As a legal historian I thought I would share something this week from Penn’s collections that demonstrates both the frustrations and excitement of working with legal historical sources. A few weeks ago, the curator of manuscripts brought to my attention an uncataloged volume from the stacks which was known only to be some sort of “legal formulary” (now fully cataloged by Amey Hutchins as UPenn Ms. Codex 1628). Formularies, as their name suggests, are form books used by lawyers or others to record the particular language required for various legal proceedings. A formulary might then include forms for writing out deeds, conveying livestock, issuing a summons, etc. These might be taken from printed books of forms intended to guide lawyers or from manuscript documents used in actual practice and copied for later use . From this description it’s easy to see why formularies don’t receive a lot of attention. They are often absurdly dull tomes full of a mishmash of legalese never meant to be read front to back but dipped into for templates by a practicing lawyer. I’m excited by nearly anything having to do with 18th century law but I have to admit having low expectations when I decided to investigate.
The very first page of the formulary (illustrated right) helped identify its owner and sometime author: Jared Ingersoll, Jr. (1749-1822). Ingersoll was one of the most prominent lawyers in the early American republic as well as a signer of the Constitution and later Attorney General of Pennsylvania. Originally from Connecticut, Ingersoll graduated from Yale and moved to Philadelphia around 1770 where he lived for the rest of his life except for 5 years in London (1773-78). Ms. Codex 1628 includes writing in several different hands but it seems more than likelythat the first 153 pages (all in the same hand) were written by Ingersoll himself as a young lawyer .
One doesn’t have to look much further than the opening page (above) to understand what kinds of material ended up in an early American form book. This first page contains a template to be used by the customs officer of Philadelphia for filing a bill to seize enslaved Africans brought to Pennsylvania without customs duties being paid. Note above the highlighted portions where particular names are omitted by Ingersoll for the template (e.g. “a certain ship called the ____”).
The appearance of documents like the one above raises a tricky question about what we can say based on a formulary. Does the presence of this form mean that young Philadelphia lawyers expected to deal with a number of slave-importation cases, or is it more emblematic of a desire to exhaustively document extant legal procedure no matter how common? In addition, while it seems reasonable to assume, given the presence of some specific dates in the form, that it was copied by Ingersoll from an actual bill filed for the seizure of enslaved persons, formularies also contain forms prepared for use but never actually used. The information contained within them then cannot always be taken at face value.
A more telling example of this problem comes on page 103 of the manuscript which contains a form for an “information” (similar to an indictment) for use by the “Negro Court” of Philadelphia. It may or may not record the details of an actual case before this specialized court. It includes placeholders for the names of the six white and property owning ‘jurors’ who were to try the case. The form does include specific language for a plausible crime, the theft of “one worsted pocket book” on the streets of Philadelphia, but includes Ingersoll’s note “here insert the Goods Stolen & their Value.”