We win a hard-fought Revolution and seize its promise of liberty

We win a hard-fought Revolution and seize its promise of liberty

For a century and more before 1776, the American colonies were reasonably independent of British authority, and the colonists proudly claimed the rights of Englishmen. But in the 1760s, the British government began to tighten its grip, and the relationship between Britain and America turned sour. Resistance turned into rebellion. Suddenly Americans saw themselves as a new society based on new principles of government. “Governments are instituted among men,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That concept – that the people, not their rulers, are sovereign – was revolutionary then and remains revolutionary today. When the Revolution ended, with their independence won, the former colonists were left with thirteen loosely united states. What seemed simple – that these individual states could be both independent and united as a nation – would not be easy.

Facsimile of the Magna Carta<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettman

King John grants Magna Carta

Jun 15, 1215

On June 15, 1215, in a field at Runnymede, King John agrees to place the royal seal to Magna Carta. The King had been confronted by 40 barons, who issued their demands to avoid a civil war. (Pope Innocent III soon nullified the agreement, and war broke out anyway within England.)

The Magna Carta established the concept that the King was not above the law of the realm. It also led to some familiar concepts in the U.S. Constitution, such as due process.

“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land,” the Magna Carta read. 

In addition to due process, the Magna Carta expressed the concept of higher law, or the law of the land, which meant that not even the king, or a legislature, was above the law.


English Colonists establish permanent settlement at Jamestown

May 14, 1607

The Jamestown settlement in Virginia, which officially was started on May 14, 1607, was one of the first European colonies to last in North America, and was historically significant for hosting the first parliamentary assembly in America.

A turning point in Jamestown’s fortunes was in 1619, when a General Assembly met at a church on July 30. Two representatives from 11 regions of the area debated the qualifications of membership and other matters for six days. A heat wave ended the session of what would be known as the House of Burgesses.

The session established a government that citizens could address to settle grievances and end legal disputes. It was a huge step forward, since numerous European attempts to establish any foothold in North America had failed for almost a century.

Trial Drawing<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Massachusetts colony banishes Anne Hutchinson for disobeying Puritan government’s rules of worship

Nov 7, 1637

Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643)

She was banished for her beliefs

Anne Marbury was born in England. At 21, she married William Hutchinson. The Hutchinsons became followers of John Cotton, a preacher who taught that people are responsible directly to God — not the church — for their actions. Cotton was arrested for challenging the Anglican Church's authority and fled to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Hutchinson family followed.

As she had in England, Anne Hutchinson held religious meetings in her home and refused to stick closely to the rules of worship required by the Puritan leaders who governed the colony. She was put on trial in 1637, convicted and banished from Massachusetts.

Hutchinson's story is one chapter in the long struggle to establish the constitutional principle of religious freedom.


Third Amendment: English Bill Of Rights objects to quartering of soldiers

Feb 1, 1689

After the overthrow of King James II, the new English government establishes a Bill of Rights listing its objections to the former king.

Among the objections were “raising and keeping a standing army within this kingdom in time of peace without consent of Parliament, and quartering soldiers contrary to law.”

The new English Bill of Rights states, “That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law.”


Benjamin Franklin born in Boston

Feb 17, 1706

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is born in Boston and stays there until his teens, when he moves to work at a printing house owned by his brother in Philadelphia. 

Franklin steadily rose to colonial prominence as a publisher, businessman, scientist and political figure, and by 1754, he represented Pennsylvania at the Albany Congress, which agreed to his proposal to create a unified colonial government. Franklin’s “Plan of Union,” however, was never approved by the colonies, and by 1757, Franklin went to England to represent Pennsylvania as its colonial agent.


First Amendment: Zenger wins a huge free press victory

Aug 4, 1735

On August 4, 1735, a jury acquitted publisher John Peter Zenger of libel charges against New York’s colonial governor, in an early landmark moment for the free press and the American legal system.  Zenger printed the New-York Weekly Journal. Several attorneys ran the newspaper, which the young German immigrant Zenger printed at his business.The  Journal's editors criticized the colony’s powerful governor, William Cosby.

Zenger’s former attorneys arranged for the famed colonial lawyer Andrew Hamilton from Philadelphia to represent Zenger in court for free. Hamilton’s appeal to the jury was one of the signature moments in American legal history. He started off by admitting that Zenger printed the statements, but that the crown had an obligation to prove they were false statements. The jury sided with Zenger.

Today the Zenger case is seen as a landmark decision that influenced the independence of attorneys, the power of juries as a counter balance against executive powers and the need for a free press. It also brought the term “Philadelphia Lawyer” into the American lexicon, as well as the concept of jury nullification.


Seven Years’ War pits Britain against France for control of North American continent

May 15, 1754

The French and Indian War in North America was part of a bigger conflict between Great Britain and France known as the Seven Years’ War. The French and Indian War began in 1754 and concluded with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Great Britain made large territorial gains in North America, but the new responsibilities also would require the King and Parliament to post a standing army in America.

After the war concluded, the colonists realized the British army wasn’t leaving, and the stage was set for conflict. The British government wanted to tax colonists to pay for its standing army in America. The colonists grew to understand they weren’t as dependent on the British government as they once were.


Stamp Act imposes taxes on newspapers, legal documents, playing cards

Mar 22, 1765

The British government  severely miscalculates a taxing effort to pay for nearly 10,000 British troops who remained stationed on American soil after the French and Indian War concluded.

A year earlier, Parliament had passed the Sugar Act, which cut import taxes in half on molasses (which was used to make rum) but also contained strict measures to collect taxes that most colonists had avoided paying.  Then on March 22, 1765, British Parliament passed the Stamp Tax. The levy required colonists to pay taxes on every page of printed paper they used. The tax also included fees for playing cards and dice.

The reaction in the colonies was immediate and intense. The protests were based on legal principles, that only the colonial legislatures had the power to tax residents who had representatives in those legislatures. By August, the outrage boiled over in Boston. Protesters organized as the Sons of Liberty took to the streets in a very defiant act against British rule.

News of the protests, the actions of the Stamp Congress, and the publication of Patrick Henry’s Virginia Resolves fueled anger across the colonies, and many colonies saw their own versions of the Sons of Liberty created. “No part of His Majesty’s dominions can be taxed without their consent… this would seem to [contradict] the theory of the constitution,” say James Otis, a Massachusetts legislator


Parliament repeals Stamp Act but passes Declaratory Act, reaffirming its taxing power

Mar 18, 1766

The Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, facing additional pressure from British merchants who saw their sales to the Colonies plummet. But Parliament then passed the Declaratory Act, which stated its right in principle to tax the colonies.

In the years following the Stamp Act riots, the use of a Congress of the Colonies and the Committees of Correspondence during the Stamp Act crisis evolved into key components of the independence drive a decade later.


Boston Massacre fuels revolutionary flames

Mar 5, 1770

In front of the Custom House on King Street in Boston, British soldiers fired upon a group of colonists, killing three instantly and two later as a result of their wounds. 

On March 5, 1770, the Bostonians were fuming over taxes and constant surveillance by the British military, both of which had started two years prior. As a result, a small disagreement between a wigmaker apprentice and a soldier easily escalated to a small riot. A crowd of more than two hundred colonists came to the defense of the apprentice. Allegedly, the protestors became more violent, throwing objects at other soldiers and jeering at them. As the scene became chaotic, someone yelled “fire,” leading the soldiers to shoot into the crowd.

After the Massacre, the soldiers were put on trial, represented by future President John Adams and Josiah Quincey. Most of the soldiers ended up being acquitted,and the incident fueled the anger of colonists like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. While the Revolutionary War would not start for another five years, this first bloody encounter attracted more attention to radical groups like the Sons of Liberty and set the war in motion.


Massachusetts patriots stage the Boston Tea Party

Dec 16, 1773

On December 16, 1773, a group of Colonists destroyed a large British tea shipment in Boston harbor. For years, Americans refused to buy British tea because it included a tax levied on drinkers, a thought that repulsed colonists who didn’t believe they should be taxed without a representative sitting in the British parliament to voice their concerns.

Instead, Americans bought tea smuggled into the colonies. But in May 1773, Parliament gave the East India Company a tea monopoly in America that also made British tea much cheaper than smuggled tea.

In what became known as the Boston Tea Party, a party of men dressed as Indians dumped the tea chest’s contents into Boston Harbor, after the governor, Thomas Hutchinson, refused colonists’ demands for the ships to depart peacefully with their cargo unloaded. 

The violent protests in Boston Harbor were met with a direct response from Great Britain. In April 1774, the British Parliament passed the Coercive (or Intolerable) Acts, which punished Massachusetts for the Tea Party incident. The Acts not only took away home rule from Massachusetts, they forced Americans to board British troops in unoccupied buildings.


Third Amendment: Quartering Act of 1774 lets British troops into Colonial buildings

Jun 2, 1774

Known as one of the Coercive Acts, the Quartering Act was a reaction to the Boston Tea Party and other taxation protests in the American colonies. It expanded on a similar act from 1765 and allowed for colonial governors to “act for the better providing suitable quarters for officers and soldiers in his Majesty’s service in North America” by placing British troops in “uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings, as he shall think necessary to be taken.”

The Declaration of Rights and Grievances written by John Dickinson later that year listed an unlawful standing army in the colonies as a major complaint of the Continental Congress against British rule.


First Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia

Sep 5, 1774

On September 1774, the First Continental Congress starts its initial session in Philadelphia. Within six months, armed conflict would break out on American soil.

In all, 56 delegates from 12 colonies (excluding Georgia) came to the meeting to address the Coercive or Intolerable Acts. The laws were meant as punishment for the activities of the Boston Tea Party, but they affected all of the 13 colonies. The legislatures of 12 colonies agreed to the meeting, to discuss an economic response to the Acts, and chose their representatives. The attendees didn’t include Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, but in addition to John Adams the delegates included his cousin Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Roger Sherman, John Jay, John Dickinson, Richard Henry Lee, and George Washington.

During their session in Philadelphia, which ended after about seven weeks of debates, the group agreed to a boycott of British goods within the colonies as a sign of protest, spelled out in the Articles of Association. A separate document, the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, stated the group’s objections to the Coercive Acts, listed the rights of the colonists, and itemized objections to British rule beyond the Intolerable Acts. The list of rights insisted that Colonists were “entitled to life, liberty, and property” and “that foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council.”


Fighting breaks out at Lexington and Concord

Apr 19, 1775

The Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts were the official start of hostilities between colonists who objected to British rule and British soldiers sent to restore order in the Colonies. Not all colonists favored the Revolution and by some estimates, about 20 percent were Loyalists, while another 25 percent were mostly neutral.

On April 19, 1775, British troops were garrisoned in Boston and their commander, General Thomas Gage, sent a force from Boston to seize military supplies stored by the Patriots in nearby Concord. The rebel forces knew of the plans and were well-organized and armed. 

British troops confronted one small group in Lexington, and for some reason, a shot rang out. The British opened fire upon the Patriots and then started a bayonet attack, killing eight local militia members. The British ran into much stiffer resistance approaching Concord and quickly found themselves outnumbered and outflanked. The British regulars then made a difficult retreat to Boston. Some 49 Patriots and 73 British troops died in the fighting.


Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense

Jan 10, 1776

On January 10, 1776, the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense became the first viral mass communications event in America. Common Sense sold 120,000 copies in its first three months, and by the end of the Revolution, 500,000 copies were sold. The estimated population of the Colonies (excluding its African-American and Native American populations) was 2.5 million.

Paine published Common Sense anonymously, and its simple words made the case for the Colonies’ separation from England, in no uncertain terms.

For example, in explaining his objection to England’s constitutional monarchy, Paine says, “as a man who is attached to a prostitute is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife, so any prepossession in favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.” The pamphlet sparked a public debate that now included most of the colonists, including those who couldn’t read or understand some of the more complicated arguments being made for freedom.

Title page to Common Sense<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Everyone’s reading Common Sense

Apr 10, 1776

“We have it in our power to begin the world anew.”
—Thomas Paine

Go into any tavern, stand on any street corner, and you'll hear people talking about Common Sense.

Tom Paine's pamphlet urging Americans to push for their rights and favor independence is selling like wildfire. People have snapped up 120,000 copies since its publication three months ago.

Paine's fiery words have invited public debate–bringing us closer to the brink of revolution.

Massachusetts Declaration of Rights<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The states set up republics

May 16, 1776

“The Americans are the first people whom Heaven has favored with an opportunity of deliberating upon and choosing the forms of government under which they should live.”
—John Jay

The Continental Congress took a momentous step by telling the colonies to “suppress” anyone acting in the name of the crown, and advising colonies to set up new governments, “under the authority of the people”

Eight states have established new governments. Most created strong legislatures, taking pains to keep the executive branch separate from the legislative branch. Despite a former admiration for Britain's “mixed” government, not one state has copied the British system: no lords, and no king. Instead, every new government is a republic.

Copy of first draft of Bill of Rights<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Virginia declares its rights and its own constitution

Jun 12, 1776

Virginia passes a Declaration of Rights to include with its new state constitution. Drafted by George Mason, the declaration includes a list (or bill) of rights modeled on the English Declaration. Rights listed include freedom of the press, no cruel and unusual punishment, and trial by jury. By December, North Carolina has passed its own declaration of rights, mkaing three states have now followed Virginia's lead.


Second Continental Congress approves Declaration of Independence

Jul 4, 1776

The Second Continental Congress approves the final Declaration on Independence document on July 4,1776.  Officially, the Continental Congress declared its freedom from Britain on July 2, 1776, when it approved a resolution.

After voting on independence,  the Continental Congress needed to draft a document explaining the move to the public. It had been proposed in draft form by the Committee of Five (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson) and it took two days for the Congress to agree on the edits.

Once the Congress approved the actual Declaration on Independence document on July 4, it ordered that it be sent to a printer named John Dunlap. About 200 copies of the Dunlap Broadside were printed, with John Hancock’s name printed at the bottom. Today, 26 copies remain.

That is why the Declaration has the words, “IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776,” at its top, because that is the day the approved last version was signed in Philadelphia.

On July 8, 1776, Colonel John Nixon of Philadelphia read a printed Declaration of Independence to the public for the first time on what is now called Independence Square.


The Declaration of Independence is officially signed

Aug 2, 1776

After voting on independence on July 2, the Continental Congress approved a document explaining the move to the public on July.4  But it took almost a month for delegates to sign an official copy.

Many members of the Continental Congress started to sign an engrossed version of the Declaration on August 2, 1776 in Philadelphia. John Hancock’s famous signature was in the middle, because of his status as President of the Congress. The other delegates signed by state delegation, starting in the upper right column, and then proceeding in five other columns, arranged from the northernmost state (New Hampshire) to the southernmost (Georgia).

However, the signers’ names weren’t released publicly until early 1777, when Congress allowed the printing of an official copy with the names attached. On January 18, 1777 printer Mary Katherine Goddard’s version printed in Baltimore indicated the delegates “desired to have the same put on record” and there was a signature from John Hancock authenticating the printing.  


Continental Congress proposes Articles of Confederation

Nov 15, 1777

On November 15, 1777, the Second Continental Congress approves the Articles of Confederation, after a year of debates. The British capture of Philadelphia also forced the issue. The Articles formed a war-time confederation of states, with an extremely limited central government. The document made official some of the procedures used by the Congress to conduct business, but many of the delegates realized the Articles had limitations.

Two days later, Congress submitted the Articles to the states for immediate consideration. It took until March 1, 1781, for this “immediate” consideration to become final.

The state constitutions of NY, NC, PA, NH<br>The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP)

States starting writing their own constitutions

Mar 2, 1780

“The Constitution should be the avowed act of the people at large. It should be the first and fundamental law of the state, and should prescribe the limits of all delegated power.”
—Thomas Tudor Tucker,
South Carolina politician and pamphleteer

For the last four years, states have been drawing up plans for new governments. Each state works on its own, experimenting to find the best structure for its government.

In fact, they’ve invented something new: the written constitution. It spells out the government’s powers and citizens’ rights in a single document, for all to see.

The writers want to make sure these new constitutions—not any arm of government—will have the final word. They want constitutions to outrank ordinary law. But how?

Massachusetts points the way. They’ve called a special convention to write the constitution. And today, it’s being submitted to the people, not the legislature, to ratify.


Articles of Confederation finally ratified

Mar 1, 1781

On March 1, 1781, the Articles of Confederation are ratified more than three years after they were approved by the Continental Congress in 1777.  It took until February 1779 for 12 states to approve the document. Maryland held out until March 1781, after it settled a land dispute with Virginia.

The document had many flaws.  The central government was designed to be weak. Its Congress only had one chamber and each state had one vote. Congress needed 9 of 13 states to pass any laws. Requiring this high supermajority made it very difficult to pass any legislation that would affect all 13 states; and the central government couldn’t collect taxes to fund its operations.

Events related to the Articles alarmed Founders like George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to the point where delegates from five states met at Annapolis, Maryland in September 1786 to discuss changing the Articles of Confederation.


British forces surrender at Yorktown

Oct 19, 1781

On October 19, 1781, British forces are forced to surrender to General George Washington at Yorktown, effectively ending to the Revolutionary War and beginning America’s role as a global factor. 

A month later, British Prime Minister Lord North repeatedly exclaimed, “O God! It is all over,” when first hearing of the defeat. It took almost two years for a negotiated peace treaty to end the conflict, but the British presence in North America would be mostly limited to Canada after the Yorktown disaster.

The Treaty of Paris in September 1783 officially ended hostilities between the Americans and the British.  The American government had operated under the Articles of Confederation during the conflict and would do so until the Constitution was ratified in June 1788.

Colonists on their way to church.<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

First Amendment: Freedom of religion becomes the law in Virginia

Jan 16, 1786

Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom becomes the law in Virginia, bringing a great victory in his decade-long struggle to guarantee religious freedom.

In passing his statute, Virginia agreed that religion should be inspired by faith, not mandated by law. No longer was there an “official” religion in Virginia, or special privileges for members of the official church. Some states already guaranteed individual religious freedom, but Virginia went further. The state would stay out of religious matters entirely.



We adopt a Constitution for our new Republic

We adopt a Constitution for our new Republic

To create a new nation that balanced power between the states and the national government required experimentation and imagination. The colonists had fought and won the Revolution under the Articles of Confederation, which created a union of states for the first time. But the central government established by the Articles proved ineffectual, and soon voices were calling for stronger central government. That call brought 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. It took nearly four months of debate and compromise to hammer out the framework of a new government. The Constitution, signed on September 17, 1787, was a remarkable embodiment of new ideas about government by the people and the division of power between states and the national government. Ratified in 1788, the Constitution was rounded out with a Bill of Rights in 1791, and has defined our character as a nation to the present day.

Articles of Confederation<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Delegates in Annapolis say the Articles need fixing

Sep 14, 1786

Problems between the states with commerce and trade alarmed Founders like George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to the point where delegates from five states met at Annapolis, Maryland in September 1786 to discuss changing the Articles of Confederation.

The group included Madison, Hamilton and John Dickinson, and it recommended that a meeting of all 13 states be held the following May in Philadelphia. The Confederation Congress agreed and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 effectively ended the era of the Articles of Confederation.

Men Fighting During Shays's Rebellion<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Shays’ rebellion fails in Massachusetts

Jan 25, 1787

On this day in 1787, Shays’ rebellion effectively ended in Springfield, Mass., when its forces failed to capture a federal armory. The uprising was one of the major influences in the calling of a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Desperate to stop foreclosure on their lands, farmers in western Massachusetts had taken up arms. Led by former Army captain Daniel Shays, they forced the courts to close and nearly 1,500 farmers moved to storm the arsenal.  The group was intercepted on the day before its planned attack; four protestors died in a brief conflict with the militia and the group dispersed.

The tax protest showed the federal government, under the Articles of Confederation, couldn’t put down an internal rebellion. It had to rely on a state militia sponsored by private Boston business people. With no money, the central government couldn't act to protect a “perpetual union” guaranteed by the Articles.

George Washington was leaning against attending a proposed constitutional convention, but the impact of Shays’ rebellion and the influence of his friends led Washington to change his mind.


Constitutional Convention begins in Philadelphia

May 25, 1787

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia started in earnest and the first votes were taken at what is now called Independence Hall in Philadelphia. 

The delegates who gathered in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787 knew they were there for an important reason – the system of federal and state government under the Articles of Confederation just didn’t work. But it’s doubtful  the most farsighted of delegates, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, could have predicted how long the Constitution would last and how far-reaching it would become as a global blueprint for government.

