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The Thurgood Marshall Law Library's collection of rare books.
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The John Johnston Donaldson Collection

The John Johnston Donaldson Collection

Photograph of John Johnston Donaldson IIWhen Judge Brune undertook the study and practice of law, he had in hand an historical collection of legal literature stretching back to the colonial period.

The collection was begun by Judge Brune's ancestor, Samuel Johnston, born August 7, 1707. He practiced law through the Revolution and was still acquiring law books in 1791. The works purchased by Johnston were primarily of English and Irish origin and tended to be of practical nature, what we would today call "How to" books, since little in the way of substantive law was published until the latter part of the 18th century. The 1710 edition of Lilly's important edition of Style's Practical Register and the 1712 work, The Infant's Lawyer are good examples of the practice book. Sir Robert Heath's Maxims and Rules of Pleading, 1771 and the famous Brownlow's Declarations and Pleadings, 1653 were standard 17th and 18th century titles Johnston acquired. A singularly important title in the collection is the Irish publication, A Treaties of Tenures, 1754, by Lord Gilbert, said to influence Blackstone and the entire corpus of 18th century legal literature.

Law reports were from the high courts of England and Johnston's collection had the notable Dumford's Reports of Cases… in the Court of King's Bench, 1791-1800 and Salkeld's 1742 Reports from the same court. Sir George Croke's Reports, published in Norman French, and translated by Sir Harebotle Grimston in 1657, is in the collection, as are the famous Blackstone Reports which provide a quite admirable representation of English decisions.

Lord Gilbert's treatises, such as those on equity, distress and replevin, and contracts, were said by Holdsworth to be the best texts on legal topics from the 18th century. At least five titles by Gilbert are in the Johnston collection. In 1787 Mr. Johnston acquired the just-published Laws of Maryland, one of the first compilations of Maryland statutes. This work is recognized for it accuracy, completeness and masterful printing. It is the work of Frederick Green of Annapolis.

Mr. Johnston's collection passed to a nephew, Thomas Donaldson, who apparently had the use of it very briefly. He enriched it through the acquisition of Plowden's Commentaries, 1779, together with contemporary law reports. An English statute of 1731 changed language of legal records from Latin to English, creating a need for new books on pleading. While Donaldson had purchased the classic 1657 Hearne's Pleader, he also acquired the more popular Ever's A System of Pleading, 1771, and English translation of a recognized Norman French practice book.


In the early 19th century, the collection passed first to John J. Donaldson who began acquiring the ever-expanding American legal literature. Desty's Manual of Practice in the Courts of the United States, 1877, was one of the first practical works on federal practice. Jacobsen's Law of the Seas, Baltimore, 1818 and the first American edition of Beames' Elements of Pleas in Equity, 1824 were examples of early American legal publication and the continued demand to adapt important English texts to American needs. Mr. Donaldson continued to acquire some English books, but emphasized the increasingly popular American writings.

By 1830 the collection was in the hands of Samuel Donaldson, who practiced for at least fifty years and greatly expanded the collection. As the law became more elaborate, books on special topics, such as Jones, An Essay on the Law of Bailments, 1804, became more common. One unique and very scarce title he purchased is William West's The First Book of Symbolaeography, 1594 which explains the art of drafting extra-judicial instruments.

(Image 1: Photograph of John Johnston Donaldson II, on display at the entrance of the Brune Room; Image 2: a cabinet of Maryland materials in the Brune Room; Image 3: Close-up photograph of a cabinet shelf in the Brune Room, with Brown's Chancery Reports vv. 3-4, Bosanquet & Puller's Reports Day's Ed. (5 vv.), Atkins's Reports vv. 1-2)

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