Hening’s Statutes at Large: A Collection of the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of Legislature in the Year 1619, published by an act of the General Assembly of Virginia (Richmond 1809).
Hening was a 19th century attorney, legal scholar, publisher and politician during the formative years of the United States. He was a contemporary of many founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and James Monroe.
Hening published a wide variety of law books that were among the most read of his time.
Hening is best know for his important role codifying the law in Virginia. At the time, Virginia was the largest of the original thirteen colonies, which produced four of the first five U.S. Presidents.
When assembling the primary authorities for his work, Hening borrowed from Thomas Jefferson’s personal book collection to track down early sources of Virginia law. His published statutory codifications are routinely cited by historians and genealogists.
The Virginia General Assembly authorized Hening’s work to allow public access for the first time to all early statutes that had previously only been available in rare publications and abridgments. As such, Hening’s work “immediately became, and remains, an essential source for all researchers working on colonial and Revolutionary Virginia history.”
In 1789 Hening was admitted to the practice of law in the city of Fredericksburg together with John Marshall and James Monroe. Before beginning his political career, Hening assisted with the restoration of county records that had been destroyed by the British during the Revolutionary War.
Perhaps his most famous work is Hening’s edition of The Statutes at Large; being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia. The work is a well researched 13 volume magnum opus of legal scholarship that codified the Commonwealth of Virginia’s laws from 1619–1792, along with an extensive appendix. The 13 volumes are cited collectively as William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the first session of the Legislature in the year 1619, 13 vols. (Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, 1809-1823).
In the preface Hening summarizes his work with Jefferson and quotes from correspondence with the former President about the project. Henning also provides a brief overview of Virginia history. In addition to the charters and statutes of Virginia, volume 1 also contains a list of Virginia Governors.
Volume 1 begins with the May 15, 1776 Resolution of the Fifth Virginia Convention which advised Virginia’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress to declare independence from Britain. This Resolution provided authorization and instructions for Henry Lee to propose the “Resolution for Independence” – also known as the Lee Resolution – which led to the Declaration of Independence.
On May 15, the Convention declared that the government of Virginia was “totally dissolved” in light of the King George’s repeated injuries and his “abandoning the helm of government and declaring us out of his allegiance and protection.” Interestingly, the only delegation to the Continental Congress that had been affirmatively instructed to declare independence was Virginia. A month earlier North Carolina had adopted the Halifax Resolves on April 12, 1776, which was the first official colonial action calling for independence. The Resolves were unanimously adopted in Halifax, NC and encouraged all encouraged delegates to the Continental Congress from all the colonies to push for independence.
Volume 1 also contains the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and the Article of Confederation. In 1823, the Virginia General Assembly determined that the proceeds from the sales of Hening’s Statutes at Large would be used to fund a public library, which became the Virginia State Library.