The first day began when a quorum of seven state delegations was reached. In addition to establishing a quorum, three other measures were taken. George Washington was picked to preside over the convention. And a three-man group was picked to draw up the rules for the convention: Charles Pinckney, Alexander Hamilton and George Wythe.

The Northwest Ordinance<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

A plan is set in place for the Northwest Territory

Jul 13, 1787

The Confederation Congress paves the way for new states to joint the union north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi when it passes the last of the Northwest Ordinances.

Eventually, five new states there will have the same political power as the original 13 states. The ordinances stablized settlement of the West, by guaranteeing settlers that their liberties would travel with them. Slavery also wasn't permitted in the region and there was a commitment to treat its American Indian population fairly.


The Great Compromise saves the Constitutional Convention

Jul 16, 1787

The Great Compromise (or Connecticut Compromise) reached on this day broke an impasse over a new Congress that threated to end the convention.

Connecticut delegates Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth promoted a dual system of representation in Congress that gave each state the same number of members in the Senate, while the House was based on each state’s population.

Sherman first introduced the idea back at the Second Continental Congress in 1776, and when he introduced the idea again, it had gained traction. Benjamin Franklin offered a version that gave the Senate equal representation. Over the July 4 weekend, other delegates worked on the compromise, which passed by one vote at the convention.

The Three-Fifths Compromise in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

13th Amendment: Delegates face the awful dilemma of slavery

Aug 24, 1787

“The Convention is in a dilemma. By agreeing to the clause it will revolt [many] in the States having no slaves. On the other hand, two states might be lost to the Union.”
—Edmund Randolph, Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention

Slavery. The issue every delegate thinks about, yet hopes to avoid.

Southern states want slaves counted in their population, to boost their representation in the House. Georgia and South Carolina say they’ll leave if they can’t keep importing slaves. An impossible dilemma. Delegates who hate slavery don’t want to see the convention fail. So just three days after they agree not to interfere with the slave trade for twenty years, they compromise again and state that fugitive slaves must be returned.And they have already agreed that for representation purposes, each slave will be counted as three-fifths of a person. The convention moves forward, but slavery remains unsettled for years.


Delegates sign final draft of Constitution

Sep 17, 1787

On September 17, 1787, a group of men gathered in a closed meeting room to sign the greatest vision of human freedom in history, the U.S. Constitution.

According to James Madison’s notes, the Constitution was first read to the group. Benjamin Franklin, in poor health at the age of 81, wrote a speech to introduce the motion for the convention’s delegates to sign the Constitution. Too weak to read the speech, he asked James Wilson to read it for him.

Franklin’s speech concluded with a plea for all of the delegates to sign the Constitution. Elbridge Gerry, George Mason and Edmund Randolph objected to the final version of the Constitution and said they wouldn’t sign the document. Franklin then made the final motion to sign the Constitution, which was approved by 10 of the state delegations.

 “The Constitution being signed by all the members except Mr. Randolph, Mr. Mason, and Mr. Gerry who declined giving it the sanction of their names, the Convention dissolved itself by an Adjournment sine die,” Madison concluded.


Ninth Amendment: Federalist Papers begin appearing in New York papers

Nov 20, 1787

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison begin the public lobbying efforts for votes in favor of ratifying the Constitution. With assistance from John Jay, they produced the 85 essays later known as “The Federalist Papers” that explained and defended how the proposed new government would function. The essays were published in newspapers nationwide and were pivotal to securing ratification.

Each essay was written under the pseudonym, “Publius”; titled “Federalist Paper” and numbered; and addressed “To the People of the State of New York.”  One month after Federalist No. 85 was published, New Hampshire ratified and the Constitution went into effect; Virginia and New York ratified soon after.

The Pennsylvania State House, circa 1800<br>I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

James Wilson makes the case for ratification

Dec 12, 1787

At Pennsylvania’s ratifying convention, James Wilson explains to delegates an extraordinary new idea behind the Constitution.

Wilson says the Constitution gives the new government the powers it needs, but only the powers it needs: “everything…not given is reserved.”

The people may temporarily give some of their power to governments, Wilson says — part to the states, and part to the nation. But no government, or arm of government, is sovereign. Final power belongs only to the people.

Pennsylvania delegates then ratify the Constitution by a vote of 46 to 23. It is the second state to ratify, after Delaware.

Supporters must find success in seven more conventions before the new Constitution becomes law.


The Constitution is ratified

Jun 21, 1788

On June 21, 1788, the Constitution became the official governing document of the United States of America when New Hampshire became the ninth of 13 states to ratify it. 

The first state to ratify the Constitution was Delaware on December 7, 1787, followed by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut. Some states voiced opposition on the grounds that the Constitution didn’t provide protection for rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and press. The Massachusetts Compromise reached in February 1788 stipulated that amendments to that effect—what became the Bill of Rights—would be immediately proposed. The constitution was subsequently ratified by Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and, finally, New Hampshire.

After ratification, Congress set dates for the first federal elections and the official implementation of the Constitution. Elections were set to take place from Monday, December 15, 1788, to Saturday, January 10, 1789 and the new government was set to begin on March 4, 1789.


The First Congress under our current Constitution meets

Apr 6, 1789

The First Congress under our current Constitution meets in its first joint session in New York and takes care of an important order of business: confirming George Washington’s election as President. Washington received 69 votes, Adams had 34 votes, and John Jay led the runners-up with 9 votes. Under the original election system, each Electoral College vote had two votes to cast, and the first- and second-place finishers became President and Vice President.

The First Congress was arguably the most important of the Congresses that have met in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. It approved the submission of the Bill of Rights to the states for ratification; passed a Judiciary Act that set up court systems; defined Cabinet departments; and saw the Compromise of 1790 between Madison and Alexander Hamilton that moved the capital to Washington on the condition the federal government could assume state debts.


George Washington takes oath as the first President

Apr 30, 1789

George Washington places his hand on a bible in New York and becomes the first President of the United States under our Constitution. Washington traveled from his home in Virginia to attend a delayed inauguration, which was due to winter weather that pushed back the election process to early April. He was named President in a unanimous vote of the Electoral College.

His selection wasn’t a big surprise. It was well-known and desired for Washington to serve as first president under the Constitution, and many Founders really hadn’t thought beyond the institution of the presidency after Washington wasn’t able to serve at some point.

President Washington and the members of Congress then retired privately to the Senate Chamber, where Washington gave the first inaugural address to a joint session of Congress.

Washington talked about the shared responsibility of the President and Congress to preserve “the sacred fire of liberty” and a republican form of government.


Ninth Amendment: Madison introduces Ninth Amendment concepts

Jun 7, 1789

In his House speech introducing his vision of the Bill of Rights, James Madison articulates changes to Article 1, Section 9 that would evolve into the Ninth Amendment.

“The exceptions here or elsewhere in the constitution, made in favor of particular rights, shall not be so construed as to diminish the just importance of other rights retained by the people; or as to enlarge the powers delegated by the constitution; but either as actual limitations of such powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution,” Madison says.

The Select Committee dropped Madison’s proposed declaration and rewrote his Ninth Amendment proposal to read as it reads today: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” 


Third Amendment: House Select Committee approves final wording

Jul 28, 1789

As part of the Bill of Rights drafting process, the House Select Committee approves a version of the Third Amendment slightly modified from versions proposed by James Madison and Roger Sherman.

“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”


The Judiciary Act organizes federal court system

Sep 24, 1789

The framers had made provisions for the court in Article III, Section 1, of the Constitution, but it took the Judiciary Act of 1789 to make the court a reality.

In the first session, Congress passed the Judiciary Act on September 24, 1789, which established the framework for the Supreme Court, as well as circuit and district courts and the attorney general’s office. President George Washington named six Supreme Court justices who were approved within two days by Congress.

On February 1, 1790, the first session of the U.S. Supreme Court was held in New York City's Merchants Exchange Building. By then, the court had already lost a justice and two other justices missed the session because of transportation problems. The justices were also required to “ride circuit,” and hold hearings twice a year in one of three judicial districts.

The first Chief Justice was John Jay, and the associate justices were John Rutledge, William Cushing, John Blair Jr., Robert Harrison, and James Wilson.

James Madison<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Ninth Amendment: The anti-Federalists get their wish with a Bill of Rights

Sep 25, 1789

“I wish the plan was prefaced with a Bill of Rights. And I would second a motion if made for the purpose. It would give great quiet to the people.”
—George Mason, Virginia delegate to the 
Constitutional Convention

Last year’s rancorous ratification debates leave no doubt. Anti-Federalists are deeply unhappy with the Constitution. High on their list of objections: it lacks a bill of rights to keep the new government from trampling on individual freedoms.

Debate in Massachusetts, Virginia and New York was particularly fierce. Anti-Federalists there signed on only after Federalists agreed to support amending the Constitution to include guarantees of personal liberties.

Soon after the first Congress convened, James Madison introduced a Bill of Rights. Today, Congress agreed to send it on to the states for ratification.

What Madison calls the “great rights of mankind” include the rights to speak and write what we want, worship as we please and receive a fair trial.

These additions should make it easier for all Americans to embrace the Constitution.


The Compromise of 1790 creates a new capital

Jul 16, 1790

The Residence Act of July 16, 1790 put the nation's capital in current-day Washington as part of a plan to appease pro-slavery states who feared a northern capital as being too sympathetic to abolitionists.

Article I, Section 8 gave Congress the power to create a federal district to “become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”  A deal had been reached between Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson a month earlier, where Hamilton agreed that the capital to be moved south. In exchange, Hamilton got a commitment to reorganize the federal government’s finances by getting the southern states to indirectly pay off the war debts of the northern states.

The Residence Act put the capital in current-day Washington. Hamilton’s Assumption Bill passed 10 days later after Congressional members from the Potomac region switched their votes. But a twist in the deal was negotiated by Robert Morris: Until the new capital was built on the Potomac, the capital would be in Philadelphia for 10 years.



We forge a nation where the people rule

We forge a nation where the people rule

When we elected our first president under the new Constitution in 1789, there were still many details of government to work out. The Constitution, for instance, didn’t mention how many terms a president could serve, but George Washington set the precedent when he stepped down after his second term. Similarly, the Constitution didn’t contemplate the existence of political parties, but they soon emerged. In those early days of the republic, most Americans didn’t realize that democratic politics would require acceptance of organized political opposition. But in 1800 the Constitution passed a crucial test, when the bitter presidential race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson resulted in a peaceful transfer of power.


Does the Constitution permit the new government to establish a National Bank?

Jan 1, 1791

No sooner had the ink dried on the Constitution than disagreements arose about how to interpret it. Some, following Alexander Hamilton, argued that the Constitution gave Congress the power to charter a national bank. However, others, following Thomas Jefferson, said Congress had no such authority.

The Federal Judiciary Act<br>National Archives and Records Administration

Congress puts the Constitution’s principles into practice

Mar 3, 1791

The first session of Congress has ended. For two years, members of the House and Senate have been locked in debate, working to pass laws that will uphold this new republic.

They’ve already determined how to pay for the new government, proposed 12 new amendments to the Constitution, set up the executive departments and organized the federal judiciary system.

The Constitution provides few details about the new judicial branch. It specifies a Supreme Court, but leaves it up to Congress to “ordain and establish” the “inferior” federal courts. Congress does this with the Judiciary Act of 1789.

It’s an impressive feat for men who’ve left home for months on end and earn just $6 a day.

Congress charters first Bank of the U.S.

Dec 12, 1791

National Archives and Records Administration<br>

States ratify the first ten constitutional amendments, known as the Bill of Rights

Dec 15, 1791

The Preamble to The Bill of Rights

Congress of the United States
begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.

ARTICLES in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the fifth Article of the original Constitution.

Note: The first ten amendments were ratified December 15, 1791, and form what is known as the “Bill of Rights.”

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Amendment VII

In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.


On this day Cornerstone of White House laid

Oct 13, 1792

John Jay<br>

11th Amendment: Chisholm v. Georgia decision rocks Congress

Feb 18, 1793

In accepting a suit against a state by a citizen of another state in 1793, the Supreme Court triggers such anger in Georgia and other states that, at the first meeting of the House following the Chisholm v. Georgia decision, the Eleventh Amendment was proposed and approved by an overwhelming vote of that House which endorsed the Senate’s proposed amendment.

The Chisholm lawsuit was brought under an original Article III jurisdictional provision to recover under a contract for supplies executed with the state during the Revolution. Georgia claimed that federal courts were not allowed to hear suits against states, and it refused to appear before the Supreme Court. 

Four of the five Supreme Court Justices led by Chief Justice John Jay said Georgia could be sued under Article III and the Supreme Court properly had original jurisdiction. It also confirmed that state courts weren’t separate entities totally independent from federal court judicial review.

The 11th Amendment  later overturned part of Chisholm and barred lawsuits against states by citizens of other states or by citizens or subjects of foreign jurisdictions. Disputes between states could remain in the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction.

George Washington by Rembrandt Peale<br>National Archives and Records Administration

Everything Washington does as President sets a precedent

May 17, 1793

George Washington is angry. He’d asked for a report from the Secretary of State. Returning to Philadelphia to face a foreign policy crisis, he finds the report’s not ready.

Exasperated, he’s summoned the Attorney General and heads of Treasury, State and War to a meeting tomorrow morning.

The Constitution says little about these men—only that the president may ask for their written opinions. Some people thought they would act as independent ministers. Others imagined the Senate itself would be an “executive council” to the president.

But Washington charted his own course. He’s made the department heads into presidential advisers, accountable to him alone. More and more, he meets with them as a group.

People are calling this group his “cabinet”—after the small room in which it meets.


11th Amendment: House approves 11th Amendment’s language

Mar 4, 1794

The first amendment adopted by Congress after the Bill of Rights is approved quickly by the House and Senate, after the controversial Chisholm decision by the Supreme Court.

In Chisholm, the four of the Court’s five Justices said Alexander Chisholm, a resident of South Carolina, could sue the state of Georgia to recover funds from a war-supplies contract.  Georgia claimed it had sovereign immunity from individual lawsuits from non-residents.

After the Chisholm decision, Senator Caleb Strong proposed an amendment that would better define the legal responsibilities of states and curb frivolous lawsuits against them. The Senate adopted language in January 1794 that was approved by the House two months later.

The amendment was then sent to the 15 states for ratification, with New York approving the amendment within three weeks. North Carolina was the last state needed to ratify the amendment in 1795.

National Archives and Records Administration<br>

11th Amendment: States better define power of federal courts

Feb 7, 1795

After an 11-month ratification process, North Carolina makes the 11th Amendment official, invalidating part of a controversial Supreme Court decision.

In February 1793, the Court, in only its sixth written decision, said the state of Georgia could be sued by a South Carolina resident. The Chisholm v. Georgia case caused a quick backlash in Congress, leading to a proposed amendment to give states some immunity from lawsuits from non-residents.

The new amendment modified Article III, section 2, of the Constitution, and read “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.”

The issues of lawsuits of residents against their own states, and disputes between states, was subject to later court rulings.

George Washington<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Noble, yes; royal, never: our president will step down

Sep 19, 1796

Philadelphians fought back tears as they read the news today. George Washington will retire, rather than serve a third term.

Just nine years ago, delegates to the Constitutional Convention worried that a president might stay in office for life, like a king. But Washington’s belief in our republican government stands firm. His farewell letter, printed in the Daily Advertiser, warns us to beware the “absolute power of an individual.”

If Washington steps down after two terms, who would dare hold the office longer?

Adams And Jefferson<br>

12th Amendment: Foes become President and Vice President

Nov 4, 1796

Under the Constitution’s original election system, each member of the Electoral College received two votes and the top two vote getters in the presidential election became President and Vice President. That wasn’t an issue in George Washington’s two elections. But in 1796, political foes John Adams and Thomas Jefferson became a constitutional odd couple.

In the new age of political parties, Adams, who was Washington’s Vice President, headed the Federalist Party ticket, while Jefferson was the leader of what later became known as the Democratic Republicans.

Washington said on September 17, 1796, he wouldn’t seek a third term, in his well-crafted Farewell Address to the American public, written with some help from Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. With that announcement, it became certain the 1796 election on November 4, 1796 would be the first race contested by divided political parties with separate candidates for office.

Inside the Federalist camp, Alexander Hamilton secretly worked to have Adams’ running mate, Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, win the election by getting southern Federalists to withhold their votes for Adams.  But Hamilton’s secret was discovered in New England, a region that had many more Federalists. Those electors refused to cast their second vote for Pinckney. The result was that Adams became President and his former-friend-turned rival, Jefferson, became Vice President.

Adams then wound up blaming Hamilton and Jefferson for his close victory, and he particularly targeted Hamilton for plotting Adams’ near-defeat. Four years later, an election rematch would lead to a 12th Amendment that ended the old presidential election system.

On this day Federalist John Adams inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1797

Alexander Hamilton addressing the mob.<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Arguing about government power, we have split into bitter factions

Jul 24, 1797

“To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power.”
—Thomas Jefferson

“The powers contained in a constitution…ought to be construed liberally in advancement of the public good.”
—Alexander Hamilton

Six years ago, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed a national bank to boost the American economy…and set off a national debate. Was a national bank constitutional?

Secretary of State Jefferson said “No.” The Constitution specifically lists the government’s powers. Chartering a bank, he said, isn’t on the list.

Hamilton said “Yes.” The Constitution lets the government pass all laws “necessary and proper” to carry out its duties. Creating a bank, he argued, is simply a means to an end.

President Washington agreed with Hamilton. Today, the Bank of the United States opened its new building in Philadelphia.

But this debate has helped push us into two camps: Federalists like Hamilton, who read the Constitution broadly, and Republicans like Jefferson, who read it narrowly.

It’s not just a bank we’ve been building all these years. We’ve built political parties.


On this day Congress passes Alien Act; president empowered to expel “dangerous” aliens at his discretion

Jul 6, 1798


First Amendment: Sedition Act severely limits freedom of speech and press

Jul 14, 1798

Copy of the Kentucky Resolutions<br>Library of Congress

10th Amendment: Can a state say to Congress “that’s unconstitutional”?

Dec 24, 1798

The Federalists in Congress are trying to silence their opponents. Using their new Sedition Act, they’ve been jailing Republican newspaper editors.

Last month, Kentucky rebelled. This Sedition Act restricts free speech, they say; as a state, we can declare such a law unconstitutional. Today Virginia agreed, passing a resolution written by Madison.

Two states just drove a wedge between federal power and states’ rights. Someday, this crack could become a chasm.


George Washington dies at Mount Vernon at age 67

Dec 14, 1799


On this day John Marshall becomes fourth Chief Justice of the U.S.

Jan 31, 1801


12th Amendment: Aaron Burr causes a Constitutional crisis

Feb 17, 1801

The original Constitution allowed for presidential electors to cast two votes. The candidate with the most votes became President and the second-place finisher was the Vice President. That wasn’t a big issue when George Washington was elected by unanimous consent.

However, when bitter rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson finished first and second in the 1796 election, Adams was left with his biggest opponent as his Vice President.

The situation went from awkward to much worse in 1800, when Adams and Jefferson faced off in a rematch. Jefferson’s campaign included New York deal-making politician Aaron Burr as his intended Vice Presidential running mate, with the idea that the Jefferson-Burr electors would cast one less vote for Burr, ensuring the Jefferson was the President and Burr the Vice President.

However, no one coordinated the voting and the two running mates tied for first place in the election. After the electoral votes were counted, Jefferson and Burr each had 73 votes, and tied as the winner. Worse yet, Article II sent the tie election to the House, which was controlled by Adams’ Federalist Party.

The House members could only vote for Jefferson or Burr, and not Adams, and then Burr made the controversial move to try to take the election from his own running mate, Jefferson.

The contingent runoff election between Jefferson and Burr was a true constitutional crisis. Jefferson ultimately won the House election on the 36th ballot after a week of voting. Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s long-time enemy, supported Jefferson instead of his old rival from New York, Burr.

Congress made the 12th amendment its first order of business in October 1803. After two months of debate, the House approved the 12th amendment by a two-thirds margin, followed by the Senate. The newly minted 12th Amendment was ratified in September 1804 in time for the next election, which Jefferson easily won.

The 12th amendment made sure that separate electoral votes were counted for Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates.


On this day Jefferson-Burr tie in the Electoral College; House of Representatives elects Thomas Jefferson on 26th ballot

Feb 17, 1801

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Our Constitution passes a test as power passes to the opposition

Mar 4, 1801

“We can no longer say that there is nothing new under the sun.”
—Thomas Jefferson

Our young democracy passed a crucial test today. Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, became president as his opponent, Federalist John Adams, quietly stepped down.

