A New Abridgment of the Law

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by Matthew Bacon

Bacon's Abridgement

Title page from Bacon's Abridgement, volume one, George Wythe Collection, Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary.

Author Matthew Bacon
Editor {{{editor}}}
Translator {{{trans}}}
Published London: Printed by His Majesty's Law-Printers for J. Worrall and Co.
Date 1768
Edition Third (volumes one-three); second (volume four); first (volume 5)
Language English
Volumes 5 volume set
Pages {{{pages}}}
Desc. Folio (37 cm.)
Location Shelf I-5
  [[Shelf {{{shelf2}}}]]

Matthew Bacon (c. 1700 – 1757) gained admission to the Inner Temple in 1726 and to the Middle Temple in 1731; he joined the bar in 1732.[1] The first volumes of A New Abridgment appeared anonymously, but no one doubts the attribution to Bacon.[2] The organization of the work more closely resembles a legal encyclopedia with "a series of scientifically constructed treatises on all branches of the law alphabetically arranged."[3] This organization made Bacon's abridgment superior to and more popular than Viner's.[4] Historians agree that

[m]uch, though not all, of Bacon's material was derived from the work of Jeffrey Gilbert, chief baron of the exchequer in Ireland from 1715 to 1722, and subsequently chief baron of the exchequer in England. There is a frequent resemblance between the text of Bacon's abridgement and Gilbert's published works Devises (1730), Ejectments (1734), and Rents (1758), though there is no such resemblance with certain other published works by Gilbert, and it is possible that Bacon obtained Gilbert's material not from his treatises but from a manuscript abridgement compiled by Gilbert. Bacon may also have used the works of Matthew Hale, William Hawkins, and Knightley D'Anvers.[5]

Bacon compiled only the entries through "Sheriff" in volume four; Sergeant Sayer completed that volume, while Owen Ruffhead wrote volume five.[6] In 1847, J. G. Marvin claimed Bacon's Abridgment was "probably in more general use in the United States than any other English Abridgment of the Common Law."[7]

Owner's inscription, front free endpaper, volume five.

Evidence for Inclusion in Wythe's Library

Listed in the Jefferson Inventory of Wythe's Library as "Bacon's abridged 4.v. in 7. fol." and given by Thomas Jefferson to Dabney Carr. While the Library of Congress did not purchase Wythe's copy from Jefferson, his set is now owned by the Library. Volumes 1 through 3 are inscribed "Given by Thos. Jefferson to D. Carr, 1806." Volume 2 of this set includes George Wythe's bookplate and volume 4 has "George Wythe" in manuscript on one of the preliminary pages. Wythe's set is the first edition (volumes 1-2: 1736; volume 3: 1740; volume 4: 1759; volume 5: 1766). The Brown Bibliography[8] and George Wythe's Library[9] on LibraryThing include the first edition of this title based on knowledge of Wythe's copy at the Library of Congress. Dean's Memo[10] lists the third edition in the section of titles Wythe assigned his law students and clerks. The Wolf Law Library followed Dean's suggestion and purchased the third edition before discovering the existence of the Wythe copy at the Library of Congress.

Description of the Wolf Law Library's copy

Bound in contemporary calf with contrasting spine labels. Each volume is signed "John Hebb 1768" on the front free endpaper. Purchased from Nostre Livers.

Images of the library's copy of this book are available on Flickr. View the record for this book in William & Mary's online catalog.

See also


  1. N. G. Jones, "Bacon, Matthew (b. c.1700, d. in or before 1757)" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed June 27, 2013.
  2. William Holdsworth, A History of English Law, (London: Methuen & Co., Sweet and Maxwell, 1938), 12:169.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Jones, "Bacon, Matthew."
  5. Ibid.
  6. Holdsworth, A History of English Law, 169.
  7. J. G. Marvin, Legal Bibliography, or a Thesaurus of American, English, Irish and Scotch Law Books, (T. & J. W. Johnson, Lawbook Sellers, 1847), 85.
  8. Bennie Brown, "The Library of George Wythe of Williamsburg and Richmond," (unpublished manuscript, May, 2012) Microsoft Word file. Earlier edition available at: https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/13433.
  9. LibraryThing, s.v. "Member: George Wythe", accessed on April 21, 2013.
  10. Memorandum from Barbara C. Dean, Colonial Williamsburg Found., to Mrs. Stiverson, Colonial Williamsburg Found. (June 16, 1975), 9 (on file at Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary).

External links