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Brief History

The Law School library has acquired the second known copy of the earliest printed brief of a civil case argued in British North America. Called Matson v. Thomas, it was added last year to the library's extensive collection of American colonial materials.

In this trespass and ejectment case, John Valentine, the lawyer for Nathanael Thomas, argued in 1720 that Thomas should inherit 1,200 acres of land in Marshfield, Mass., originally held by William Thomas, the great-grandfather of both Thomas and his cousin Nathanael Matson. The court ruled in favor of Thomas.

"The brief illuminates a period about which we have all too little information," said HLS Professor Christine Desan, a legal historian. "It casts light on the rise of the legal profession in Massachusetts and the substance of lawyers' concerns. The litigation also exposes social dimensions of the law in the provinces."

In his brief, Valentine accuses the opposing lawyers of leaking their argument to the public by printing and distributing over 100 copies of the brief before the case was settled.

"This is such an unjust contemptuous and illegal proceeding as is not to be tollerated," Valentine wrote. "It is unlawful to Print any Mans private Case while it is depending in any Court of Judicature before it comes to Judgment, because 'tis an Appeal to the People . . ."

"The attempt by Matson's attorneys to appeal to popular opinion suggests a significant degree of communal interest and awareness of the law and its workings on the part of the colonial public," said Desan.


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