Adams chose to leave town rather than watch. But everyone there saw something remarkable as Jefferson was sworn in by his bitter foe, Chief Justice John Marshall.

The moment came after a nasty campaign marked by slander and scandals. Federalists called Jefferson a godless man whose election would lead to a “reign of terror” like the one in France. Republicans claimed that Adams is a British-loving tyrant bent on enslaving us.

Then an Electoral College deadlock took a week of tense balloting in the House to resolve, adding to the feeling of crisis.

But instead of a bloody coup, we’ve just seen power pass peacefully between rivals.

The White House circa 1806<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

10th Amendment: Two parties, two views of the Consitution

Dec 8, 1801

“The states themselves have principal care of our persons, our property and our reputation, constituting the great field of human concerns.”
—Thomas Jefferson

Cut taxes! Cut spending! Reduce the debt! President Jefferson’s bold plan, hand-carried to Congress by secretary Meriwether Lewis, charts a new course for America, starting today.

His Republicans have battled the Federalists for nearly 10 years, clashing over what kind of national government we’d have. Each party reads the Constitution by a different light. Federalists believe in federal power. Republicans believe in states’ rights.

Jefferson’s plan for action sets our direction. For now, we’ll follow the Republicans’ vision of the Constitution.

Interior of the old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Marbury v. Madison confirms the Supreme Court’s power

Feb 24, 1803

“The courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature…to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority.”
—Alexander Hamilton

Today, Chief Justice Marshall cleverly used a case about William Marbury’s disputed appointment to a minor government post to claim a major power for the Supreme Court.

Marbury deserves his post, Marshall said, even though the Jefferson administration refuses to give it to him. But the Court cannot grant Marbury’s request. That’s because the congressional law that sent this case to the Court is unconstitutional. And since the Constitution is “supreme,” any law that is “repugnant to the Constitution is void.”

The result: the unanimous Court will take no action.

And since Marbury won’t get his appointment, there’s no chance the president will defy the ruling. Or challenge the important precedent the court has set by declaring – for the first time – that an act of Congress is unconstitutional.


On this day The U.S. purchases Louisiana from France for $15 million

May 2, 1803

The Louisiana Purchase was a seminal moment for a new nation. The land involved in the 830,000 square mile treaty would eventually encompass 15 states. In 1800, the vast region came under French control after Napoleon reached a treaty agreement with Spain. Jefferson was very familiar with the French, due to his time in Europe as an American envoy. He also understood the potential military danger a French regime posed as a neighbor that controlled the Mississippi River.

On this day The U.S. Military Academy opens at West Point

Jul 4, 1803

13th Amendment: New Jersey becomes last northern state to pass emancipation act

Feb 25, 1804

Thomas Jefferson<br>

12th Amendment: Presidential elections get a face lift

Sep 25, 1804

The tie vote in the 1800 presidential election exposed deep problems in the 1787 system approved by the Founders, leading to the first significant change to the federal election system. 

The 12th Amendment was proposed by the Eighth Congress on December 9, 1803 and submitted to the states three days later. There being 17 states in the Union at that time, 13 had to ratify it. Secretary of State James Madison declared that the Amendment had been added to the Constitution on September 25, 1804, at which time 14 states had ratified it. The election of 1804 and all subsequent elections were carried out under the terms of the 12th Amendment.

In addition to its implicit recognition of the existence of political parties, the Amendment made another important change: The original Constitution provided that the failure of any candidate to achieve a majority would require the House to choose as President one of the five top-ranking candidates, with the person coming in second to serve as Vice President unless there was tie for second place, in which case the Senate would choose between them. Now, however, the House would choose only the President from the top three choices of the electors; the Senate would now choose the Vice President from the top two choices of the electors for that specific office. This guaranteed that there would always be a Vice President, who could presumably take the reins of the presidency should the House be hopelessly divided among the top three candidates for the presidency.

On this day Congress abolishes African slave trade

Jan 1, 1808

On this day James Madison inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1809

On this day U.S. declares war on Great Britain

Jun 18, 1812

On this day British capture Washington, D.C., setting fire to White House, Capitol and most Department buildings

Aug 24, 1814


On this day Francis Scott Key completes composition of “Star Spangled Banner”

Sep 14, 1814

On this day New England Federalists conclude Hartford Convention, protesting Republican war and commercial policy

Jan 4, 1815


On this day Treaty of Ghent formally ends War of 1812

Mar 4, 1815

On this day Congress charters second Bank of the U.S.

Apr 10, 1816


On this day James Monroe inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1817

James Monroe was the only president, aside from George Washington, to run unopposed for re-election. He was an eyewitness to many of the events that led to the creation of the United States and the U.S. Constitution.

Monroe left a lasting impression on America’s destiny because of the Monroe Doctrine, a policy he established to keep other nations out of the Western Hemisphere.

First Seminole War begins when Georgia whites raid Seminole settlements inside Spanish controlled Florida

Nov 20, 1817

On this day Congress passes first immigration law in U.S. history

Mar 2, 1819

Portrait of John Marshall by T. Hamilton Crawford<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Marshall’s decision gives the national government a boost

Mar 6, 1819

“Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate…which are not prohibited…are constitutional.”
—Chief Justice John Marshall
McCulloch v. Maryland

In McCulloch v. Maryland, the state argued that it could tax the Baltimore branch of the national bank—and that Congress had no right to charter the bank in the first place.

Chief Justice John Marshall concedes: the Constitution doesn’t specifically say Congress can charter a bank. But some powers, he says, are implied.

Letting Maryland tax the bank would give one state “the power to destroy” it. That wasn’t what the American people intended, Marshall says, when they made the Constitution “supreme.”

Today’s Supreme Court ruling: the bank is constitutional, Maryland’s tax isn’t.

<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

A compromise on Missouri gives us 12 slave states and 12 free

Mar 3, 1820

“If you persist, the Union will be dissolved. You have kindled a fire which all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish.”
—Thomas W. Cobb, Georgia Congressman

For years, we let each state choose its own course on the matter of slavery. Some states ended slavery; in others it’s grown stronger.

Then Missouri asked to join the Union as a slave state. The first territory west of the Mississippi to apply, Missouri exposed the limits of our delicate consensus. Should new lands be slave or free? Who should decide?

After long and bitter debate, Congress reached a compromise today. Slavery is barred north of latitude 36°30´, except for Missouri.

The free state of Maine will be admitted, too, leaving America with 12 free and 12 slave states—balanced, for now.


President Monroe tells European powers not to interfere in American continents

Dec 2, 1823

View of New York City showing Battery and clear rendering of East River<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Marshall has turned the High Court into a force to be reckoned with

May 16, 1824

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”
—John Marshall
Marbury v. Madison

Today’s ruling on the New York steamboat case deals yet another blow to supporters of states’ rights. Chief Justice John Marshall says the federal government has broad power to regulate interstate commerce.

Case by case, Marshall and his colleagues have been building this Supreme Court’s legacy. The national government is more powerful. The law protects contracts and property rights, promoting American prosperity. Most of all, the Court is strong and independent, and asserts its right to pass legal judgment on what’s constitutional.

In 1801, when Marshall took over the Court, it was the weakest branch of government. No more. This friendly, unpretentious and patient man has proved to be a masterful Chief Justice. In his 23 years on the bench, there has seldom been a dissent.



We become a land of the common man, though not yet a democracy for all

We become a land of the common man, though not yet a democracy for all

Throughout an expanding republic in the late 1820s and 1830s, the “common man” was finally having his say. Property qualifications for voting fell, and the electorate swelled to include almost all white men. But this unprecedented commitment to equality didn’t touch all Americans. The treatment of African Americans worsened. Women, too, were denied equal rights. And as the country expanded west, American Indians were forced to move from their homelands, often at the point of a bayonet.

On this day Creek Indians sign treaty with the U.S., agreeing to turn over land and move west

Feb 2, 1825

John Quincy Adams<br>

12th Amendment Gets Its First Test

Feb 9, 1825

The 12th Amendment’s ratification in 1804 made sure separate ballots were cast in the Electoral College for President and Vice President; the House would settle an election without a majority winner with a contingent election featuring the top three vote getters; and the House would determine rules for conducting the election.

Twenty years later, Congress found itself in position to settle another presidential election that involved an Adams.

In this case, it was John Quincy Adams, who was one of four candidates who received electoral votes in a bitterly contested 1824 election much like the 1800 race involving his father.

Two of the candidates had been in Monroe’s nonpartisan cabinet: Secretary of State Adams and Treasury Secretary William Crawford. Andrew Jackson was the hero of the War of 1812, while Henry Clay of Kentucky was the powerful speaker of the House of Representatives.

In the general election, Jackson led on December 2, 1824 with 99 electoral votes, but he needed 131 to win the presidency. Clay came in fourth with 37 electoral votes, which was enough to cost Jackson the election.

Under the provisions of the 12th Amendment, the election in the House involved the top three vote getters: Jackson, Adams, and Crawford (who also had suffered a stroke during the election campaign).

A lame-duck Congress was left with the task of selecting a new president over the next two months. (A vice presidential candidate, John C. Calhoun, easily won a majority of ballots.)

It was Clay, like Hamilton in 1800, who interceded to decide the House election, in favor of the New Englander, Adams. Clay secured enough votes for Adams to win on the first House ballot on February 9, 1825, despite Jackson’s wide lead in the popular vote.

The 12th Amendment worked. It allowed the House to adopt rules about conducting the vote that became a precedent, and a winner was selected on the first ballot. Each state had one vote in the process.


On this day John Quincy Adams inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1825

Today is the 250th birthday of President John Quincy Adams. Though he served for only one term, the scion of John and Abigail Adams left an indelible mark on American history.

Our nation’s sixth President was born on July 11, 1767, in Quincy, Massachusetts. He died on February 23, 1848, and is buried in Quincy at the First Unitarian Church. He is quoted as saying, “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

In 1830, Adams was elected to the House as part of the Massachusetts delegation; he would represent three districts over the course of his congressional career. Deeply interested in science, Adams ensured the founding of the Smithsonian Institution and became the father of space exploration in America, spurring construction of a network of astronomical observatories across the nation—so-called “lighthouses of the sky”—to study the heavens. He was also the first House member to champion abolition and emancipation.

On this day Construction completed on Erie Canal

Oct 26, 1825


On this day Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Adams pass away

Jul 4, 1826

Back on July 4, 1831, James Monroe, the fifth President, died at the age of 73 at his son-in-law’s home in New York City. Monroe had been ill for some time and newspapers had reported on Monroe’s illness before his passing.

We aren’t statisticians, but it is obvious that the death of three presidents, of the seven who had been elected, as of 1831, on the same day of the year was a long shot. There is an interesting blog post at the Boston University’s History Society that excerpts Margaret P. Battin’s research on the coincidental deaths of Adams and Jefferson.

“Given the insufficient historical evidence available, we can’t know the truth about why Adams and Jefferson died on the same day,” Battin said. (She didn’t include Monroe in her study.) Battin evaluated the circumstances under six different criteria, ranging from mere coincidence and divine intervention, to the men’s willingness or desire to die on the anniversary day.

“Given the insufficient historical evidence available, we can’t know the truth about why Adams and Jefferson died on the same day. But we can reflect on whether it would make a difference to us if one or another of these explanations turned out to be true,” she concluded. “After all, the six possibilities these explanations raise are central to the very questions about death and dying that are so controversial today.”


On this day John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish publish Freeman’s Journal in New York City, founding first black-run newspaper in U.S.

Mar 16, 1827

Andrew Jackson's first inauguration<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Jackson rides into office on the shoulders of the common man

Mar 4, 1829

“The whole house had been invaded by the rabble mob… Those who got in could not get out by the door again, but had to scramble out of windows.”
—Margaret Bayard Smith

What a spectacle! Andrew Jackson has opened his inauguration to regular folks, just as he did his campaign. Washington’s full of hopeful office-seekers and locals—farmers and gentlemen, women and children, blacks and whites.

The rowdy crowd packs the streets of this quiet capital town, cheering on “Old Hickory” as he takes his oath of office. Later, at the Executive Mansion, even his supporters looked a bit horrified by the ruckus.

The states have been opening the doors of politics, giving the vote to most every white male. They’re letting voters rather than legislatures choose presidential electors.

Andrew Jackson, a Westerner from Tennessee, is leading the common man into the political fray. More than twice as many Americans voted in this presidential election than the last.

We’re becoming more of a democracy.

Portrait of Andrew Jackson<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Two toasts…two views of the Union

Apr 13, 1830

President Jackson is a “states’ rights” Democrat, and doesn’t believe the Constitution gives the Supreme Court the last word. But even he is alarmed by talk in South Carolina that a state can “nullify” a new tariff law it sees as unconstitutional. Could the Union survive such an idea?

The President and the author of this nullification idea, his own Vice President John Calhoun, were both at a banquet tonight. Each gave a toast and everyone wondered: would Jackson endorse Calhoun’s idea?

First, Jackson: “Our federal Union: it must be preserved!”

“To the Union,” replied Calhoun. “Next to our liberty, most dear.”

On this day Congress passes Indian Removal Act, setting aside land in Oklahoma for eastern tribes

May 28, 1830

Georgia extends jurisdiction over lands secured to Cherokee by federal treaty

Dec 21, 1830


On this day William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing The Liberator, a radical antislavery newspaper

Jan 1, 1831

President Jackson repudiates nullification in proclamation to people of South Carolina

Dec 10, 1832

On this day Congress passes Force Act of 1833, enforcing federal laws against nullification

Jan 16, 1833


On this day Having served as Chief Justice for 34 years, John Marshall dies in Philadelphia

Jul 6, 1835


On this day Roger Taney becomes Chief Justice of the U.S.

Mar 15, 1836

Taney is best-known today as the author of the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 Supreme Court decision that invalidated the Missouri Compromise and held that African slaves or anyone descended from African slaves could never be United States citizens.

By the time Taney joined the Supreme Court in March 1836, at the age of 60, he was one of the most controversial figures in Washington. Originally a Federalist, he switched sides to support Andrew Jackson’s administration. Taney had served briefly in several Cabinet positions for President Jackson, but the Senate rejected Taney’s nomination as Treasury Secretary and it blocked Jackson’s first attempt to place Taney on the Supreme Court. After John Marshall’s death, Jackson was able to get Taney on the Court, where he served 28 years as Chief Justice.

By 1861, the shadow of the Dred Scott decision loomed over Taney’s remaining time on the Court with Lincoln as President. Taney, a Maryland resident, didn’t join the Confederacy. Instead, he remained on the bench and issued a rebuke of President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus in Maryland, which Lincoln ignored.


On this day Martin Van Buren inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1837

Van Buren is an important historical figure, but not as a President. It was Van Buren who mastered the political system in New York State in the generation after the Founding Fathers.

His hard work and guile, coming from modest roots, created a template for modern political parties. And his role as Andrew Jackson’s most-trusted political ally was critical in creating the first modern political party, the Democratic Party in 1832, and fostering an environment for an active opposition, the Whig Party.

In short, we can give Van Buren some of the credit, or blame, for the two-party political system that has dominated American politics for nearly 200 years.

The Van Buren presidency is considered average, at best, by historians. The deep financial crisis triggered by Jackson’s fiscal policies led to the new president receiving the nickname “Martin Van Ruin.”

ob attacking wharehouse<br>Alton trials of Winthrop S. Gilman

13th Amendment: Pro-slavery mob destroys abolitionist’s printing press

Nov 7, 1837

Storming a warehouse in Alton, Illinois, a pro-slavery mob destroyed Elijah Lovejoy’s printing press and killed the abolitionist newspaper editor. News of the murder is spreading, convincing more Americans that slavery not only deprives blacks of their freedom, but threatens all American liberties.

White Leaguers protect the ballot<br>Harper's Weekly

As white men gain voting rights, free black men lose theirs

Feb 22, 1838

Since Jackson’s presidency, there’s been a push to give all white men the vote, even if they don’t own property.

Right now, free black men have the vote in several states. But as states revamp their constitutions to loosen voter requirements for white men, blacks are being stripped of rights they had.

Pennsylvania’s constitution of 1790 gave the vote to “every freeman of the age of twenty-one years.”

Today that was changed to say “every white freeman.”

Justice Joseph Story<br>Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives

U.S. troops force the Cherokee from their land

May 23, 1838

“The Court has done its duty. Let the nation now do theirs.”
—Justice Joseph Story

The Cherokee have lived on their own lands for generations, a right protected by a 1791 treaty with the United States. But Georgians are after Cherokee lands—especially since they found gold there—and they’ve passed state laws to take control.

The Supreme Court said the Constitution protects valid treaties, so the “laws of Georgia can have no force” in Cherokee territory.

But Georgia flatly ignored the ruling, and the President did nothing to enforce it.

The tribe held on for six years, but finally lost its battle to stay. Using a dubious new treaty, the government is forcing the Cherokee to abandon their property, livestock and burial grounds. Federal troops are rounding them up for removal to the West.

It seems that our resolve to live by law and the Constitution has its limits.


On this day William H. Harrison inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1841


On this day Following death of William H. Harrison one month after his inauguration, John Tyler becomes president

Apr 6, 1841

On this day Wagon train filled with 1,000 settlers departs Independence, Missouri, bound for Oregon

May 1, 1843

On this day Samuel F.B. Morse sends first telegram from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore

May 24, 1844


On this day James K. Polk inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1845


On this day Brigham Young begins Mormon migration to Utah

Feb 4, 1846


On this day Liberty Bell rings for the last time; cracks while tolling in honor of George Washington’s birthday

Feb 22, 1846

On this day Congress passes declaration of war against Mexico

May 13, 1846


On this day PA Congressman David Wilmot sets off intense Congressional debate, proposing banning slavery in any territory gained in Mexican War

Aug 8, 1846


On this day U.S. Post Office issues first official postage stamp

Jul 1, 1847


On this day Gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill, CA

Jan 24, 1848

THE MEXICAN WAR: THE BATTLE OF BUENA VISTA FEB. 23 1847.<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

The Mexican war is over, but the fight over slavery in the territories goes on

Feb 2, 1848

Today’s peace treaty with Mexico increases our territory by 525,000 square miles. But it does not decide the fate of slavery in the new lands.

Congress has been arguing the question for two years now.

Southern members insist the federal government must settle the lands in a way that is fair to all states. Americans who move west, they say, must be free to bring all property recognized in their home state…including slaves.

Antislavery members say Article IV of the Constitution gives the federal government the right to make rules for new territories…period. They want slavery banned from the territories outright.

This peace hardly seems peaceful.

Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The Seneca Falls Convention calls for equal civil and political rights for women

Jul 20, 1848

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…”
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Declaration of Sentiments

Now some women want the right to vote. At the Seneca Falls Convention, they demand it publicly for the first time. More than 300 women and men attend, including Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass.


On this day Zachary Taylor inaugurated as president

Mar 5, 1849

Taylor ran as a Whig presidential candidate in 1848 and he wasn’t a professional politician. Once he took office in March 1849, it became clear that Taylor, the military man, was more interested in preserving the Union than the art of politics or pleasing Congress.

The President decided to press for statehood for the newly acquitted territories of California (which could include Utah) and New Mexico, and to let the regions hold their own constitutional conventions. This guaranteed that the territories would join the Union as anti-slavery states, tipping the balance in the Senate to the North.

In all, Taylor was President for a total of 16 months. His very brief legacy as President included his belief that states and the federal legislatures should handle some constitutional issues, and he believed Presidents should be above politics. His threat of force against Southern secessionists was also noteworthy.



We are a house divided, a nation torn by bloody civil war

We are a house divided, a nation torn by bloody civil war

As the nation expanded west and new stars were added to the flag, a disturbing question kept recurring: would the new state enter the Union as a free state or a slave state? Slavery, the issue so carefully compromised at the Constitutional Convention, finally raised basic questions about American liberty that no compromise could resolve: Can human beings ever be property? Should slavery exist in a nation dedicated to freedom? Are all men created equal? When shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, the line that separated the free states from the slave states became the line at which the fabric of our nation finally tore. Slavery was too important to the South and freedom too important to the North for any compromise to work. And each side thought the Constitution supported its views. It took the blood of 620,000 Americans to resolve the questions of liberty and equal rights that had been avoided back in 1787.

On this day Following death of Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore becomes president

Jul 9, 1850

Illustration Of Men Loading Pack Mules<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

We ride West on the promise of gold. Will slavery come too?

