Skip to main content
Unpublished Paper
The Language of Law: Interpreting Nineteenth-Century legal documents
  • Arthur Mitchell Fraas, University of Pennsylvania

The documentary record produced in the course of 19th century American legal proceedings remains one of the greatest sources for understanding the everyday lives of the middling and non-elite who otherwise rarely rise to the surface of the historical record. This documentation though has often gone unused or misused thanks to the circumstances of its production and the difficulties of parsing the specialized language used within. Documents produced for use in a courtroom always have multiple layers of meaning, each intended with different purposes and audiences in mind. Formulaic language and confusing tangles of proceedings and filings too often get in the way of constructing arguments and narratives about the historical subjects of the documents themselves. This paper explores the documentary forms, processes, and practices that make up this archive with an eye towards helping those using the sources better understand their production and rationale.

  • slavery,
  • legal forms,
  • documentary history,
  • digital humanities
Publication Date
March 19, 2015
Citation Information
Arthur Mitchell Fraas. "The Language of Law: Interpreting Nineteenth-Century legal documents" (2015)
Available at: