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History of United States Statutes at Large and United States Code

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By law, the Archivist of the United States is directed to publish the Statutes for each session of Congress: "The United States Statutes at Large shall be legal evidence of laws, concurrent resolutions, treaties, proclamations by the President, and proposed or ratified amendments to the Constitution of the United States therein contained, in all the courts of the United States, the several States, and the Territories and insular possessions of the United States." (1 U.S.C. 112; ch. 388, Public Law 278, 61 Stat. 636).

Volumes 1-17, 1789-1873

Prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, Congress undertook a variety of ways to publish its laws, including voluntary publication by cooperating newspapers. In 1845 Little, Brown, and Company was hired by Congress to publish The United States Statutes at Large, for the first time collecting and publishing all laws ever passed by Congress, whether repealed or then obsolete, and in chronological order. Little, Brown continued this practice until 1873.

Volumes 18-49, 1873-1936

For a time, the U.S. Government Printing Office published what amounted to session laws in pamphlet form for Congress, later republishing these pamphlets in bound editions, now found in Volumes 18-49.

Volume 50 and beyond

It was not until 1937 (Volume 50, 74th Congress) that the GPO began publishing the Statutes annually.

From Bills to Laws in the Statutes

After a bill introduced in either the Senate or House of Representatives is passed by that chamber of origin, it is engrossed and forwarded as An Act to the other chamber for consideration. If the Act is passed by the other chamber, it is enrolled and forwarded to the President. To become law, the Act must be approved by the President or, if vetoed, by two-thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively, despite the President's veto.

If the applicability of an Act is limited, such as to a single corporate or private person, or to a single locality, it may be a Private Law. Otherwise it becomes a Public Law with generally broad applicability. (In modern usage, the terms Act, Law and Statute have tended to become interchangeable.)

Law Revision Counsel

Newly approved Acts are forwarded to the Office of the Law Revision Counsel (LRC) in the House of Representatives for review in preparation for printing and dissemination to the public. The LRC also determines whether the provisions of the Act are "general and permanent" in nature, in which case they will be codified in the United States Code, often with associated legislative or editorial Notes. The LRC also adds marginal notes to each Act as appropriate prior to publication.

Slip Laws

New Public Laws are numbered in the order of approval. Initially, they are printed by the GPO in pamphlet form as slip laws for distribution approximately, but not necessarily, in the order in which they were approved.

United States Statutes at Large

A year or so after the conclusion of each session of Congress, the slip laws are republished in collected form as a new Volume of the United States Statutes at Large, which also includes Private Laws, Concurrent Resolutions passed by Congress, Presidential Proclamations and various lists and indexes. Corrections and other edits may be made to the slip law versions before the laws are republished in the bound editions of the Statutes.

Volumes of the Statutes at Large

Volume Numbering

The numbering of the Volumes of the Statutes at Large is consecutive but otherwise arbitrary and without any relationship to the number of the Congress(es) covered in a particular Volume or the year(s) in which the Acts were approved.

Beginning with Volume 18, certain large Volumes were divided into different books (e.g., Part 1, Part 2, etc.), giving rise to some confusion between references to a physical volume or book, and a "Volume" of the Statutes. For clarity, therefore, references should be, for example, to "Volume 32, Part 1."

Numbering of Laws

Early compilations of laws adopted the system of assigning a "chapter" number to each Act. Beginning in 1901, separate Public (or Private) Law numbers were added chronologically. In 1957 the modern system of numbering with a Congress-number prefix was adopted, and chapter numbering was discontinued.

Volumes 1-31, 1789-1901

These earliest volumes cover the 1st through the 56th Congresses. During this period, Acts were numbered as chapters often abbreviated as "chap." or "ch." Acts were numbered consecutively and in chronological order of approval - whether Public or Private - within each session of Congress. Thus, for example, chapters 1, 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9 might be Public Acts, while chapters 4, 5 and 6 were Private Acts.

Because the chapter numbering started anew with each session of Congress, there could be three or four different Acts numbered "ch. 1" in a Congress having three or four sessions, respectively. For a citation to be precise, therefore, a reference to an Act by its chapter number must be accompanied by its approval date.

Volumes 32-70, 1901-1956

In this "middle" period, Acts were also given a Public or Private Law number in addition to the chapter number. Thus, in Volume 32, Acts of the 57th Congress were numbered as follows:

  • Chapter 1 (also) Public, No. 1
  • Chapter 2 (also) Public, No. 2
  • Chapter 3 (also) Public, No. 3
  • Chapter 4 (also) Private, No. 1
  • Chapter 5 (also) Public, No. 4
  • etc. etc.

During this period, Resolutions were also numbered separately as in these examples from Volume 49:

  • Chapter 1 (also) Pub. Res., No. 1
  • Chapter 2 (also) Public, No. 1
  • Chapter 3 (also) Public, No. 2
  • Chapter 4 (also) Pub. Res., No. 2
  • ...   ...
  • Chapter 25 (also) Private, No. 1
  • ...  ...
  • Chapter 880 (also) Priv. Res., No. 7
Volume 71 and Beyond

Beginning with Volume 71, covering the 85th Congress in 1957, the modern system of numbering was adopted. Chapter numbers were discontinued, and Public and Private Laws were numbered consecutively, but separately, and over a complete Congress, not a single session. Moreover, numbers now include a prefix indicating the number of the Congress that passed the law. Thus, Acts of the 85th Congress are numbered as:

  • Public Law 85-1 (and) Private Law 85-1
  • Public Law 85-2 (and) Private Law 85-2
  • Public Law 85-3 (and) Private Law 85-3
  • etc.   (and)   etc.