Sep 9, 1850

“Gold discovered at Sutter’s Mill!”

It’s been two years since we heard the news. Thousands have poured into the territory, turning California from wilderness to boomtown. Towns spring up, and railroads push forward.

And again we face a thorny question. Does expanding the nation mean expanding slavery? We look to the Constitution…but find different answers.

People who oppose slavery admit that the Constitution may tolerate it as a local institution. But how, they ask, can a national government bound by the Bill of Rights push slavery further?

Meanwhile, Southern leaders say that blocking slavery’s growth is an unconstitutional attack on Southern state interests.

Today in Congress, arguments gave way to exhausted compromise. California will enter as a free state. Settlers in the New Mexico and Utah territories will decide for themselves.

Another uneasy truce. Can it last?

As settlers push westward, our republic expands

Sep 10, 1850

National Constitution Center

We owe much to the Constitution James Madison helped write. It’s the framework that lets our young nation thrive, and lets new states take their place in the Union.

 Millard Fillmore<br>

13th Amendment: Congress reaches Compromise of 1850, temporarily resolving crisis over slavery in territories

Sep 20, 1850

In 1849, Congress was involved in a heated debate about the future of slavery in newly acquired territories and states. President Zachary Taylor defied expectations and didn’t endorse the expansion of slavery. Taylor specifically wanted California admitted as a free state. But then President Taylor suddenly died after attending a July 4 event. The unknown Northerner, Millard Fillmore, became President.

Fillmore worked with a rising Senator, Stephen Douglas, from the rival Democratic Party on a package of laws that admitted California as a free state, but granted some important concessions to pro-slavery forces in the Compromise of 1850.

Fillmore was conflicted over parts of the Compromise, especially because his personal experiences. But as he told Daniel Webster in a letter, he felt it was his constitutional duty to enforce the law.

“God knows I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the constitution, till we get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world,” Fillmore said.

The result was that Fillmore greatly upset members of the Democrats and the Whigs with the Compromise. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act angered Northerners, who saw that President Fillmore would act to compel federal marshals to track down slaves to had escaped to the north. Fillmore also sent government troops to the South to act against rumors of a secession by South Carolina. Pro-slavery forces were also unhappy that slavery had been barred in California.

The Compromise of 1850 also dealt a fatal blow to the Whig Party, which had divided into an anti-slavery northern section and a pro-slavery southern section. At the 1852 Whig convention, Fillmore couldn’t gain support for the presidential nomination he sought at the last moment; General Winfield Scott became a candidate who stood little chance against the Democratic Party.

Sojourner Truth<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Sojourner Truth questioned the logic behind limiting suffrage

May 29, 1851

Sojourner Truth, a preacher and former slave, electrified a women’s convention in Ohio in 1857. “The women are coming up,” she said, “blessed be God.”

1859-Poster of one of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann" width="300">

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is published

Mar 20, 1852

Written after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has done more to stir up Americans about the horrors of slavery than any political speech. Stowe’s book is a best seller!


On this day Franklin Pierce inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1853

On this day in 1869, former President Franklin Pierce passed away in New Hampshire. Pierce was regarded as an ethical hard worker, but he struggled as a national leader when he openly advocated for pro-slavery states as a Northerner in the 1850s.

Pierce had won the Democratic nomination in 1852 thanks to some shrewd moves at the party’s convention, where he played a dark horse role and was able to split, and finally gain support from the backers of James Buchanan and Lewis Cass. Prior to his nomination, Pierce was a House and Senate member from New Hampshire, but he left Washington in 1841 as he and his wife, Jane, became disenchanted with life in the nation’s capital.

On this day Boston abolitionists attempt to rescue captured runaway slave Anthony Burns

May 26, 1854

On this day Kansas-Nebraska Act applies “popular sovereignty” to Louisiana Purchase territory north of Missouri Compromise line

May 30, 1854

On this day James Buchanan inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1857

Dred Scott<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Fifth Amendment: Dred Scott decision widens the North-South divide

Mar 6, 1857

“Opposition to southern opinion upon this subject is now opposition to the Constitution…”
—Augusta Constitutionalist

“A slaveholder’s instead of a freemen’s constitution? Never!”
—New York Evening Post

The nation is still reeling.

Last month, the Supreme Court declared that Dred Scott had no right to sue in federal court—or any other constitutional right—because no black American, slave or free, can be a U.S. citizen.

Dred Scott says he deserves freedom because he spent time with his owner in a free state and territory. Seven of the nine Justices disagree.

They’ve thrown out the 1820 compromise that made the territories free, saying that Congress unconstitutionally deprived slaveholders of their Fifth Amendment property rights.

Slavery supporters congratulate themselves. But outraged opponents vow they’ll overturn the decision.

If the Justices think this ruling will finally settle the dispute over slavery in the territories, they may be in for a shock.

A debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

13th Amendment: Lincoln and Douglas clash over a Supreme Court decision

Oct 15, 1858

The debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln leave no doubt. Far from settling the issue, the Supreme Court’s decision to lift the ban on slavery in the territories has fanned the fire.

Lincoln warns that the Court could next make slavery legal everywhere. He would not “disturb slavery in the states where it exists.” But, he says, the first step toward eliminating this “evil” is to stop it from spreading.

But each state and territory must decide for itself, retorts Douglas, saying that can still be done despite the Court’s ruling. Lincoln’s approach, he says, will tear the country apart.

Each claims he’s following the founding fathers.

Can the southern states secede from the Union?

Jan 1, 1860

In the 1850s the conflict over the extension of slavery in the western territories escalated into a debate about the nature of the American union and whether states had the right under the Constitution to secede.



LINDA: The United States is just that - a union of states, sovereign states. We each entered the union as sovereign states and as sovereign states we can secede from it.

JOHN: Every state surrendered the right to leave the Union when it joined the Union in the first place. The Constitution was written in the name of the people of the United States. One people - one nation. Not a group of states thinking and acting like independent countries. That idea went out with the Articles of Confederation.

LINDA: Still, each state has the right to make its own laws for what goes on inside its own borders. The laws of your states up North are no better than our state laws down South, in the eyes of the Constitution.

JOHN: When it comes to slavery, you're wrong. Your slave system violates the very principles that made us a nation in the first place.

LINDA: Now you may not like slavery, but that has nothing to do with the law or the Constitution. Our law says slaves are property - not citizens, and the Supreme Court ruled that there in nothing unconstitutional about that.

JOHN: To its shame…

LINDA: Well, in this Union you say we can't secede from - the people of every state must respect and protect the laws of the others. We Southerners don't get any respect or protection from you in the North. When our slaves run away, you try to hide them or block our right to take them back.

JOHN: Look, most of us in the North believe slavery is evil, and we will do everything we can to stop it from spreading at least in our own states. If you come North to catch a runaway slave, we're going to make you prove that you have the right person. We're going to help her go to court and to try to prove that she's free - you consider that “interference” in your affairs. Well, maybe we can't get rid of slavery in the South, but you would turn us into slave catchers in our own states. We won't do it.

LINDA: You say you only want to limit slavery to where it already exists, but now you've elected President Lincoln who comes right out and says that he wants to put slavery “on the road to extinction.”

JOHN: The federal government should have the power - and I would say it has the moral duty - to ban slavery wherever it can.

LINDA: Not when the Supreme Court says it can't. You're so righteous about slavery being wrong, but we have the Constitution on our side. We're breaking no law, but it's obvious that you are not going to leave us alone to live as law-abiding Americans.

JOHN: The Northern States can't just sit by any longer and let slavery destroy the freedom our nation stands for.

LINDA: And the Southern States can't remain in the union when other states are bent on destroying our free way of life. It's suicide.

JOHN: You’ve got it backwards. Remaining a Union is the only way for freedom to survive.

LINDA: Why don't you just take your idea of freedom and go your way, and let me secede and go mine? Maybe that way we'll all survive.

Our nation is divided between slave states and free

Oct 16, 1860

National Constitution Center

But what of the territories? People who oppose slavery want them declared free. The Supreme Court – and many southerners – say that’s unconstitutional.


Oct 17, 1860


On this day Abraham Lincoln elected president on platform barring slavery from western territories

Nov 6, 1860

Voters in the United States went to the polls in an election that ended with Abraham Lincoln as President, in an act that led to the Civil War. But Lincoln’s actual victory didn’t happen on that day, and his victory wasn’t assured for months.

Lincoln was the candidate of the newly created Republican Party, which officially wanted to limit the expansion of slavery. The rival Democrats had split into two factions, with Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge running against Lincoln, and another new party, the Constitutional Union Party, also fielding a candidate.

Lincoln was home in Springfield, Illinois, awaiting news of the national vote. He needed a majority of votes in the Electoral College to win the election. It was assumed he would have the most popular votes, because of the GOP’s strength in the North and West, but he was also assured of not having a majority of the popular vote.

Based on warnings from southern states, it was expected that at least seven states would take steps to leave the Union if and when Lincoln was elected, and well before he was inaugurated as President in March 1861.

The firing on Ft. Sumter<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

10th Amendment: South Carolina pulls out of the Union!

Dec 20, 1860

“The violations of the Constitution of the United States by the Federal Government…fully justified this State in withdrawing from the federal Union.”
—South Carolina Declaration of Secession

South Carolina vowed to leave the Union if Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860. He’s pledged to stop the spread of slavery, they say. What will happen when he appoints antislavery judges to the federal government?

Like so many Southerners, they think Lincoln’s election will threaten “liberty, property, country—everything that makes life worth having.”

Now, just six weeks after his victory, South Carolina has made good its threat. By 169-0, delegates to a special convention have voted to secede.

Monday, April 15, 1861

The Confederacy, now seven states strong, has fired on and captured Fort Sumter. Today President Lincoln has called up 75,000 troops. We are at war.


On this day Confederacy elects Jefferson Davis president and officially declares war

Feb 9, 1861

On this day in 1861, former U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis took to a podium for his presidential inauguration and gave an impassioned speech about the Constitution. Three weeks later, Abraham Lincoln did likewise, to much different results.

Davis had been a highly visible figure in Washington, D.C. as a pro-slavery and states' rights advocate from Mississippi. Earlier his life, Davis was the son-in-law of future President Zachary Taylor. After graduating from West Point, Davis served in the military and Congress, and he was Secretary of War for President Franklin Pierce.

Davis returned to the Senate after his time in the Pierce administration, where he was a vocal supporter of states’ rights. But he quit  after Lincoln’s election, saying “we are about to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us.”

Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Lincoln takes office…and an oath to preserve the Union

Mar 4, 1861

The stakes couldn’t be higher, and Abraham Lincoln has worked on his inaugural speech for two months.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” he assures the seceding states, promising that he will respect their rights.

But those rights, he says, do not include leaving the Union. The Union is “perpetual.” “I shall take care,” he says, “as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins me, that the law of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States.”

Any act of violence against the United States, he warns, will be an act of rebellion.


On this day Attack on Fort Sumter; President Lincoln calls for troops to suppress “insurrection”

Apr 12, 1861

The Battle of Fort Sumter was the spark that formally started the Civil War. While none of 80 Union soldiers on Fort Sumter died during the 34-hour bombardment of the island fortification off the coast of South Carolina, the episode was the first formal act of aggression between the Union and Confederacy. Its anniversary warrants attention not only because it was the first battle in a war that took 620,000 American lives, but also because the conditions and controversy surrounding Fort Sumter embodies some of the larger conflicts between the North and South at the time.

At 4:30 a.m., Confederate Brigadier General PGT Beauregard ordered 800 of his soldiers to open fire on the Fort. The barrage was deafening, and the citizens of Charleston observed the explosions, smoke, and flames from their rooftops over the next 34 hours. Anderson surrendered the Fort as fires were starting to engulf the entire complex, and he and his men were permitted by Beauregard to conduct a 100-gun salute and leave peacefully. As the Union soldiers were leaving, however, one died in an accidental explosion and was the only casualty from the affair.

On this day President Lincoln suspends writ of habeas corpus along Washington and Philadelphia route

Apr 27, 1862

Robert Smalls<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Robert Smalls escapes to freedom after piloting steamship Planter out of Charleston harbor

May 13, 1862

Robert Smalls, 1839-1915

He seized an opportunity for freedom

Robert Smalls was an enslaved South Carolinian pressed into service as a ship’s pilot for the Confederate Navy. On May 13, 1862, as the white officers slept, Smalls smuggled his family on board the Planter. He then hoisted the Confederate flag and daringly sailed past other Confederate ships in Charleston Harbor and out to sea. Once out of range of the Confederate gunboats, Smalls raised a white flag of truce. He delivered the Planter to the Union fleet blockading Charleston.

Smalls and his crew of 12 slaves were welcomed as heroes. He was honored at the White House and became a captain in the Union Navy. After the war, Smalls had a distinguished political career, including election to five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A conspirator<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Lincoln is pushing the limits of the Constitution

Sep 24, 1862

“The Constitution of the United States is a law for ruler and people, equally in war and peace.”
—Justice David Davis,
Ex parte Milligan

Since the war began, Lincoln has chosen to interpret his presidential powers broadly.

He’s called up military forces to defend the Union.He’s declared martial law. Today he suspended the writ of habeas corpus—our basic right to not be imprisoned without a court hearing—across the nation. He acts first, then seeks approval from Congress.

The President argues that he’s doing what’s necessary and staying within the limits of the Constitution. His critics say he’s crossed the line.

Abraham Lincoln<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

13th Amendment: The “Emancipation Proclamation” frees the slaves in rebel states

Jan 1, 1863

“I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.”
—Abraham Lincoln

We’re nearly two years into this Civil War. Union armies have faced one defeat after another and abolitionists are pushing to make emancipation a war goal.

Lincoln knows that freeing slaves in Confederate states will weaken the South’s labor force. He also knows it will strengthen the war effort, by encouraging free blacks to fight for the Union. He’s finally convinced that emancipation is “a military necessity.”

His opponents in Congress are calling emancipation a “high crime against the Constitution.” But Lincoln is sure that as wartime commander, he can take this step he couldn’t take as a peacetime president.

Today, as the White House bustled with guests at a New Year’s Day reception, Lincoln slipped upstairs and signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Slaves in the rebel states are free.

Gettysburg Address<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

President Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address

Nov 19, 1863

Lincoln chooses his words carefully. His Gettysburg Address says we’re a nation, not just a collection of states. We’ve been one since 1776, even before the Constitution was written.

We have changed our views on war - and slavery

Mar 4, 1865

Four years ago, President Lincoln and Congress told us this war was not about freeing the slaves, but saving the Union. They had no plans to “interfere” with slavery where it existed.

The war has changed us.

In January, Congress passed a constitutional amendment banning slavery altogether.

This morning, Lincoln took on a second term. Addressing the sea of faces—half of them black—he called slavery an “offense” for which God has given “to both North and South, this terrible war.”

Later, he asked black antislavery leader Frederick Douglass what he thought. Said Douglass, “That was a sacred effort.”

On this day General Robert E. Lee surrenders at Appomattox courthouse

Apr 9, 1865

On a Palm Sunday 151 years ago today, Confederate General Robert E. Lee agreed to surrender his Army of Northern Virginia, marking a symbolic end to the Civil War.

The overall Confederate surrender took place in stages over the following two months, with other Confederate armies reaching surrender agreements after Lee met with Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.

The two military leaders agreed to meet under a truce at the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox on the afternoon of April 9. A sharply dressed Lee and Lieutenant Colonial Charles Marshall arrived first, followed by a slightly disheveled Grant and his officers, a group that included Robert Todd Lincoln.

Lee asked Grant to write down the surrender terms, which allowed Lee’s officers to keep their side arms and horses, and a similar provision was provided for Lee’s cavalry and artillery troops. All of Lee’s troops were to “be allowed to return to their homes, and not be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” Grant also provided rations for the starved Confederate troops.

The generous surrender terms avoided potential trials of Confederate leaders and served as a blue print for other surrenders that followed.

Confederate soldiers killed during the Civil War<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The Civil War takes a heavy toll of American lives

Apr 9, 1865

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

“I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
—Abraham Lincoln

“It is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it.”
—Robert E. Lee

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.”
—William Tecumseh Sherman

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
—Abraham Lincoln

Many die not from bullets, but from disease and hardship. Others will survive, but be scarred in body and soul. Civilians, especially in the South, will suffer greatly as well.

But the Union will endure.


On this day John Wilkes Booth assassinates President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater; Andrew Johnson becomes president

Apr 14, 1865

Today we commemorate the 150th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in American history—President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

The “what-ifs” abound.

What if President Lincoln had stayed home from Ford’s Theater that night, 150 years ago? What if he had left his support for African-American suffrage out of his April 11th address—a passage that led John Wilkes Booth to promise that this speech would be Lincoln’s last?

A century and a half later, Americans remain drawn to the heroic Lincoln—Lincoln as wartime President, Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” Lincoln as martyr.  However, on this important anniversary, we shouldn’t let this towering, symbolic Lincoln overshadow the flesh-and-blood, human Lincoln—Lincoln the practical statesman, who offers important lessons for today’s leaders.

Throughout his life, Lincoln remained committed to the prophetic call of Jefferson’s Declaration—a vision captured by Lincoln’s famous line at Gettysburg, describing ours as a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  However, as a politician and statesman, Lincoln was committed not only to speaking these words, but also to giving them life through political action—and often through principled compromise.

More important still, throughout his public life, Lincoln showed perhaps the rarest and most important virtue of all—an immense capacity for learning and growth.  Historian Eric Foner captures this idea well, explaining, “Had he died in 1862, it would be quite easy to argue today that Lincoln would never have issued a proclamation of emancipation, enrolled black soldiers in the Union army, or advocated allowing black men to vote.”  And yet he did, moved by the exigencies of war and the courage shown by countless African-Americans willing to fight for their freedom.

<br>National Archives and Records Administration

13th Amendment: States ratify 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in U.S.

Dec 6, 1865

Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.

Note: A portion of Article IV, section 2, of the Constitution was superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment.

Section 1.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Confederate veterans at Pulaski, TN organize Klu Klux Klan

Dec 24, 1865



We rebuild the Union and amend the Constitution

We rebuild the Union and amend the Constitution

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the task remained to restore the Union. The emancipation of the slaves forced Americans to define citizenship and the rights that went with it. We took one step closer to creating that “more perfect Union” by adding three amendments to the Constitution to expand the ideals of liberty and equality upon which the country was built. One amendment banned slavery outright. Another granted former slaves citizenship and guaranteed equal protection of the laws. And another secured the vote for black men. In the era after the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, as many as one million African American men went to the polls for the very first time; some were elected to Congress. But eliminating racial injustice wouldn’t be easy. When Reconstruction ended in 1877, the national government retreated from protecting equal rights. The famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 made matters worse, as segregation spread in the South and in the North.

On this day Congress passes Civil Rights Act of 1866 over President Johnson’s veto

Apr 9, 1866

<br>National Archives and Records Administration

States ratify 14th Amendment, granting former slaves citizenship and promising “equal protection of the laws”

Jun 13, 1866

Passed by Congress June 13, 1866. Ratified July 9, 1868.

Note: Article I, section 2, of the Constitution was modified by section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Section 1.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2.
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age,* and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3.
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4.
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

*Changed by section 1 of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.

On this day Reconstruction Act sets up military rule in former Confederate states

Mar 2, 1867


On this day U.S. purchases Alaska from the Russian government for $7.2 million

Mar 30, 1867

On this day in 1867, United States Secretary of State William Seward signed a deal acquiring Alaska, an agreement that was ridiculed by some as “Seward’s Folly” and opposed in the House.

In today’s popular culture, Seward is best known for his association with Abraham Lincoln. But his name is also forever linked to a decision back that brought Alaska into the fold as a United States territory, at a bargain price: The cost for Alaska in 1867 was $7.2 million, which is about $116 million in 2016 dollars.

The Alaska Purchase gave the United States a land mass of 586,412 square miles, an area about twice the size of Texas. But it came at a time when the United States had just ended the Civil War, and it had an abundance of underpopulated land.

Andrew Johnson<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

For the first time ever, a President stands trial

May 16, 1868

Johnson has used his presidential powers to undercut congressional legislation one too many times. Now he’s removed Lincoln’s Secretary of War, in defiance of a law that the House says protects the Secretary.

The House charges he tried to “thwart the constitutional action of Congress and bring it to naught.” The President is on trial for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

His lawyers paint him as a patriot who loves the Constitution. On the floor, tempers rise.

