A Nineteenth Century Law Library:
The Colcock-Hutson Collection

More information about the Collection

In the eighteen, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, lawyers needed books to learn and to ply their profession. Whether they were handed down or were acquired by gift or by purchase when funds allowed,

[t]he lawyer needed this collection of law books, no matter how small, to function. The books had to be immediately available to those who chose them, owned them, and used them. The collections were as large as their owners could afford. They were his practical tool, the asset of his trade, and the measure of his wealth. (1)

The library of an individual lawyer might be no more than a few volumes (2) or could contain thousands (3). In the colonial period, the average size of a private law library was 10 to 20 volumes. (4)

Even though a lawyer typically didn’t have many books, he thoroughly mastered the substance of the ones he had. (5) Charles Fraser, a Charleston lawyer, more famous as an artist, who was a contemporary of Charles Jones Colcock, published a reminiscence of Charleston in 1854. In it he spoke of the study of law, lawyers, and law libraries that he remembered from fifty years earlier. Note the hint of disapproval of the new forms of legal sources that had developed in the interval.

I have heard some of those old lawyers speak of their early habits of study, and their learning was not too lightly earned for its reward. It is not for me to say whether law, as a science, is better understood now than formerly, or its practice more conducive to the ends of justice, or would it be in place here to inquire whether the modern lawyer is learned in proportion to the increased number of his books. But one thing may be safely asserted, that a law library at that period to which we are now referring, such as probably laid the foundation of an Eldon’s or Stowell’s attainments, would make but a meager array on the shelves of the modern American jurist. But the books that composed that library were profoundly read and digested. The great fathers of English law were the oracles of the student. His was not the day of digests, and indexes, and abridgements. He imbibed his knowledge in deep draughts from those ancient fountains, which had been approached with reverence by his predecessors. (6)

In the early years of the republic, lawyers and judges went out from the cities to meet clients and hold court in the smaller towns. This was referred to as riding the circuit. Of necessity, books were scarce. Fraser noted that for an attorney riding the circuit, ‘ … the most profitable part of the day was the morning, before the meeting of the court, in giving opinions to clients, and, when required to give them in writing, he took care to endorse on them ‘given on circuit,’ not having the aid of books’ (emphasis supplied). (7)

The Colcock-Hutson collection donation consists of somewhat more than half of the 700 volumes that made up the law library at the time that Richard W. Hutson, the last of the lawyers in the line, made his inventory. The Coleman Karesh Law Library is fortunate to have the Hutson inventory, which enables us to more accurately assess the library as a whole. Between the two, we can see that this was a fine collection, larger than the average, and containing the books that a well-equipped lawyer of the day should have had. For example, the works of Coke and Blackstone were considered ‘the day-to-day bread-and-butter tools of practicing lawyers in the 18th and 19th century.’ (8) The Colcock-Hutson library contained both. Chitty’s Pleadings, second only to Blackstone in popularity, (9) was also among the holdings. Thomas Wood’s Institute of the Laws of England, a basic reference work, (10) appears in Richard Hutson’s inventory.

For lawyers practicing in Beaufort and Charleston, works on maritime and commercial law would have been invaluable. The three most popular works of the eighteenth century on commercial shipping, Gerard Malyne’s Lex Mercatoria, Charles Molloy’s De Jure Maritimo et Navali; and Wyndham Beawes’ Lex Mercatoria Rediviva: or, the Merchant’s Directory, Being a Complete Guide to All Men in Business (11) were all in the Colcock-Hutson library.

In the colonial period and in the early days of the republic, American law was basically English law. (12) Of the 384 law-related volumes in the donated collection, 196 — slightly more than half — are English cases and treatises, including American editions of English treatises. As American publishers began to produce American law books, the Colcocks and Hutsons added those to their library. Of the 141 titles that are law-related treatises, digests, or indexes, 87 titles appear in John Livingston’s General Catalog of Law Books, Alphabetically Classified by Subjects (1859). (13) They acquired what federal law was available — cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States, volumes of the Federal Reporter, and federal statutes. They owned a full run of the South Carolina Reports and South Carolina Statutes. They also recognized the need to know the law of states other than South Carolina. Reports of cases from New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia are included in the library. They owned a run (volumes 18–39) of the South Eastern Reporter, so they had cases from North Carolina and West Virginia as well.

The oldest volume in the donated collection is a one volume Justinian’s Institutes published in 1756. (14) The oldest item the lawyers owned may have been Molloy’s De Jure Maritimo et Navali published in 1682. (15) The newest volumes are the Library of Oratory published in 1902. (16) The law library was in the hands, at that point of, Charles J.C. Hutson, who died that year. He was not actively practicing, but was clerk of the U.S. District Court. Even so, it is apparent that books were being added to the collection continuously.

Many of the books were undoubtedly purchased new from publishers and booksellers. Of the books published before 1800, all were published in Dublin or London. This is not unusual, since by 1776 only 33 law books had been published in the United States, and eight of these were reprints of English works (17). All but one of the books in the donated collection published after 1800 were published in the United States. Legal publishing flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century. Philadelphia and New York had the most publishers and booksellers represented in the library, but publishers located in sixteen other cities, including Savannah, Raleigh, Charleston, and Columbia, also appear in the list. ‘The antebellum years were not only the formative era of American law but the flowering of American legal literature.’ (18)

A significant number of the books were acquired by gift or second-hand, either from used book dealers or from sales of other lawyers’ estates. The names of sixteen previous owners are inscribed in various volumes. Some were family members, Colcocks or Hutsons or Hays. Some were friends or teachers. For example, one volume bears William DeSaussure’s signature and the date 1785, with the additional inscription, ‘To his friend and pupil Chas. J. Colcock So Car, H. W. DeSaussure, Cambridge April 1799,’ followed by ‘W. F. Colcock 1872.’ Charles Jones Colcock was a pupil in William DeSaussure’s office in Charleston. The book which was given to him was passed down to his son, William Ferguson Colcock.

The name appearing most frequently is that of Charles Fraser. Twenty-five of the volumes bear his signature. He was a friend and contemporary of Charles Jones Colcock, so perhaps Fraser gave or sold his law books to Colcock when he gave up law to become an artist.

Several volumes bear the inscription of P.L. Wiggin. Pierce L. Wiggin was an attorney and Solicitor for the 2nd Circuit in Beaufort, S.C. Additional notes indicate that one volume had been ‘bought at sale of P. L. Wiggin’s books Apl 8/80 WFC.’

Other interesting previous owners were James Gairdner, a Charleston merchant; George Tillman, Benjamin Tillman’s brother, who practiced law in Edgefield and served in the South Carolina legislature and in the U.S. Congress; George Frederick Holmes, an educator who was the first president of the University of Mississippi; William Hunter, Senator from Rhode Island from 1811 to 1822; James Henry Hammond, the 60th Governor of South Carolina; and Joseph James Pope Jr., the father of Joseph Daniel Pope.

  1. Christine A Brock, Law Libraries and Librarians: A Revisionist History; or More Than You Ever Wanted to Know, 67 Law Lib. J. 325, 329 (1974).
  2. Morris Cohen, Historical Development of the American Lawyer's Library, 61 Law Lib. J. 440, 442 (1968), reprinted in Law Librarianship: Historical Perspectives (1996). The library of Judge John Guest, appointed the first chief justice of the Supreme Court of the province of Pennsylvania in 1701, consisted of 53 titles, 28 of which were legal works.
  3. The Coleman Karesh Law Library collection itself was greatly enriched by the donation of around 3000 volumes from the law library of B.L. Abney, a Columbia lawyer who died in 1921. A catalog of his law library is in the South Caroliniana Library. The Caroliniana also has the catalog of the sale of the ‘Valuable Law Library of The Late Col. Jas. H. Rion’ of Winnsboro, SC (December 10, 1889), a collection of 2035 volumes.
  4. Brock, supra note 1 at 328. Study of estate records indicates that 100% of lawyers in the Revolutionary era owned books, the highest rate of book ownership found. Jackson T. Main, The Social Structure of Revolutionary America 257 (1965).
  5. Brock, supra note 1 at 327, quoting Charles Warren, History of the American Bar 187 (1966).
  6. Charles Fraser, Reminiscences of Charleston 72–73 (1969).
  7. Id. at 71.
  8. Brock, supra note 1 at 327.
  9. Id.
  10. Cohen, supra note 2 at 441.
  11. Id. at 444.
  12. Id. at 440.
  13. Mark E. Steiner, General Catalogue of Law Books, Alphabetically Classified by Subjects (1859), 18 Leg. Ref. Serv. Q. 47 (1999).
  14. D. Justiniani Institutionum Libri Quatuor. The Four Books of Justinian’s Institutions, Translated into English, With Notes, By George Harris, LL.D. London: Printed for C. Bathurst and E. Withers, in Fleet-Street. 1756. Justinian’s Institutes were a consolidation and codification of Roman law prepared at the direction of the Emperor Justinian.
  15. Charles Molloy, De Jure Maritimo et Navali: or, A Treatise of Affairs Maritime and of Commerce. (London 1682).
  16. The Library of Oratory Ancient and Modern with Critical Studies of the World’s Great Orators by Eminent Essayists. Chauncey M. Depew, LL.D., United States Senator from the State of New York, Editor-in-Chief (New York 1902).
  17. Brock, supra note 1 at 328.
  18. Steiner, supra note 11 at 49. See also, Brock, supra note 1 at 329.