books, Internet Archive, and Haithi Digital Trust (see 5 Places to Find Historical Books Online for Free). State Archives websites are another good place to check for published historical state statutes.

Using online sources, the answer to our question about the minimum marriage age in 1855, can be found in the 1854 Revised Code of North Carolina, available online in digitized format on the Internet Archive:

Females under the age of fourteen years, and males under the age of sixteen, shall be incapable of contracting marriage. 1.


1. Bartholomew F. Moore and William B. Rodman, editors, Revised Code of North Carolina Enacted by the General Assembly at the Session of 1854 (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1855); digital images, Internet Archive (// : accessed 25 June 2012).