One senator calls Johnson a tyrant. Another says it would be an abuse of power to depose a president “on grounds so slight.”

After two months of bitter debate, the House has failed to make its case before the Senate.

Johnson escapes conviction…by one vote.

The 14th Amendment<br>National Archives and Records Administration

14th Amendment: The idea of equality enters the Constitution

Jul 9, 1868

“Equality under the law.” It’s an idea Americans cherish. But it wasn’t part of our Constitution until today, when the last two states ratified the 14th Amendment.

The 14th makes everyone born in the United States a citizen, entitled to equal protection in every state.

“No State shall…deny to any person the equal protection of the laws.”

The words are powerful on paper. But the struggle to put them into practice has just begun.

On this day Republican Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1869

Meeting of the Central and Union Pacific railroads<br>Union Pacific Museum

The “greatest railroad on earth” spurs a new national market

May 10, 1869

“The last rail is laid! The last spike is driven! The Pacific Railroad is completed!”
–AP dispatch

With the driving of gold and silver spikes in Utah, the Pacific Railroad is finished!

Until today, a trek from New York to California meant months at sea, or struggling across mountains and deserts. Now, passengers can make the trip in just six days.

This transportation revolution marks the rise of a new national market and a booming national economy.

This new national market of ours wouldn’t be possible without a Constitution that gives Congress the power to regulate interstate and international trade.

Congress is using that constitutional power and others—like the power to establish a postal service—to help build railroads, telegraph lines, roads and canals.

The Civil War has left us bereaved and wounded…but this expansion of opportunity promises to knit us together again as a nation.

19th Amendment: Wyoming Territory extends voting rights to women

Dec 10, 1869

Collage celebrating the 15th Amendment<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

We amend the Constitution

Feb 3, 1870

Nine years after the war began, the United States is united once again. Yet the people are divided. Slavery is gone, but most whites can’t accept blacks as their equals. And many Northerners don’t trust the former slave owners to guard the former slaves’ civil rights.

Waging war in Congress, Republicans pushed—and passed—three remarkable amendments that reshape our Constitution.

The 13th abolishes slavery.

The 14th defines U.S. citizenship, and includes all black Americans.

The 15th says no one can be denied the right to vote because of his race, color or former life as a slave.

Today, the states ratified the 15th. A turning point for the Constitution…and the country.

It changes our idea of who belongs to “We, the People.”

<br>National Archieves and Records Administration

15th Amendment: The right to vote guaranteed regardless of race

Feb 3, 1870

The 15th Amendment was one of the “Reconstruction amendments,” and was an important step in ensuring African Americans' right to vote. Unfortunately, change didn't happen overnight, and it would take further measures, such as the 24th Amendment, which nixed the use of poll taxes, to foster true equality.

The Amendment was the final of the three constitutional amendments enacted during Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War. While the 13th Amendment prohibited slavery, and the 14th Amendment barred states from denying “equal protection of the laws,” the 15th Amendment established that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race. Though its express terms prohibit all racial discrimination in voting qualifications, the Amendment was aimed at ensuring the enfranchisement of African-Americans. Section 2 of this short but momentous Amendment also gave Congress the power to enact legislation to enforce the right against race-based denials of the vote. 

Yet the most significant fact about the 15th Amendment in American history is that it was essentially ignored and circumvented for nearly a century. The situation only began to change dramatically in 1965, when Congress used its power to enforce the 15th (and 14th) Amendment by enacting the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Hiram Revels<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Black citizens join “We, the People”

Feb 25, 1870

Under the watchful eye of federal troops, the freed slaves have begun to vote. They’re sending black men to state capitals and Congress, changing the complexion of our government.

It was a proud day today. A Mississippi lawmaker, Hiram Revels, chaplain to a black Union regiment, was sworn in as the first black U.S. Senator.

The Constitution works.

Map of canals and railroads

Feb 26, 1870

As Congress grants western land to the railroads, they connect cities to create a national market. With more than 50,000 miles of track, people and products can travel from Boston to San Francisco.

On this day Indian Appropriation Act declares all Indian treaties void and makes all Indians wards of the federal government

Mar 3, 1871

On this day Congress passes Ku Klux Klan Act, allowing President to impose martial law when southern governments violate civil rights

Apr 20, 1871

Susan B. Anthony arrested for trying to vote in presidential election

Nov 18, 1872


14th Amendment: Slaughter-House Cases rejects Bill of Rights applies to the states

Apr 14, 1873

In the Slaughter-House Cases, waste products from slaughterhouses located upstream of New Orleans had caused serious health problems for years by the time Louisiana decided to consolidate the industries into one slaughterhouse located south of the city. Slaughterhouse owners were incensed. They challenged the state’s action citing the 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause as their remedy.

“The Fourteenth Amendment protects the privileges and immunities of citizenship of the United States, not privileges and immunities of citizenship of a state,” said Justice Samuel Miller.

The Court said that the Privileges and Immunities Clause only prevented the federal government from abridging privileges and immunities guaranteed in the 14th Amendment and that the clause did not apply to the states. The move gutted the Privilege and Immunities Clause of its effect and kept the door open for Jim Crow laws in the South. To this day the Privileges and Immunities Clause is seldom invoked.

Meeting of the National Woman's Suffrage Association<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Headlines blared: “The Woman Who Dared”

Jun 18, 1873

“It was we, the people, not we, the white male citizens…who formed the Union.”
—Susan B. Anthony

After 20 years’ work to win the vote, some women’s rights advocates are outraged. The new 15th Amendment gives black men the vote, but leaves women out.

Believing that every citizen has the right to vote, Susan B. Anthony presented her ballot on Election Day. She was arrested for illegal voting.

Justice Hunt refused to let her testify. Today, he found her guilty, fining her $100.

“I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty,” replied Anthony.

On this day First Jim Crow law is enacted in Tennessee

Feb 23, 1875

On this day Alexander Graham Bell patents telephone

Mar 7, 1876

On this day Contested presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden ends in electoral deadlock

Nov 7, 1876


On this day Hayes declared winner and inaugurated as president; reconstruction ends

Mar 5, 1877

Hayes was a genuine war hero who stood against slavery, and he was also a reformer.

He also kept his promise to be a one-term president, and he attacked patronage in the nation’s civil service system. Hayes succeeded in firing the powerful Collector of the Port of New York, Chester Arthur, in 1878, in an epic battle with New York power broker Roscoe Conkling. (Arthur would become President in 1881.) The American economy also recovered under Hayes from the disastrous Panic of 1873.

Today, Hayes is little remembered in the United States, but he is treated as a national hero in one nation: Paraguay. Hayes agreed to negotiate a long-held border dispute between Argentina and Paraguay, and the decision gave the nation 60 percent of its land.

Rutherford B. Hayes accepting his nomination<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

An election mess we can’t forget

Jun 13, 1877

America won’t soon forget last year’s nerve-wracking election. Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford Hayes battling to a deadlock in the Electoral College. Violence against black voters. Officials charging fraud. Everyone asking, “Who won?”

Despite the cries of “Tilden or War!” both sides compromised. Congress appointed a commission to determine the outcome, and the transfer of power was peaceful. Rutherford Hayes is our new president.

But peace comes at a cost. President Hayes has promised to stop using troops to protect black voting rights in the South. Former slaves like Henry Adams say they’ve “lost all hopes.”

On this day Supreme Court sustains federal enforcement of anti-polygamy laws against Mormons in Reynolds v. U.S.

Jan 4, 1879

On this day James Garfield inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1881


On this day Following assassination of James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur becomes president

Sep 19, 1881

Soon after assuming the presidency, Arthur set his own independent course for his remaining three years in office. The new President fought the spoils patronage system he supported in New York, advocated tariff relief for businesses, and demanded breaks for taxpayers.

One reason for Arthur’s independent streak, some historians speculate, is that the President was diagnosed with what was called Bright’s disease in October 1882, which was known as a terminal condition at the time.

Although he was in pain and ill health for the rest of his presidency, Arthur championed reforms of the patronage system. In 1883, he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which banned kickbacks in the civil service system and made merit, and not patronage, the basis for promotion and pay.

On this day John D. Rockefeller incorporates Standard Oil Trust

Jan 2, 1882


On this day Congress passes Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese immigration for ten years

May 6, 1882

The Chinese Exclusion Acts, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Chester Alan Arthur in 1882, at first barred Chinese laborers from entering the United States, and these restrictions were expanded to many ethnic Chinese, regardless of nationality, in subsequent laws.

On this day Congress passes Pendleton Reform Act, establishing permanent Civil Service Commission

Jan 16, 1883


On this day Democrat Grover Cleveland inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1885

Grover Cleveland stands alone in American history as the only President to serve non-consecutive terms. 

Officially, Cleveland is known as the 22ndPresident and the 24th President, after his wins in the 1884 and 1892 general elections. But he lost the 1888 to his Republican foe, Benjamin Harrison.

On this day Supreme Court, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, rules that aliens (persons living in the U.S. who are not citizens) are protected by 14th Amendment

May 10, 1885



We encounter prosperity and its perils in an industrial age

We encounter prosperity and its perils in an industrial age

In 1869 a single swing of the sledgehammer drove the “golden spike” connecting the tracks for the first transcontinental railroad. Trains spread goods, resources and opportunity across the country, and the Constitution insured that all this commerce would flow without too much local interference. To cope with the challenges of the industrial age, the federal and state governments enacted new legislation to control business practices, improve working conditions, protect consumers and improve the environment. The Supreme Court tried to strike a balance. Attempting to protect the right of contract, it gave corporations as much leeway as possible and restricted labor unions. But when the Court thought a workplace reform truly guarded health, safety, or morals, it ruled it constitutional.

On this day Bomb explodes at Chicago’s Haymarket Square labor rally, triggering crackdown on labor activists

May 4, 1886

The 14th Amendment<br>National Archives and Records Administration

The Supreme Court says corporations are “persons”

May 10, 1886

Is a railroad a person? Today, the Supreme Court said “yes.” In a case involving the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Court found that railroads and other corporations “are persons within the intent of the…14th Amendment.”

This means corporations have the same constitutional rights people do. And they can go to court to claim those rights.

The Court has given businesses new power to protect themselves. Will this help us prosper? Or will it thwart lawmaker’s efforts to regulate corporations?

Northern Pacific steam locomotive<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

The railroads win: states can’t interfere with interstate commerce

Oct 25, 1886

“Freedom of commerce among the states…was deemed essential to a more perfect union by the framers of the Constitution.”
–Justice Samuel F. Miller
Wabash v. Illinois

Railroads are spreading across our country, coast to coast. Now, the railroads say, a patchwork of local regulations stands in their way—and violates the Constitution.

The Supreme Court agrees. Ruling against Illinois, the Court says the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. So states like Illinois can’t put a limit on the railroads’ rates for shipping goods out of state.

Farmers and local businessmen, who say those state laws protected them, grumble that this decision gives the railroads too much power.

On this day Statue of Liberty dedicated

Oct 28, 1886

On this day Country celebrates Constitution’s centennial birthday

Sep 17, 1887

On this day Republican Benjamin Harrison inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1889

Joseph Bradley<br>

11th Amendment: Hans v. Louisiana changes state lawsuit immunity

Mar 3, 1890

A dispute in Louisiana is settled by the Supreme Court and further narrows the ability of people to take states to court in lawsuits.

“A State cannot, without its consent, be sued in a Circuit Court for the United States by one of its own citizens upon a suggestion that the case is one that arises under the Constitution and laws of the United States,” said Justice Joseph P. Bradley for a unanimous court.

The Hans decision closed one issue left open from the Court’s controversial Chisholm v. Georgia decision from 1793 and the 11th Amendment’s attempt to redefine the concept of state immunity from certain lawsuits. State residents were now blocked from suing their own state in the federal court system.

More than 100 years later, the Court would address a second open question, when it said in Alden v. Maine (1999) that Congress can’t force a state to accept a lawsuit within its own legal system against it. This concept of state immunity didn’t apply when Congress needed to take action under the 14th Amendment to uphold civil rights.

On this day National American Woman Suffrage Association formed to promote right of women to vote

Jul 2, 1890

John Sherman<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Ohio senator John Sherman has written a new antitrust law

Jul 2, 1890

It passed the House unanimously, and the Senate by a vote of 51-1. The act makes it illegal to try to monopolize interstate commerce.

On this day Ellis Island opens as processing center for immigrants

Jan 1, 1892

Populist Cartoon<br>Courtesy of Worth Robert Miller’s Populism website at http://history.smsu.edu/wrmiller

The People’s Party denounces corruption and corporate power

Nov 8, 1892

“We seek to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people’…We assert our purposes to be identical with the purposes of the National Constitution.”
–People’s Party platform

This year’s national election campaign saw something different—candidates from a new “People’s Party,” formed by discontented farmers and workers throughout the southern, mountain and prairie states. Their fiery platform had sharp words for big businessmen and their friends in government, charging that more wealth is ending up in fewer hands. “The fruits of the toil of millions,” they say, are being “stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.”

The Populists called for direct election of senators; an income tax; limits on “undesirable emigration”; and government ownership of the railroads and telegraph lines.

Opponents call their ideas dangerous and unconstitutional. But the Populists have clearly struck a nerve.

In last week’s presidential election, their candidate won four states, and one million votes—an all-time record for a third party.

On this day Eugene Debs helps form American Railway Union

Jun 20, 1893

On this day Pullman workers vote to strike!

May 10, 1894

Infantry company beside pullman car<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

President Cleveland sends troops to break up Pullman strike

Jul 3, 1894

The strike has become a national issue. Since June, American Railroad Union workers across America, led by Eugene Debs, have refused to handle any train with a Pullman car attached.

The railroad companies retaliated by firing the switchmen, and now rail workers everywhere are striking. Rail yards are paralyzed. Mail service is delayed.

The union said it would let mail through, just not Pullman cars. But railroad executives aren’t budging. They won’t separate mail and Pullman cars. Instead, they’re calling for strong federal action because the U.S. mail and interstate commerce are being held up.

Last week, a federal court agreed, and issued a sweeping injunction ordering workers to let trains and strikebreakers through.

Today, over Governor Altgeld's objections, President Cleveland sent in federal troops to enforce the order.

Illustration of the United States being swallowed by monopoly<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

In the E.C. Knight case, the Court lets the sugar monopoly stand

Jan 21, 1895

When a single trust company bought up 98% of the country’s sugar refineries, President Cleveland’s administration took the company to court for violating the new Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

But the Supreme Court ruled against the government.

Congress’s power over interstate commerce, it says, doesn’t mean it can regulate production. That power, the Court says, belongs to each state. Preserving state “autonomy” is vital to preserving our Constitution’s “dual form of government.”

Only Justice Harlan disagrees. The Constitution, he protests, doesn’t put the federal government in “such a condition of helplessness.”

And how, he asks, can any state possibly control the operations of national companies?

On this day Supreme Court, in In re Debs, upholds federal injunction issued against union leader Eugene V. Debs and American Railway Union

May 27, 1895

On this day U.S. declares war on Spain following sinking of battleship Maine in Havannah harbor

Apr 25, 1896

U.S. Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

14th Amendment: One Justice warns that “separate” is not “equal”

May 18, 1896

“Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
—Justice John Marshall Harlan,
Dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson

The Louisiana legislature had passed a law requiring black and white residents to ride separate, but equal, train cars. In 1892, Louisiana police arrested Homer Adolph Plessy—who was seven-eighths Caucasian—for taking his seat on a train car reserved for “whites only” because he refused to move to a separate train car reserved for blacks.

Plessy argued that the Louisiana statute violated the 13th and 14th Amendments by treating black Americans inferior to whites. Plessy lost in every court in Louisiana before appealing to the Supreme Court in 1896. In a 7-1 decision, the Court held that as long as the facilities were equal, their separation satisfied the 14th Amendment. Justice Harlan authored the lone dissent. Passionately he clarified that the Constitution was color-blind, railing the majority for an opinion which he believed would match Dred Scott in infamy.


On this day William McKinley inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1897

McKinley’s biography on the University of Virginia’s Miller Center website observes that the 25thPresident was more a victim of bad publicity than unwise policy decisions. “For a long time, William McKinley was considered a mediocre President, a chief executive who was controlled by his political cronies and who was pressured into war with Spain by the press,” the Center says. “Recent historians have been kinder to McKinley, seeing him instead as a decisive President who put America on the road to world power.”

On this day Following assassination of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt becomes president

Sep 14, 1901

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., named to Supreme Court

Dec 2, 1902

On this day Supreme Court upholds congressional power to bar lottery tickets from interstate commerce in Champion v. Ames

Feb 23, 1903

On this day Supreme Court upholds breakup of the Northern Securities Co. for violating Sherman Antitrust Act

Mar 14, 1904

Joseph Fielding Smith<br>Image Donated by Harold B. Lee library, Brigham Young University

The issue of polygamy tests the limits of freedom of religion

Apr 6, 1904

“Can a man excuse his practices…because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land.”
—Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite
Reynolds v. United States

Polygamy continues to haunt Utah and the Mormon Church. Today, Congress continued hearings, quizzing church president Joseph Fielding Smith about whether his church still performs polygamous marriages.

Twenty-five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled against a Mormon husband who called polygamy his religious duty. Their decision: the First Amendment says you can believe what you want, but you cannot break the law.

Mormons have struggled with this ruling for years. But, says Smith, his church did stop performing plural marriages, back in 1890.

Workers in meat plant<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Meat and margarine: the Court opens the door to some federal regulation

Jan 30, 1905

The Supreme Court’s had a lot to say about food—and federal power—lately.

Today’s decision in the Swift case says that the Chicago stockyards are part of the interstate commerce in meat, which means the federal government can regulate them under the Sherman Antitrust Act. It’s quite a shift from the Court’s position 10 years ago in a famous sugar monopoly case.

Last year, in a case involving artificially colored margarine, the Court said the Constitution gives Congress sweeping tax powers. So if Congress thinks a product is unhealthy or unsafe, it can tax it out of production.

These new decisions mean the federal government can regulate many of the products we use…and the businesses that make them.

Bakery worker placing bread on racks<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

14th Amendment: Supreme Court overturns a New York law on bakers’ hours

Apr 17, 1905

“Is this a fair, reasonable, and appropriate exercise of the police power of the state, or is it an unreasonable, unnecessary, and arbitrary interference with the right of the individual to his personal liberty?”
—Justice Rufus Peckham
Lochner v. New York

Lochner, a baker from New York, was convicted of violating the New York Bakeshop Act, which prohibited bakers from working more than 10 hours a day and 60 hours a week. The Supreme Court struck down the Bakeshop Act, however, ruling that it infringed on Lochner’s “right to contract.” The Court extracted this “right” from the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, a move that many believe exceeded judicial authority.


On this day Hepburn Act expands powers of Interstate Commerce Commission

Jun 29, 1906

 The empowerment of the Interstate Commerce Commission (or ICC) a decade earlier to control shipping rates came about with passage of the Hepburn Rate Act of 1906.

President Theodore Roosevelt championed the Hepburn Act, which gave the ICC power to regulate “fair, just and reasonable” passenger and shipping rates charged by the railroads. Roosevelt succeeded despite heavy opposition from railroad interests, but the rate caps later came back to make some railroad systems unprofitable through the next decade, forcing them into receivership.

On this day Congress passes the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act

Jun 30, 1906



We are a diverse nation, confronting our differences

We are a diverse nation, confronting our differences

Between the 1880 and 1920, America experienced a sea of social change. More than 20 million immigrants flocked to these shores, infusing America with new vitality and raising new questions about the constitutional rights of labor and minority groups. At the time of the First World War, Congress and the Supreme Court moved to suppress dissent. Efforts to control vice and morality boomed, and in 1919 the Constitution was amended to outlaw alcohol, an experiment that failed. During this era of turmoil, reform and war, women continued the struggle to improve their condition and secure the right to vote. Finally, in 1920, they succeeded.

Immigrants at Ellis Island<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Immigrants flock to our shores, seeking freedom and stirring fears

Dec 31, 1907

A record-breaking 1,285,000 immigrants moved to America this year. It’s easy to see why. Jobs are plentiful, and our Constitution gives them the freedom to seek their fortunes, express their ideas and practice their religions.

Still, many immigrants have a hard time, especially in big cities. They often work dangerous jobs, live in cramped housing and suffer from poor nutrition.

Reformers like Jane Addams are opening neighborhood centers to help immigrants adjust.

But some of us are less welcoming. Deep down, we fear immigrants will take our jobs and, with their strange languages and customs, make America less “American.”

