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Early law dictionaries of the united states

The First Edition of Black’s Law Dictionary

Henry Campbell Black. A Dictionary of Law: Containing Definitions of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern.
St. Paul, MN: West Pub., 1891.  

Henry Campbell Black (1860—1927) was born in Ossining, New York. Black's, title pageHe was educated at Trinity College in Connecticut, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1880, a master’s degree in 1887, and an LLD in 1916. He studied law in Pennsylvania and was admitted to practice there in 1883, but soon abandoned the practice of law, and with his parents moved to Washington, D.C. In addition to authoring Black’s Law Dictionary, he also wrote Handbook of American Constitutional Law, and was the editor of The Constitutional Review from 1917 until his death in 1927.

Regarded as the definitive law dictionary in the United States, the first edition was published in 1891. Shorter than Bouvier’s law dictionary, Black’s soon eclipsed all competitors and the first edition was followed by a second in 1910. In his preface, Black wrote that his aim was to publish the first comprehensive law dictionary. He acknowledged his reliance on other law dictionaries and treatises in preparing his work. However, he also noted that his dictionary contained many entries for "which the definition had to be written entirely de novo."

The sixth and earlier editions of the book provided case citations for the term defined, a feature popular with practitioners since this provided a starting point for further legal research. The eighth edition introduced a unique system of perpetually updated case citations and cross-references to legal encyclopedias. The current, ninth edition was published in 2009 and edited by Bryan Garner.

To date this dictionary has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in roughly 250 cases, the first time in 1901 for Black’s definition of “common law.”


Gift of Bryan Garner (UT Law 1984) and Pan Garner.