Insofar as a Public Law may originate in Congress as either a Bill or a Joint Resolution, the numbering system, above, makes no distinction between the two. "Public Law" is often abbreviated as "Pub. L."

Note: As chapter and law numbering systems have changed over the years, one has remained constant: the form of citation consisting of a Volume number, followed by "Stat." and a page number within that Volume (for example, 85 Stat. 334).

Documents in the Statutes at Large

Public Laws and Resolutions

Casual users may be most familiar with the Public Laws (or "Acts") found in the Statutes. This is a chronological cataloguing of all Public Laws ever passed by Congress, complete from the 1st Congress in 1789 through the most recently concluded session of Congress.

Reorganization Plans

These are included for the years when they were in use, beginning with Volume 60 in 1946 through Volume 93 in 1979.

Private Laws and Resolutions

Less familiar may be the Private Laws passed by Congress, quite numerous during certain periods in the past, but less so today. They did not appear in the Statutes until Volume 6, where Little and Brown collected all Private Acts from the first 28 Congresses.

Concurrent Resolutions

Concurrent Resolutions first appear in Volume 28, during the 53rd Congress, 1885 (28 Stat. 5).

Presidential Proclamations

These are announcements now submitted by the President for publication in the Federal Register. At times in the past, the Statutes occasionally included other Presidential Documents, such as Executive Orders, Executive Agreements, and Recommendations of the President, but this is not the practice today.

Indian Treaties

In Volume 7, Little and Brown collected the Treaties Between the United States and the Indian Tribes, 1778-1842. Subsequent volumes, up to Volume 18, included such treaties as they occurred. New treaties with the Indian Tribes were prohibited by Section 2079 of the Revised Statutes of 1878 (18 Stat. 364).

Foreign Treaties

In Volume 8, Little and Brown collected the Treaties Between the United States of America and Foreign Nations, 1776-1845. Later treaties were published in the Statutes as they occurred until 1950. These treaties are typically presented in English, in the language of the treaty partner, and at times, in French, as the lingua franca of the day.

Declaration of Independence, Constitution, etc

Volumes 1, 18 and 44 all contain the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, The Constitution of the United States, and Amendments to the Constitution.

Revised Statutes

Volume 18 contains the Revised Statutes of 1878, one of the early attempts at "subject compilation," and a forerunner of today's United States Code. Volume 44 contains the Revised Statutes of 1925.


Each Volume contains lists of the documents, as for example, a "List of the Public Acts and Resolutions in this Volume."


Starting with Volume 5, each Volume contains a Subject Index compiled by its editors. Volume 65 (82nd Congress, 1951) introduced an Individual Index, and Volume 105 (102nd Congress, 1991) introduced a Popular Name Index.

The United States Code and Other Subject Compilations

From earliest times, various attempts have been made to collect and publish the laws -- not chronologically as they were passed, but according to subject matter.

Revised Statutes

Some of these efforts were undertaken privately by commercial publishers, and others were authorized by Congress, including the Revised Statutes of 1878 (18 Stat. 1, et seq.) and the Revised Statutes of 1925 (44 Stat. 1, et seq.).

United States Code

The first edition of the United States Code (U.S.C.) was published in 1926. A new edition is now published every six years, arranged in fifty subject titles, with cumulative annual Supplements published during the intervening years. Publication of each edition and each annual Supplement routinely occurs some two years after its cover date.

The U.S.C. does not contain all laws, but is limited to "a consolidation and codification of all the general and permanent laws of the United States," (emphasis added) as determined by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives. (U.S.C., 1988 ed., page vii.)

Revisions of the U.S.C.

Today, the Law Revision Counsel continues a tedious practice started in 1939 to revise the U.S.C., title by title, correcting errors and inconsistencies in preparation for "enactment into positive law," making such titles "legal evidence" of the laws. So far, 22 of the 50 titles have been revised:

  • 1. General Provisions
  • 3. The President
  • 4. Flag and Seal, Seat of Government, and the States
  • 5. Government Organization and Employees
  • 9. Arbitration
  • 10. Armed Forces
  • 11. Bankruptcy
  • 13. Census
  • 14. Coast Guard
  • 17. Copyrights
  • 18. Crimes and Criminal Procedure
  • 23. Highways
  • 28. Judiciary and Judicial Procedure
  • 31. Money and Finance
  • 32. National Guard
  • 35. Patents
  • 37. Pay and Allowances of the Uniformed Services
  • 38. Veterans' Benefits
  • 39. Postal Service
  • 44. Public Printing and Documents
  • 46. Shipping
  • 49. Transportation

The Law Revision Counsel requires several years of effort to revise each title, meaning that this project may not be completed until well into the 21st century. In the meantime, there is understandable interest in protecting the accuracy of the corrected titles that have been revised to date. This explains in part why certain Bills in Congress (later to become Acts) would amend the U.S.C., while others would amend an existing Act.

Derived from page developed by: Potomac Publishing Company, Inc. ©1998-1999

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