Others ask: Have we forgotten? From Plymouth Rock to Ellis Island, we have always been a nation of immigrants.

Record-breaking 1,285,000 immigrants admitted to U.S. over past year

Dec 31, 1907

On this day In Adair v. U.S., federal law prohibiting “yellow dog” contracts barring workers from joining labor unions is invalidated

Jan 27, 1908

Women working in factories<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Social reformers win a victory in Muller v. Oregon

Feb 24, 1908

States can now limit women’s working hours without running afoul of the Constitution.

Just three years ago, the Supreme Court overturned a similar law affecting male workers in New York, saying it interfered with the right to buy and sell labor freely.

But the Court says the new Oregon law is justified. According to the Court, states have a particular interest in protecting women’s health because of women’s “physical structure” and “maternal functions.”

The Justices are suspicious of workplace rules that restrict “liberty of contract.” But this law, they say, passes muster because it was imposed not just for the benefit of women, but “largely for the benefit of all.”

On this day National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded

Feb 12, 1909

On this day William H. Taft inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1909

On this day Supreme Court orders the breakup of Standard Oil holding company in Standard Oil of New Jersey v. U.S.

May 15, 1911


On this day Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party nominates Theodore Roosevelt for president

Aug 7, 1912

Theodore Roosevelt was one of most dynamic Presidents in White House history. Roosevelt came from a wealthy New York family, but he didn’t take an easy path through life. Born on October 27, 1858 in Manhattan, Roosevelt survived the tragedy of losing his wife and his own mother to illness on the same day in 1884, an assassination attempt in 1912, and an extremely dangerous military charge in Cuba in 1898.

The former President passed away in 1919 at the age 60 from a blood clot that had lodged in his heart. He had been in declining health for several years.

Theodore Roosevelt<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Pushing reforms for the “general welfare,” TR makes another run for president

Oct 14, 1912

“The people are the masters of their Constitution, to fulfill its purposes and to safeguard it from those who, by perversion of its intent, would convert it into an instrument of injustice.”
—Bull Moose Party Platform

Tonight in Milwaukee, tough-as-nails Teddy Roosevelt gave a campaign speech with a bullet lodged in his chest.

Shaking off an assassination attempt, he insisted on speaking to the crowd. “It would take more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” he said. He spoke powerfully for nearly an hour before being rushed to the hospital.

Roosevelt redefined what it meant to be president, bringing boundless energy to the office. He brought 44 lawsuits against the big trusts, convinced Congress to create a new Department of Commerce and Labor, and set aside lands for public use.

Now he and his Bull Moose Party are calling for child labor reform, new workplace laws, an income tax, the direct election of senators-and they’re ready to change the Constitution to do it.

His career makes us realize the Supreme Court isn’t the only force that can shape our Constitution.

U.S. Constitution<br>National Archives and Records Administration

States ratify Sixteenth Amendment, allowing for federal income tax

Feb 3, 1913

Passed by Congress July 2, 1909.
Ratified February 3, 1913.

Note: Article I, section 9, of the Constitution was modified by the Sixteenth Amendment.

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

On this day Woodrow Wilson inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1913

The Capitol<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

A new amendment gives us the power to elect senators directly

Apr 8, 1913

The idea that people should elect their own senators came up back in 1787, at the Constitutional Convention. But the delegates decided, instead, that state legislatures should elect senators, elevating the “best” men into office.

Our thinking on democracy has changed. The 17th Amendment, ratified today, says the people-not state legislators-will elect their own senators.

It’s a victory for Progressives, the reformers in both parties who want to take power away from political bosses and put it back in the hands of the people.

Congress creates Federal Reserve Board to regulate banking

Dec 23, 1913

On this day Margaret Sanger indicted for advertising birth-control information and devices

Jan 1, 1914


Seventh Amendment: Court affirms state civil trial rights

May 22, 1916

The Seventh Amendment requires civil jury trials only in federal courts. This Amendment is unusual. The U.S. Supreme Court has required states to protect almost every other right in the Bill of Rights, such as the right to criminal jury trial, but the Court has not required states to hold civil jury trials.

Nearly all of the states, however, have rights to civil jury trial in certain cases in their state constitutions. In  In Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Bombolis (1916), the opinion written by Chief Justice Edward White affirmed that the Seventh Amendment's provisions for federal civil trials didn't apply to state trials. “The 7th Amendment applies only to proceedings in courts of the United States, and does not in any manner whatever govern or regulate trials by jury in state courts, or the standards which must be applied concerning the same,” said White.


On this day Louis Brandeis confirmed as Supreme Court justice

Jun 1, 1916

Louis Brandeis's nomination was contentious, and while former President Taft labeled him a radical and other opponents launched anti-Semitic attacks against him, he eventually ascended to the Court on June 5th, 1916.

Informed by his earlier legal research and career defending the public interest, Justice Brandeis was a staunch defender of civil liberties and individual rights. In Olmstead v. US in 1928, Brandeis issued a now-famous dissent while the majority ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not ban wiretaps that were performed without a warrant.

Channeling his broader legal philosophy and the right to privacy he articulated years earlier, Brandeis explained that individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution ought to be seen as evolving and expanding along with the development of technology and progression of society. He wrote that “in the application of a constitution, our contemplation cannot be only of what has been, but of what may be” and said that the essence of the Fourth Amendment clearly banned these sorts of violations of privacy. Though the Court rejected Brandeis’ conception of privacy at that time, later jurisprudence, starting with Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, heavily relied on the groundwork Brandeis laid down in Olmstead.

Jeanette Rankin<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Jeannette Rankin becomes first woman elected to Congress

Nov 9, 1916

A Republican from Montana, Jeannette Rankin in 1916 became the first woman elected to Congress. Active in the women’s suffrage movement, she opened congressional debate on the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Rankin dedicated herself to anti-war efforts. Soon after taking her seat in Congress, Rankin voted against U.S. participation in World War I. In 1918 Rankin ran unsuccessfully for Senate as an independent.

With war brewing again, she returned to Congress in 1941. This time, she was one of six women in the House and two in the Senate. When Congress declared war on the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, Rankin cast the only “no” vote. She retired from Congress in 1943, knowing that vote killed any chance for re-election.

On this day U.S. enters World War I

Apr 6, 1917

On this day Congress passes Espionage Act

Jun 15, 1917

Roger Baldwin<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Roger Baldwin founds the National Civil Liberties Bureau, precursor to American Civil Liberties Union

Oct 1, 1917

As founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, Roger Nash Baldwin shaped the modern understanding of individual rights and freedom of speech.

In 1917, Baldwin and other social activists established the National Civil Liberties Bureau, forerunner of the ACLU, to support the Bill of Rights.

Led by Baldwin, ACLU lawyers, beginning in the 1920s, used First Amendment cases to reshape constitutional law. They halted censorship of James Joyce’s Ulysses. They challenged Tennessee’s law against teaching evolution in the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” and participated in the trials of the Scottsboro Boys, and Sacco and Vanzetti. They fought for free speech for Ku Klux Klansmen and communists, even after Baldwin - who once supported Soviet communism - changed his thinking and banned sympathizers from the ACLU board.

On this day Congress passes Sedition Act to suppress wartime dissent

May 16, 1918

On this day Supreme Court, in Hammer v. Dagenhart, declares federal Child Labor Act unconstitutional invasion of states’ rights

Jun 3, 1918

Irving Berlin<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

An immigrant songwriter has America singing

Aug 19, 1918

Ever since he wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Irving Berlin has been the country’s hottest popular composer.

Now the songwriter is a sergeant. Berlin, whose family came to America to escape anti-Jewish violence in Russia, became a citizen in February…and was drafted in March.

He and 300 soldiers opened a musical spoof of Army life on Broadway tonight to a sold-out house. But one patriotic number he’d written didn’t make Berlin’s final cut. Too solemn, he said.

Friday, November 11, 1938

To celebrate Armistice Day, Berlin dusted off that long-forgotten song for Kate Smith’s weekly radio show. She sang it for the first time last night, and it’s a hit.

It’s called “God Bless America.”

Map: States grant women the right to vote

Jan 1, 1919

While seeking to amend the U.S. Constitution, the women’s suffrage movement also waged a state-by-state campaign. The territory of Wyoming was the first to give women the vote in 1869. Other western states and territories followed.

States granting women the right to vote prior to the 19th Amendment:

Wyoming 1890
Colorado 1893
Utah 1896
Idaho 1896
Washington 1910
California 1911
Arizona 1912
Kansas 1912
Oregon 1912
Montana 1914
Nevada 1914
New York 1917
Michigan 1918
Oklahoma 1918
South Dakota 1918
Full Voting Rights before 19th Amendment and before statehood

Territory of Wyoming 1869
Territory of Utah 1870
Territory of Washington 1883
Territory of Montana 1887
Territory of Alaska 1913

Could vote for President prior to the 19th Amendment

Illinois 1913
Nebraska 1917
Ohio 1917
Indiana 1917
North Dakota 1917
Rhode Island 1917
Iowa 1919
Maine 1919
Minnesota 1919
Missouri 1919
Tennessee 1919
Wisconsin 1919

Gained Voting Rights after the passage:

New Hampshire
New Jersey
West Virginia
North Carolina
South Carolina
New Mexico

U.S. Constitution<br>National Archives and Records Administration

States ratify Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the sale, manufacture and transportation of liquor

Jan 16, 1919

Passed by Congress December 18, 1917.
Ratified January 16, 1919.
Repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment, December 5, 1933.

Section 1.
After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2.
The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Women camapaign against prohibition<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

No more liquor for America’s drinkers

Jan 16, 1919

Taking their battle against alcohol from church meetings to the street, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union has been marching in big cities. They say liquor leads to drunkenness, prostitution and crime.

By 1916, 21 states had banned alcohol.
Now it looks as if the whole nation has embraced the “temperance” movement.

Today, we added a new amendment to our Constitution. It makes the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors” a federal crime.


First Amendment: Schenck v. U.S. adopts “clear and present danger” test

Mar 3, 1919

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

First Amendment: Court grapples with issues of free speech in a democratic society

Nov 10, 1919

“Congress certainly cannot forbid all effort to change the mind of the country.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
Dissent in Abrams v. United States

The Supreme Court just rejected the appeals of four “long-haired anarchists” jailed for printing leaflets urging workers to strike in support of the Russian Revolution.

Their propaganda, said the majority, might have caused “riots and…revolution.” The authors are responsible for what could have happened because of their words.

Justices Holmes and Brandeis dissented, arguing for a much tougher standard before letting the government restrict speech. Free speech, says Holmes, creates a marketplace of ideas. We shouldn’t suppress a message unless there’s an immediate danger it will lead to a criminal act.

There’s no “clear and imminent danger” here, he says, calling the leaflets “silly.”


First Amendment: Palmer raids launched against radical organizations

Dec 21, 1919

Map: Immigration to the United States 1880-1920

Jan 1, 1920

Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

In the last 40 years, from 1880 to 1920, more than 20 million people have come to America.

A. Mitchell Palmer<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Thousands rounded up in raids provoked by the “Red Scare”

May 31, 1920

After a wave of bombings aimed at public officials, Attorney General Palmer and his young colleague J. Edgar Hoover ordered a series of sweeping arrests.

More than 5,000 suspected Communists and anarchists, many of them aliens, were rounded up in raids, often without arrest warrants. Many were beaten and detained; 556 were deported.

At first people applauded Palmer’s actions; the Communist Revolution in Russia has stirred fears here at home.

But a growing number of critics, in Congress and the country, accuse Palmer of setting aside freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. A newly formed group, the American Civil Liberties Union, is saying it’s Palmer’s “illegal” activities that are the real threat to America.

U.S. Constitution<br>National Archives and Records Administration

States ratify Nineteenth Amendment, granting women suffrage throughout America

Aug 18, 1920

Passed by Congress June 4, 1919.
Ratified August 18, 1920.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Susan B. Anthony<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Women win the right to vote!

Aug 18, 1920

There’s jubilation in Tennessee, the final battleground for women who’ve been seeking the vote.

After Congress passed the 19th Amendment, the states still had to approve it. This summer, all eyes turned to Tennessee. Crowds jammed the Legislature: would the amendment make it?

As the “no” votes piled up, supporters watched in despair. Then 24-year-old Harry Burn, the youngest member, abruptly changed his vote to “yes.” The floor erupted in pandemonium as women in the gallery embraced and wept for joy.

Asked why he changed his mind, Harry said his ailing mother sent a letter telling him “to be a good boy” and vote for suffrage.

Leaders like Susan B. Anthony did not live to see this day. But their sisters will vote in November’s election in every state.

After 133 years, “We, the People” includes women at last.


On this day Warren G. Harding inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1921

Harding is one of the least-regarded presidents in United States’ history. In regular surveys of historians, Harding has ranked at or near the bottom of presidential rankings. In Arthur Schlesinger’s first survey of historians in 1948, Harding was ranked as the 29th worst president out of 29 men in the listing. In 2015, Harding was ranked 42nd out of 43 presidents in a survey of political scientists.

On the official White House website, Harding gets some praise in the overall description of his brief time in Washington. “Though his term in office was fraught with scandal, including Teapot Dome, Harding embraced technology and was sensitive to the plights of minorities and women,” reads his official biography. Harding also nominated William Howard Taft to the Supreme Court, and the economy was in a recovery when the president unexpectedly died.

On this day Following Harding’s death, Calvin Coolidge becomes president

Aug 2, 1923

Alice Paul and others at the Metropolitan Opera House<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

14th Amendment: Equal Rights Amendment is introduced in Congress

Dec 10, 1923

“We shall not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of our government.”
– Alice Paul

If the states ratify it, the Equal Rights Amendment introduced today in Congress would require government to treat men and women with exact equality.

Winning the vote three years ago was a big step. Yet women are still not full citizens. Many states still prohibit women from serving on juries, and differences continue in married women’s rights to control property and make contracts.

Alice Paul, who wrote the ERA and helped found the National Women’s Party which backs it, says the only remedy is to amend the Constitution again.

Immigrants at Ellis Island<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

We welcome some immigrants, but shut the door on most

May 26, 1924

No more Asians, and far fewer Italian and Polish immigrants: that’s the effect of the law Congress just passed, overwhelmingly. For English, German and Scandinavian immigrants, our door remains open much wider.


Clearly, many Americans are uncomfortable living alongside immigrants who don’t look or worship as they do, or whose politics they think threaten “domestic tranquility.”


Such fears have attracted millions of members to a new Klu Klux Klan, which espouses not only white supremacy but also hatred of “foreigners,” Catholics and Jews.


14th Amendment: Supreme Court applies Bill of Rights to states in Gitlow v. New York

Jun 8, 1925

Prior to 1925, provisions in the Bill of Rights were not always guaranteed on the local level and usually applied only to the federal government. Gitlow illustrated one of the Court’s earliest attempts at incorporation, that is, the process by which provisions in the Bill of Rights has been applied to the states.

A socialist named Benjamin Gitlow printed an article advocating the forceful overthrow of government and was arrested pursuant to New York state law. Gitlow argued that the First Amendment guaranteed freedom of speech and the press.

On appeal, the Supreme Court expressed that the First Amendment applied to New York through the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. However, the Court ultimately ruled that Gitlow’s speech was not protected under the First Amendment by applying the “clear and present danger” test. The Court’s ruling was the first of many instances of incorporating the Bill of Rights.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

The controversial “monkey trial” raises issues that won’t go away

Jul 21, 1925

All of us listening by radio already know. Biology teacher John Scopes has been convicted of violating the Tennessee law that forbids teaching any story of mankind’s creation except the one in the Bible.

What a spectacle the trial proved to be. Outside the courtroom vendors hawked toy monkeys. Those inside heard dramatic speeches by opposing attorneys Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.

Public schools have no right to teach godless ideas that could undermine children’s faith, thundered Bryan. The government has no right to tell teachers what to teach, shot back Darrow.

Important First Amendment principles are at stake. Today’s verdict won’t end the debate. Nor is it likely to ease the tension that arises each time old and new ideas tug the Constitution in different directions.

On this day Democrats nominate Catholic New York governor Al Smith for president on anti-Prohibition platform

Jun 29, 1928



We meet crisis in the Depression, and again in World War II

We meet crisis in the Depression, and again in World War II

The 1929 stock market crash and the Depression that followed changed the relationship between citizens and their government. Americans looked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to save the nation from economic disaster. Roosevelt responded with the New Deal, which used the powers of the federal government as never before to create jobs and regulate the economy. The American people backed the New Deal, but not everyone agreed with FDR’s approach. Critics charged that New Deal programs interfered with property rights and invaded the jurisdiction of the states, raising questions that echo today. The Supreme Court initially rejected key New Deal programs, but eventually upheld its sweeping changes in government. Then came another crisis – World War II and an enemy who threatened the liberties America stood for. Though the war overseas was fought for freedom, fears at home led the government to deprive more than 100,000 Japanese Americans of their liberty and property. When the fighting ended in 1945, freedom had been preserved for many people around the world, and the groundwork was established for future civil rights struggles at home.

Joseph Bradley<br>

11th Amendment: Hans v. Louisiana changes state lawsuit immunity

Mar 3, 1890

A dispute in Louisiana is settled by the Supreme Court and further narrows the ability of people to take states to court in lawsuits.

“A State cannot, without its consent, be sued in a Circuit Court for the United States by one of its own citizens upon a suggestion that the case is one that arises under the Constitution and laws of the United States,” said Justice Joseph P. Bradley for a unanimous court.

The Hans decision closed one issue left open from the Court’s controversial Chisholm v. Georgia decision from 1793 and the 11th Amendment’s attempt to redefine the concept of state immunity from certain lawsuits. State residents were now blocked from suing their own state in the federal court system.

More than 100 years later, the Court would address a second open question, when it said in Alden v. Maine (1999) that Congress can’t force a state to accept a lawsuit within its own legal system against it. This concept of state immunity didn’t apply when Congress needed to take action under the 14th Amendment to uphold civil rights.


On this day “Star Spangled Banner” becomes official national anthem

Mar 3, 1931

With its lyrical repetition of the phrase “Star-Spangled Banner,” Key’s song became synonymous with the flag through the 1820s and 1830s. A series of wars—the Mexican-American War (1846–48), U.S. Civil War (1860–65), and Spanish-American War (1898)—sanctified flag and song through the blood sacrifice for the defense of national sovereignty. By the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, “The Star-Spangled Banner” had even become the official “national anthem” for the U.S. Army and Navy.

Apple sellers on street<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The Depression hits hard, but Hoover’s against federal relief

Oct 29, 1931

“This campaign is a contest…between two philosophies of government.”
– Herbert Hoover

Two years ago today, our world turned upside down. Black Tuesday. The stock market crash.

President Hoover has tried everything he believes the Constitution allows—and more than any president before him—to fight the Depression. He’s sent $500 million to the states.

But he stops short of direct federal relief. That’s not the national government’s job, Hoover insists. Instead, he relies on local governments and private charities to deal with the people’s suffering.

It’s not enough.

Now people attach his name to every negative result of the Depression, like “Hoover blankets”…the newspapers the homeless use to keep warm.

A “New Deal” transforms American government

Jan 16, 1933

“I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

Washington has been a whirlwind of activity for the past hundred days, as our new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, pushes his “New Deal” to revive a devastated economy.

Taking the lead in framing laws, he’s steered 15 major new measures through Congress to:

· end the banking crisis
· aid troubled farmers and regulate crop production
· set up a national business planning board
· create new government agencies to employ a million workers planting trees, fixing roads and building hospitals, schools and dams.

Some critics, appalled at this new federal role in the economy, protest that these new bureaucracies aren’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.

But with 13 million people out of work, most of us are relieved to see the federal government take action.

U.S. Constitution<br>National Archives and Records Administration

Ratification of the Twentieth Amendment changes inauguration date of presidents from March to January

Jan 23, 1933

Passed by Congress March 2, 1932. Ratified January 23, 1933.

Note: Article I, section 4, of the Constitution was modified by section 2 of this amendment. In addition, a portion of the Twelfth Amendment was superseded by section 3.

Section 1.
The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

Section 2.
The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

Section 3.
If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.

Section 4.
The Congress may by law provide for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the House of Representatives may choose a President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a Vice President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them.

Section 5.
Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.

Section 6.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.

On this day Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated as president

Mar 4, 1933

On this day President Roosevelt delivers first of “fireside chats”

Mar 12, 1933

On this day Congress passes National Industrial Recovery Act, creating the National Recovery Administration (NRA)

May 17, 1933

On this day “Hundred Days” Congress passes its last New Deal measure

Jun 16, 1933

Man celebrating the end of prohibition<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment ends Prohibition

Dec 5, 1933

“The 18th article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.” 
— 21st Amendment

The 18th Amendment, and the National Prohibition Act that followed, were meant to create a safe, “dry” nation. Instead, we have more crime and need more police than before!

Many people just kept drinking—and breaking the law.

We’ve never repealed an amendment before, but today we passed the 21st Amendment to get rid of the 18th.

The era of Prohibition is over.

On this day Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) created

Jun 6, 1934

Charles H. Houston<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

WWI veteran and civil rights leader Charles Hamilton Houston begins five-year term as NAACP general counsel

Jan 1, 1935

Charles H. Houston (1895-1950)

He Paved A Legal Path For Civil Rights

Charles Hamilton Houston was born in Washington, D.C. He graduated with honors from Amherst College in 1915, then fought in a segregated unit of the Army in World War I. Afterwards, he studied law at Harvard University, graduating in the top of his class.

Houston joined the law school faculty at Howard University, where he taught his students that the law is a “powerful weapon” to advance the causes of the poor and victims of discrimination.

As general counsel to the NAACP from 1935 to 1940, Houston used the law to attack segregation. When he died in 1950, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, one of Houston’s students, said of his mentor, “We were just carrying his bags.”


Seventh Amendment: Supreme Court clarifies amendment’s origins

Jan 7, 1935

The Supreme Court formally declares that the Seventh Amendment is to be interpreted according to the common law of England at the time the Amendment was ratified by the states.

In Dimick v. Schiedt (1935), Justice George Sutherland says “in order to ascertain the scope and meaning of the Seventh Amendment, resort must be had to the appropriate rules of the common law established at the time of the adoption of that constitutional provision in 1791.”

Depression-era farm workers<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

It’s a bad day for the New Deal at the Supreme Court

May 27, 1935

“Tell the President that we’re not going to let this government centralize everything. It’s come to an end. As for your young men…tell them to go home, back to the states. That is where they must do their work.”
–Justice Louis Brandeis

It was three strikes against the New Deal today in the Supreme Court. The Court handed down three different unanimous decisions against FDR’s program.

The key ruling will end the National Recovery Administration. The NRA is the agency that’s been writing “codes” for hours, pay and practices in 700 different industries—including strip-tease shows (Code 348) and dog food (Code 450)!

The Justices say the NRA takes the federal government beyond interstate commerce and into territory that the Constitution reserves for the states.

And Congress can’t delegate so much of its law-making power to an executive agency, says the Court. This is “delegation running riot,” says Justice Cardozo.

On this day National Labor Relations Act is enacted, protecting workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively

Jul 5, 1935

On this day Congress passes Social Security Act, establishing pensions for persons aged 65 and older

Aug 14, 1935

On this day Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Butler, rules Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional

Jan 6, 1936

On this day Supreme Court sustains constitutionality of minimum-wage legislation in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish

Mar 29, 1937

On this day Supreme Court, in NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Co., upholds constitutionality of National Labor Relations Act

Apr 12, 1937

Roosevelt in Congress<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

A victorious FDR tries to reorganize the Court; the country says “No”

Jul 23, 1937

“This plan will save our national Constitution from hardening of the judicial arteries.”
–Franklin D. Roosevelt

President Roosevelt has made no secret of his displeasure with Supreme Court rulings against the New Deal.

But FDR surprised us all when, just weeks after being reelected by the largest popular vote in our history, he unveiled a plan to change the Court. He proposed adding one new Justice for every Justice over the age of 70. That would mean six new Justices nominated by FDR.

It was Roosevelt’s turn to be surprised when conservatives and liberals rebelled against his plan to pack the Court. People accused him of meddling with the Constitution’s separation of powers

Then, unexpectedly, the Court shifted ground, ruling in favor of a New Deal program. FDR’s reason to pack the court vanished.

Today, a scathing Senate report rejected the plan, saying nothing like it should ever again “be presented to the free representatives of the free people of America.”

On this day Justice Stone’s footnote in U.S. v. Carolene Products lays basis for court’s heightened scrutiny of laws affecting personal rights

Apr 25, 1938

On this day Fair Labor Standards Act establishes minimum wage and forty-hour workweek for many workers

Jun 25, 1938

On this day Marian Anderson, barred from singing at Constitution Hall by Daughters of the American Revolution, sings at Lincoln Memorial

Apr 9, 1939


Supreme Court requires sawed-off shotgun registration

May 15, 1939

In United States v. Miller, the Supreme Court sustained a statute requiring registration under the National Firearms Act of sawed-off shotguns.

Justice James McReynolds wrote for a unanimous Court. After reciting the original provisions of the Constitution dealing with the militia, the Court observed that “[w]ith obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted with that end in view.”

But, “n the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a ‘shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length’ at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense.”

On this day Supreme Court, in first flag-salute case, upholds constitutionality of mandatory flag salutes in public schools

Apr 25, 1940

FDR at campaign rally<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

FDR seeks an uprecedented third term…and starts a national debate

Jul 15, 1940

It’s an old tradition: presidents don’t serve more than two terms. George Washington established the custom in 1797.

But FDR has broken with the past. With war threatening, the Democrats have nominated the enormously popular Roosevelt for a third term.

Tuesday, February 27, 1951

When Roosevelt won a third term and then a fourth, we wondered: is it a good idea to have any one person—no matter how able or popular—stay in power so long? Congress put the issue to the people.

Today, we ratified the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. It says:

“No person shall be elected to the office 
of the President more than twice.”

On this day President Roosevelt defeats Wendell Wilkie, reelected to unprecedented third term

Nov 5, 1940

WPA workers<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Another New Deal win in Court: Congress can set wages and hours

Feb 3, 1941

Forty cents an hour. Forty hours a week.

Can Congress set those minimum wages and maximum hours for workers across the nation? A unanimous Supreme Court says “yes”…because the goods those workers produce might go into interstate commerce.

In today’s Darby case, the Court reversed an old decision, and an old tradition of leaving such issues up to the states. They say the 10th Amendment—long used to keep the federal government out of workplace issues—doesn’t limit federal power at all.

It’s the latest win in a string of courtroom victories for the New Deal.

Harlan Stone<br>

10th Amendment: Darby decision calls 10th Amendment a “truism”

Feb 3, 1941

A unanimous Supreme Court says the Fair Labor Standards Act is a legitimate exercise of Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce and can’t be impeded by the 10th Amendment.

In 1938, Congress passed the act to regulate many aspects of employment including minimum wages, maximum weekly hours, and child labor. Corporations which engaged in interstate commerce or produced goods which were sold in other states were held liable for violating the statute.

Chief Justice Harlan Stone said the “motive and purpose of a regulation of interstate commerce are matters for the legislative judgment . . . over which the courts are given no control.”

“It is no objection to the assertion of the power to regulate interstate commerce that its exercise is attended by the same incidents which attended the exercise of the police power of the states,” Stone concluded. “Our conclusion is unaffected by the Tenth Amendment which . . . states but a truism that all is retained which has not been surrendered.”

Map of U.S. aid routes<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

The President is claiming more power in foreign affairs

Mar 11, 1941

“We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

When Britain stood alone against Hitler’s Nazis, FDR came up with the “Lend-Lease” program to send Britain military supplies. He did it by “executive agreement,” bypassing Congress to make it happen.

But most people applauded his statesmanship, and Congress has now made it official.

Following attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. enters World War II

Dec 8, 1941

Family listening to news on the radio<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Radio brings the President into our living rooms

Feb 23, 1942

Nearly three months ago, the radio brought us news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Now that we’re at war, President Roosevelt has taken to the airwaves again, reassuring us…and asking for our help.

FDR’s radio talks give our government a human voice. As we gather around the radio in our living rooms to hear his “fireside chats,” we feel connected to our president, the one leader who represents us all. He explains government policy in simple terms, and includes us in the nation’s events.

Tonight, he tells us that we’re fighting a war for freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

He’s asking us to do our part.

On this day Benjamin O. Davis leads first all black squadron of U.S. Army Air Corps into combat

Jun 2, 1943

Children salute flag in public school<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

First Amendment: Can the government force us to salute the flag?

Jun 14, 1943

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion…”
– Justice Robert Jackson
West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette

Walter Barnette said that his children were not being disloyal when they refused to salute the flag at school. They were being true to their religious beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Supreme Court agreed, reversing a decision made three years ago. Today, on Flag Day, in the midst of war, the Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to make someone participate in patriotic activities.

The Court says that forcing anyone to salute the flag and pledge allegiance invades the “sphere of intellect and spirit” our First Amendment protects.

On this day Congress passes “G.I. Bill,” establishing programs to secure housing and education for veterans

Jun 22, 1944

Japanese relocation camps<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Fifth Amendment: “Persons of Japanese ancestry” sent to relocation camps

Dec 18, 1944

Since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, our Pacific Coast is considered a vulnerable military area.

President Roosevelt ordered more than 110,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry—including more than 70,000 born in America—to leave their homes and businesses on the West Coast. Most were moved inland to remote relocation centers.

Many people protest that this is racist and unconstitutional. But in today’s Korematsu case, the Supreme Court said it won't question the president's judgment that the relocations are a wartime necessity.

Justice Jackson vehemently disagreed. The Court, says Jackson, has “validated the principle of racial discrimination.”

This executive order, he insists, has “no place in law under the Constitution.”

Harold Raymond Medina<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Harold Raymond Medina presides over trial of eleven U.S. Communist Party leaders

Jan 1, 1945

Harold R. Medina (1888-1990)

Harold Raymond Medina twice played a role in determining how this country defined treason and conspiracy. In 1945, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a conviction for treason, the only crime described explicitly in the Constitution. Medina represented a German-born naturalized citizen convicted of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The Court reversed his conviction.

Medina became a federal judge in New York. In 1949, he presided over the trial of 11 leaders of the U.S. Communist Party charged with advocating the violent overthrow of the government. The jury found all the defendants guilty and Medina sentenced them to prison. The Supreme Court upheld the convictions, saying the government could prosecute Communist Party officials “in the face of preparation for revolution.”

Crowd celebrating Victory Day<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

War’s over! Americans celebrate across the nation

Aug 14, 1945

Horns honking! Bells ringing! Sirens wailing!
People are flooding the streets in wild celebration. The Japanese have surrendered!

We did not fight until we were attacked. But then we fought wholeheartedly to defend other nations’ liberty and ensure our own.

This war showed us at our best. American soldiers from different ethnic backgrounds fought side-by-side to defeat intolerant fascist dictators. We marshaled American might to fight for democracy.

The war also showed us our own failings. In a war for freedom, black soldiers fought in segregated units. We forced Americans of Japanese ancestry into “relocation camps.”

Now, at war’s end, American liberty takes on new meaning. FDR said, “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” More Americans are ready to ask, “Doesn’t that mean here at home, too?”


On this day Nuremberg War Crime Trials begin; military and political leaders of Nazi Germany prosecuted for crimes against humanity

Oct 18, 1945

During the trials, which began in November 1945 and concluded in October 1946, 24 German officials and party members were tried, including Hermann Goering and Martin Bormann. Of the 24 officials indicted at Nuremberg, 12 were sentenced to death; seven were sentenced to imprisonment spanning from 10 years to life; three were acquitted; and two trials never proceeded.

After World War II, the most feasible options for the Allies were to release the Nazi officials, an almost unthinkable act which would have essentially affirmed that no crimes took place; to hold the Nazi leadership accountable outside through extra-judicial means; or to create a tribunal and hold trials.



We struggle to preserve freedom in a dangerous world

We struggle to preserve freedom in a dangerous world

After World War II, America could not lay down the responsibilities it had shouldered in defense freedom. As America confronted communist aggression in Korea and elsewhere abroad, fears of communist influence at home disturbed domestic tranquility. Trying to root out security risks, politicians launched investigations into communist influence in labor unions, the media, and the government, inquiries that soon threatened civil liberties. All the while, the demands of African Americans for equal rights grew louder. In 1954, the Supreme Court sounded the death knell of legally enforced racial discrimination. In Brown v. Board of Education the Court ruled that government-enforced racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional.

On this day Secretary of State announces Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe

Jun 5, 1947

On this day Congress passes National Security Act

Jul 25, 1947

On this day Supreme Court, in Shelley v. Kraemer, rules unenforceable restrictive covenants denying blacks access to housing in white neighborhoods

May 3, 1948

In 1945, in the 39 homes on Labadie between Taylor Avenue and Cora Avenue, there lived 39 white families. Though houses turned over, as houses do, the community maintained a relatively stable sense of cohesion with little outside pressure and no national attention. And residents liked it that way.

In September of that year, when Louis and Fern Kraemer put their house up for sale, everything changed. The duplex, selling for $5,700, attracted a fair number of potential buyers, including J.D. and Ethel Shelley, a black couple who had moved from Mississippi to Missouri a few years earlier. The Shelleys spoke to Elder Robert Bishop, their pastor at the Church of God in Christ, and learned that he also worked in real estate. Bishop showed the couple the Kraemers’ Labadie Avenue property. They made an offer, and it was accepted. Bishop secured the home on behalf of the Shelleys, placing it in the name of his wife.

Unbeknownst to both the Shelleys and the Kraemers, the home was subject to a restrictive covenant dating back to 1911 that precluded the use of the property by “any person not of the Caucasian race.” According to the deed, “people of the Negro or Mongolian race” were forbidden from using or occupying the property, or contracting to purchase the property, for a period of fifty years after the original covenant had gone into effect.

New recruits at Montford Point<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Truman ends segregation in the military

Jul 26, 1948

“Discrimination and segregation in the Armed Forces…is a grave threat…to the internal stability of our nation. Segregation becomes all the more important at a time when the United States should be assuming moral leadership in the world.”
–A. Philip Randolph,
Civil Rights leader

The fight for freedom abroad has led to renewed demands by black Americans for justice at home.

President Truman wants to guarantee equal access to education, decent housing and jobs. But Congress refuses to act, and the President won’t push to pass civil rights laws.

Even so, Truman’s been using his executive authority to move ahead. Today he took the boldest step yet. Executive Order 9981, signed today, will end segregation in the armed forces.

Whittaker Chambers<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Aug 3, 1948

Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961)

He Identified Communists In Government

Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist agent, was the chief witness against Alger Hiss in the House Un-American Activities Committee’s hunt for Communist infiltrators in the federal government. From 1932 through 1938, Chambers shuttled information between his Soviet handlers and their moles in the U.S. government. Hiss, a senior State Department official, was one of those moles.

Chambers broke with the Communists in 1938 and the following year, when World War II erupted, reported his activities to the State Department.

Chambers’ accusations were not investigated until 1948. Pushed by Richard Nixon, an unknown California congressman, the House dug into reports of hidden Communists in the government. Chambers’ story came to light. Hiss, who denied it in sworn testimony, was sent to prison for perjury.

On this day North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) founded

Apr 4, 1949

On this day Communists seize control in China

Oct 1, 1949

Does the fight against Communism compromise our civil liberties?

Jan 1, 1950

After World War II fears about the spread of Communism provoked a government campaign to root out Communist influence in American life. Believing that the security of the nation was at stake, many American’s supported these efforts. Others declared the campaign a “witch hunt” that itself threatened basic American freedoms.



JOHN: In World War II, I laid my life on the line for freedom. We were attacked and we went to war and we won. Now you're going to tell me we should just sit there and do nothing while these Communists are plotting to destroy us, right here in America.

LINDA: The Soviet Union may be a powerful enemy, but a handful of Soviet sympathizers aren't going to take over the country. Remember what it was you were fighting to defend - a Constitution that protects the right of every American to say what he thinks and to think whatever he wants. You want to destroy America? Start taking away people's rights just because you disagree with them.

JOHN: When national security is at stake, there have to be limits, Linda. The Communist Party advocates the violent overthrow of our government. That is a crime, according to Congress, and the Supreme Court says they're right.

LINDA: There's something wrong when Congress makes it a crime just to say that another political system is better than ours. If it wasn't for people being free to speak out for what they believed, we'd still have slaves and I wouldn't be allowed to vote.

JOHN: This is different. They already found a Communist spy in the state department. Another one gave A-bomb secrets to the Russians. Moscow isn't afraid to say that they want to take over the world. I'm not afraid to say they can't have it.

LINDA: If someone is acting to overthrow the government, then charge him, try him and convict him. But we can't make dissent illegal. You're acting like anyone who criticizes our government is a Communist spy.

JOHN: Dissent is one thing, but subversion is another. These Communists will use anything against us, even our own Constitution - look how they're all so happy to use the Fifth Amendment so they don't have to admit they're Communists.

LINDA: The Fifth Amendment says that you don't have to say anything that can be used against you in court, and if it wasn’t a crime just belonging to the Communist Party - if they didn't have to fear losing their jobs and livelihoods because they hold different beliefs than most of us - they wouldn't have to take the Fifth.

JOHN: Which side are you on?

LINDA: The benefits of free thought far outweigh the dangers. Why do you think the First Amendment protecting free expression comes first? Because the rest of the Bill of Rights is worthless without it.

JOHN: It's our Constitution, not the Communists'.

LINDA: It's everyone's Constitution, and it should protect everyone's rights, including the right to hold “subversive” beliefs, like that one from 1776 about the government deriving from the will of the People. Remember whose country was born in a revolution that changed the world…

JOHN: You're starting to sound like one of them.

LINDA: Are you kidding? They couldn't even have this conversation in Moscow.

JOHN: That's my point.

The world and its governments have changed greatly since 1787

Feb 8, 1950

On this day Senator Joseph McCarthy begins investigations of Communists and Communist sympathizers in government

Feb 9, 1950

On this day Without securing formal congressional approval, President Truman sends U.S. troops to Korea as part of United Nations “police action”

Jun 27, 1950

<br>National Archives and Records Administration

Ratification of 22nd Amendment limits presidents to two terms

Feb 27, 1951

Passed by Congress March 21, 1947. Ratified February 27, 1951.

Section 1.
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

Section 2.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.

General Douglas MacArthur<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Truman fires MacArthur, reasserts civilian control of the military

Apr 11, 1951

“General MacArthur was insubordinate and I fired him. That’s all there was to it.”
–Harry S. Truman

Today, President Truman fired General MacArthur, our top field commander.

To millions of us, MacArthur’s a hero. Last year, when Communist troops overran most of South Korea, his bold tactics helped us push them back nearly all the way to China.

But MacArthur didn’t stop there. He sought war with China, and criticized Truman for seeking a cease-fire.

Truman did what he had to. Our military can have only one Commander in Chief; our Constitution says that’s the civilian president we elect.

Supreme Court, in Dennis v. U.S., sustains leading communists’ convictions under Smith Act of 1940

Jun 4, 1951

On this day President Truman seizes control of steel industry to avert strike during Korean War

Apr 8, 1952

President Harry S. Truman<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Truman says, “Seize the mills.” The Court says “No!”

Jun 2, 1952

“The President has the power to keep the country from going to hell.”
–Harry S. Truman

When the Korean conflict began nearly two years ago, critics complained that President Truman had overstepped his authority as president. Only Congress can declare war, they said. The President had ordered troops into battle without asking Congress.

Congress did come around to supporting Truman’s policy in Korea, but now the limits of presidential power are being tested again.

The President says we face a crisis: a nationwide steel strike that could cripple our military efforts. To avert a strike, he’s ordered the government to seize the mills and keep them running.

Presidents often exercise emergency powers in times of war. But today the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Truman has gone too far.

The Constitution doesn't give the President power to seize private property, even as Commander in Chief. Without authority from Congress, the Court said, his order “cannot stand.”

On this day Dwight D. Eisenhower inaugurated as president

Feb 20, 1953

On this day Korean War ends

Feb 27, 1953

On this day Earl Warren becomes Chief Justice of the U.S.

Oct 5, 1953

Lunchcounter protest in North Carolina<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

14th Amendment: Supreme Court rules – in schools, separate is not equal

May 17, 1954

“The most gratifying thing…is the unanimous decision and the language used—once and for all it’s decided completely.”
–Thurgood Marshall

It is impossible to mention victories of the Civil Rights Movement without pointing to Brown v. Board of Education. Following the Court’s ruling in 1896 of Plessy v. Ferguson, segregation of public schools based solely on race was allowed by states if the facilities were “equal.” 

Brown overturned that decision. Regardless of the “equality” of facilities, the Court ruled that separate is inherently unequal. Thus public school segregation based on race was found in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Strom Thurmond becomes first Senator ever elected on write-in

Nov 2, 1954

Strom Thurmond (1902 – 2003)

He Served In The Senate To Age 100

Strom Thurmond was a powerful symbol of southern politics for five decades. He ran for President against Harry Truman in 1948 as a Dixiecrat, a splinter group of southern Democrats opposed to the civil rights planks in the Democratic Party platform. Defending segregation on the principle of states’ rights, Thurmond won four southern states and broke the Democrats’ grip on the South.

Thurmond won a write-in campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1954. He retired from the Senate at age 100 in 2002, after 48 years in office – the oldest and longest-serving senator ever.

Thurmond’s segregationist past remained a lightning rod for controversy even beyond his death in 2003.

Mother and son watching Senator Joseph McCarthy on television<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

The Senate condemns McCarthy and defends free speech

Dec 2, 1954

“We are alive to the danger Communism holds for our way of life. But we want to make the fight against it…according to the principles…in our Constitution.”
–Senator Herbert Lehman

We’ve been glued to our TV sets for three months, mesmerized by the sight of Senator Joseph McCarthy trying to bully the nation’s military leaders. After accusing the State Department and other federal agencies of being “infested with Communists,” McCarthy has turned on the Army.

He’s grown so powerful, people have been afraid to speak. McCarthy’s charges have destroyed public careers. But for all his accusations, he hasn’t produced proof that any federal employee is a Communist.

Even those concerned about Communism here see this “witch hunt” as a threat to free speech, freedom of association, and the rule of law—the very freedoms at stake in this Cold War.

After five years, the Senate’s had enough. Today it condemned McCarthy, censuring him for conduct unbecoming of a senator.

Even in troubled times, free speech finds its champions.



We demand liberty and justice for all

We demand liberty and justice for all

Led by people such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s fought discrimination with non-violent determination, at lunch counters and colleges, on buses and at businesses. The decisions of the Warren Court played a key role in that movement, but it took congressional will and such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to break down legally sanctioned racial discrimination. That success inspired women and other groups to demand equal opportunity. Growing awareness of inequality also led the Warren Court to dramatically alter the constitutional landscape in other areas. It imposed the rule of “one person, one vote” and greatly expanded the reach of the Bill of Rights. In the process, the Court stirred controversy. When it issued its famous Miranda ruling protecting the rights of criminal suspects, critics said it went too far, coddling criminals at the expense of law and order.

Rosa Parks sits in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

14th Amendment: Rosa Parks changes constitutional history

Dec 5, 1955

In 1955, Rosa Parks did just that. Defying racist Jim Crow laws, she refused to give up her seat to a white bus rider, spurring a civil rights movement that is growing stronger.

On this day Eisenhower enforces federal-court desegregation order, sending federal troops to Little Rock, AR, to escort 9 black children to school

Sep 24, 1957

On this day John F. Kennedy inaugurated as president

Jan 20, 1961

<br>National Archives and Records Administration

Ratification of 23rd Amendment extends voting rights in presidential elections to District of Columbia residents

Mar 29, 1961

Passed by Congress June 16, 1960. Ratified March 29, 1961.

Section 1.
The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as Congress may direct:

A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.

Section 2.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Fourtheenth Amendment<br>National Archives and Records Administration

Fourth Amendment: Evidence from an illegal search can’t be used in state courts

Jun 19, 1961

“Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws.”
–Justice Tom Clark
Mapp v. Ohio

What happens when the police obtain evidence from an illegal search or seizure? Before the Court’s decision in Mapp, the evidence could still be collected, but the police would be censured. Police had received a tip that a bombing suspect might be located at Dollree Mapp’s home in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. When police asked to search her home, Mapp refused unless the police produced a warrant. The police used a piece of paper as a fake warrant and gained access to her home illegally. After searching the house without finding the bombing suspect, police discovered sexually explicit materials and arrested Mapp pursuant to state law that prohibited the possession of obscene materials. Mapp was convicted of possessing obscene materials and faced up to seven years in prison before she appealed her case on the argument that she had a First Amendment right to possess the material. The Court held that evidence collected from an unlawful search—as this search obviously had been—from be excluded from trial. Justice Clark’s majority opinion incorporated the Fourth Amendment’s protection of privacy using the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, a very controversial move.

On this day Astronaut John Glenn becomes first American to orbit Earth

Feb 20, 1962

On this day Supreme Court declares that federal courts can decide reapportionment cases in Baker v. Carr

Mar 26, 1962

In Baker, the Supreme Court established the reigning precedent for what counts as a “political question.” The decision and the Court’s interpretation of the political question doctrine has greatly impacted constitutional law and voting rights over the past 50 years.

Children praying in school<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

First Amendment: Supreme Court bans New York State school prayer

Jun 26, 1962

“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country.”
–New York State school prayer

Freedom of religion is back in the news. And yesterday’s Supreme Court decision has met with a firestorm of protest.

In Engel v. Vitale, New York State school officials argued that the prayer schoolchildren must say each morning is nondenominational; it doesn’t attempt to “establish or endorse” a religion, and children can opt out of it.

Twenty-two states supported New York, but the Court didn’t. Ruling against the school district, it says that a school-written or teacher-led prayer is contrary to the First Amendment ban against the establishment of religion.

Faith, says the Court, is “too personal, too sacred, too holy” for the government to impose.

On this day Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique

Feb 19, 1963


Sixth Amendment: Gideon v. Wainwright says lawyers must be provided

Mar 18, 1963

March on Washington brings more than 200,000 people to capital; Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers “I have a dream” speech

Aug 28, 1963

Lyndon Baines Johnson taking presidential oath<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Kennedy assassinated; Johnson assumes the presidency

Nov 22, 1963

We’re devastated by the assassination. Even in this terrible situation, the Constitution provides an orderly succession of power. A somber Vice President Johnson becomes president on Air Force One.

<br>National Archives and Records Administration

States ratify 24th Amendment, prohibiting poll taxes in federal elections

Jan 23, 1964

Passed by Congress August 27, 1962. Ratified January 23, 1964.

Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax.

Section 2.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Martin Luther King, Jr.<br>National Archieves and Records Administration

Years of struggle lead to a powerful new civil rights law

Jul 2, 1964

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…We have come to cash this check.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s been nearly 100 years since we amended the Constitution to guarantee equal protection to all.

Yet until now, this basic right was more a promise than a reality for black Americans.

Tonight, with Martin Luther King, Jr. looking on, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. After years of protest, black Americans have the full power of federal law behind their struggle to end discrimination.

The Act uses Congress’s power over interstate commerce to force businesses to treat African Americans equally.

No longer can they be denied hotel rooms, access to restrooms, or seats in the front of a bus. No longer can federal funds support discriminatory programs. No longer can employers refuse to hire based on race.

And the law gives the government new tools to enforce the Brown decision desegregating the schools.

“We shall overcome, someday,” promises the song.

Is today that day?

Elderly African American woman exiting voting booth<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

14th Amendment: “One Person, one vote” redraws America’s political landscape

Jul 15, 1964

“Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.”
–Chief Justice Earl Warren
Reynolds v. Sims

Think we all have an equal voice in choosing our state representatives? Think again. The truth is, some people’s votes count more than others. In states across the nation, from Vermont to California, powerful rural districts have more state legislators than their sparse populations justify.

Two years ago, one Alabama representative’s district contained more than 600,000 people, while another’s held just 15,417.

After last month's Supreme Court decisions, Alabama and every other state, must ensure that each legislator represents roughly the same number of people. That, says the Court, is what the 14th Amendment–which guarantees “equal protection” to all citizens–requires.

Complying will cause massive upheaval. Most, if not all, states must redraw their voting districts. But once the dust settles, we’ll be a lot closer to the kind of democracy many people thought we already had.

On this day Congress passes Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, allowing the President to take “all necessary steps” to protect U.S. forces in Southeast Asia

Aug 7, 1964

Supreme Court sustains constitutionality of 1964 Civil Rights Act in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S.

Dec 14, 1964

Reverend Billy Graham<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Rev. Billy Graham participates in first of eight presidential inaugurations

Jan 20, 1965

Billy Graham (1918- )

He’s Been Called “America’s Pastor”

William Franklin Graham, Jr., grew up in a Reform Presbyterian household near Charlotte, North Carolina. After high school, he worked briefly as a Fuller Brush salesman, but soon enrolled in a series of fundamentalist Christian colleges. His subsequent career as a minister made his name a household word around the world.

A string of Presidents from both parties, beginning with President Eisenhower, relied on Graham as an informal advisor. President George Bush called him “America’s Pastor.” Graham angered some fundamentalist Christians by refusing to endorse their political program, saying “I don’t think Jesus or the Apostles took sides in the political arenas of their day.” Graham’s career has helped to frame the ongoing debate about the role religion should play in public life.


On this day Selma-Montgomery March increases pressure for national legislation to secure voting rights

Mar 7, 1965

Civil rights activists were attacked by Alabama police fought near a bridge in Selma, Alabama, in a moment that shocked a nation and helped lead to the Voting Rights Act. Today, the images are still shocking and the debate over voting rights remains unsettled. A crowd of about 525 people gathered near the Edmund Pettus Bridge to start a 45-mile march to Montgomery, Alabama, to raise awareness about the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Jackson was shot three weeks earlier by an Alabama state trooper as he was protecting his mother during voter registration march.

Viola Liuzzo with her children<br>

Viola Liuzzo shot and killed after taking part in Selma march

Mar 25, 1965

Viola Liuzzo (1925-1965)

She Died Fighting For Civil Rights

Viola Fauver Liuzzo belonged to the NAACP at the height of the civil rights movement. In 1965, she marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest discrimination. Afterwards, Liuzzo and her black co-worker, Leroy Merton, drove marchers to the airport. On one trip, they were spotted by four Ku Klux Klansmen who guessed that a white woman and a black man traveling together were civil rights activists. The Klansmen followed the pair and shot them. Liuzzo died instantly. Merton survived.

The Klansmen were arrested, tried, and acquitted by an all-white Alabama jury. President Johnson ordered them re-tried under federal law, for conspiring to deprive Liuzzo of her civil rights. They were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.


14th Amendment: Court declares a constitutional right to marital privacy

Jun 7, 1965

You know when you’re walking down the street at night with lights in front of you and behind you, and you get that really dark shadow? In the scientific community, that shadow is known as an “umbra.” Flanking that dark shadow on the ground are two or more, half-shadows, not quite as dark, but darker than the well-lit sidewalk around you. Those shadows are known as “penumbras” and were used to explain the most controversial issue of arguably the most controversial Supreme Court case in the 20th century.

Estelle Griswold was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Connecticut when she was arrested for violating a state statute that prohibited counseling and prescription of birth control to married couples. The question before the Supreme Court was whether the Constitution protected the right of married couples to privately engage in counseling regarding contraceptive use and procurement.

Justice William O. Douglas articulated that although not explicit, the penumbras of the Bill of Rights contained a fundamental “right to privacy” that was protected by the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Griswold’s “right to privacy” has been applied to many other controversial decisions such as Eisenstadt and Roe v. Wade. It remains at the core of substantive due process debate today.

President Lyndon Johns and Martin Luther King, Jr.<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

A new law puts federal muscle behind black voting rights

Aug 6, 1965

“We must have our freedom now. We must have the right to vote. We must have equal protection of the law.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fewer than 20% of Alabama’s eligible black citizens are registered to vote. In Mississippi, just 6%.

The Voting Rights Act—signed today by President Johnson—should raise those numbers. It lets federal workers oversee registration of voters wherever there has been discrimination.

As with 1964’s Civil Rights Act, peaceful protests led by activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., deserve much of the credit.

Hopes are that the new law, backed by the authority of the Constitution, will end a century of voting discrimination.


15th Amendment: Johnson signs Voting Rights Act

Aug 6, 1965

On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act, a centerpiece of the civil rights movement that is still the subject of debate.

The Voting Rights Act’s origins were in the 15th Amendment’s ratification in 1870.  However, Reconstruction’s end in 1877 lead to an era where mostly former Confederate states used violence, intimidation, legal maneuvers and poll taxes to keep African-Americans away from the polls.

By the 1940s, a series of court decisions and Congressional acts started to wear down these tactics. In 1962, the Supreme Court decided in Baker v. Carr that the federal courts could intervene in state voter reapportionment cases.  And in Reynolds v. Sims, the Court upheld the idea of one person, one vote, and equal representation in state legislatures based on population.

Then on March 7, 1965, civil rights activists were attacked by Alabama police near a bridge in Selma, Alabama, in a moment that shocked a nation and helped lead to the Voting Rights Act.  When President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, the act contained language similar to the 15th Amendment and requirements that areas of the country that had a history of discrimination receive pre-clearance of any voting-procedure changes from the federal government.

The act has been renewed several times by Congress since 1975. However, the 2013 Supreme Court decision of Shelby County v. Holder eliminated a critical part of the act’s pre-clearance formula for regions

John Lewis<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

A hero of the civil rights movement takes his place in Congress

Aug 6, 1965

At the White House this morning, President Johnson honored 25-year-old activist John Lewis by giving him a pen used to sign the Voting Rights Act.

Born the son of sharecroppers, Lewis organized “freedom rides” and led voter registration drives in the South.

He helped lead the Selma-to-Montgomery march, during which protestors were brutally attacked by state troopers. Lewis was beaten, kicked, spat on and jailed on that “Bloody Sunday.”

The march—and attack—spurred this new law.

Saturday, January 7, 1987

Georgia’s voters just elected a new representative.

Activist John Lewis—who endured 40 arrests and countless beatings—is now Congressman John Lewis.

First Amendment: Does the First Amendment protect obscenity?

Jan 1, 1966

The Supreme Court has never interpreted freedom of speech to include obscenity, which is generally considered to fall outside the protection of the First Amendment. But the debate over what constitutes obscenity and how it should be regulated has long troubled Americans.


LINDA: Obscenity isn't just offensive. It can be dangerous, especially to women. Pornography threatens women and children, with who-knows-what monster lurking out there on the streets. If the government were doing its job to protect its citizens, then pornography would be against the law.

JOHN: The first amendment protects the right to all expression, whether or not you happen to like what other people have to say.

LINDA: Oh, come on. Everyone knows the difference between pornography and free expression.

JOHN: Well if it’s so obvious why do we need the Supreme Court to sort these cases out?

LINDA: Because of people like you who start crying about the First Amendment whenever some two-bit pornographer gets shut down! The First Amendment was designed to protect the freedom to express political views and opinions. Pornography has nothing to do with the First Amendment.

JOHN: It is a form of expression, and in this country we protect all kinds of expression, even when we don’t like what’s being expressed. Because what we are really protecting isn't words or images…it's freedom!

LINDA: Come on, you know there are all sorts of things we're not allowed to do or say. The Supreme Court says plainly that obscene material doesn't get First Amendment protection.

JOHN: But what's “obscene”? The Court doesn't really say what makes something obscene.

LINDA: Pornography degrades women, encourages violence against women, exploits the weakest members of society and puts children in danger. Am I getting close?

JOHN: Look, there are plenty of books out there that demean women - even “great works of literature.” What about movies and TV shows that glamorize guns and violence? Or comedians who use foul language. Where do you draw the line?

LINDA: There have always been obscenity laws in America. You don't really have to define it. The government should just draw the line where good sense says you should draw the line.

JOHN: Well, I guess I'm just a lot more comfortable with the people using their own good sense than I am with the government trying to be everybody's conscience.

African American man registering to vote<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

We eliminate the “poll tax,” a last vestige of Jim Crow

Mar 24, 1966

$1.50—the price of Virginia’s poll tax—is not much money anymore.

But poll taxes like Virginia’s, first imposed in the 1890s, still discourage thousands of poor and uneducated people from exercising the fundamental democratic right to vote.

Two years ago, the 24th Amendment barred the poll tax in federal elections.

Today, in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, the Supreme Court finished the job. The Court has stopped states and local districts from imposing a poll tax in any election.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Chief Justice Earl Warren puts his mark on the Court and the country

Mar 31, 1966

“Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile I caught hell for.”
—Chief Justice Earl Warren

Earl Warren celebrated his 75th birthday this month, saluted by newspaper editorials calling him the greatest Chief Justice since John Marshall.

Just seven months after he joined the Court in 1953, Warren wrote the Brown opinion that ended school segregation. That was the first in a long line of important—and controversial—decisions.

The Warren Court has elevated the principle of “one person, one vote.” It has dramatically expanded civil liberties like freedom of speech, religion and the press. And it has guarded the rights of criminal defendants.

“Was it fair?” Warren often asks.

His critics accuse Warren of reading his own views into the Constitution rather than sticking to the Framers' intent. Angry billboards reading “Impeach Earl Warren” have cropped up across the country.

Agree with him or not, Earl Warren is leaving his imprint on the Constitution.

Photocopy of Miranda warning<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Fifth Amendment: “You have the right to remain silent…”

Jun 13, 1966

In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court requires that criminal suspects be informed of their rights before being questioned by police.

The Miranda ruling protects the accused, ensuring that suspects will know their rights. Some fear it’s a loophole that can let criminals go free: if the warning is not given properly, a defendant's confession can be thrown out.

<br>National Archives and Records Administration

States ratify Twenty-fifth Amendment, modifying presidential succession

Feb 10, 1967

Passed by Congress July 6, 1965. Ratified February 10, 1967.

Note: Article II, section 1, of the Constitution was affected by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.

Section 1.
In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.

Section 2.
Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.

Section 3.
Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

Section 4.
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.


14th Amendment: Court strikes down prohibitions against interracial marriage

Jun 12, 1967

By 1967, 16 states had still not repealed their anti-miscegenation laws that forbid interracial marriages. Mildred and Richard Loving were residents of one such state, Virginia, who had fallen in love and wanted to get married. Under Virginia’s laws, however, Richard, a white man, could not marry Mildred, a woman of African-American and Native American descent. The two travelled to Washington D.C. where they could be married, but they were arrested state law which prohibited inter-racial marriage. Because their offense was a criminal conviction, after being found guilty, they were given a prison sentence of one year. The trial judge suspended the sentence for 25 years on the condition that the couple leave Virginia.

On Appeal, the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia ruled that the state had an interest in preserving the “racial integrity” of its constituents and that because the punishment applied equally to both races, the statute did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The United States Supreme Court in a unanimous decision reversed the Virginia Court’s ruling and held that the Equal Protection Clause required strict scrutiny to apply to all race based classifications. Furthermore, the Court concluded that the law was rooted in invidious racial discrimination, making it impossible to satisfy a compelling government interest. The Loving decision still stands as a milestone in the Civil Rights Movement.


On this day Thurgood Marshall becomes first African-American justice on Supreme Court

Oct 2, 1967

The Senate confirmed Marshall as the first African-American to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. He was confirmed in a 69-11 floor vote to join the Court. Marshall had won approval in two past Senate votes when Marshall was confirmed as a federal judge in the Kennedy administration and then as Solicitor General for President Lyndon Johnson. Marshall’s confirmation hearing met with some resistance from Southern Senators who were concerned about his liberal track record. 

On the Court, Marshall was a member of the bench’s liberal wing. He argued against the death penalty in two significant decisions, Furman v. Georgia and Gregg v. Georgia. Marshall served 24 years on the Court before retiring in 1991.

Marshall said in June 1991 it was his health and not dissatisfaction with the Court’s conservatives that led to his retirement. At a press conference, a reporter asked Marshall how he wanted to be remembered. His response: as a person who “he did what he could with what he had.”

On this day Cesar Chavez announces worldwide boycott of California grapes in support of farm workers

Mar 24, 1968

Women's suffrage program<br>Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

We’re a nation that speaks its mind - and always have been

Mar 24, 1968

America has a long tradition of popular protest and nonviolent civil disobedience.

American revolutionaries used tax and tea boycotts to mobilize colonists against the British.

Henry David Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience, was jailed in 1846 for his refusal to pay taxes in protest of the Mexican war.

The women’s suffrage movement used silent vigils, mass demonstrations and hunger strikes in its struggle for the vote.

More recently, leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez have been using nonviolent tactics to achieve their goals.

In fact, today Chavez announced a worldwide boycott of California grapes to force growers to provide better wages and conditions for farm workers.

A long tradition continues.


On this day Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated, setting off wave of urban rioting

Apr 4, 1968

King was shot while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. One shot was heard coming from another location. King was rushed to a hospital and died an hour later.

A young colleague, Jesse Jackson, had been below King’s balcony speaking with him when the civil rights leader was shot.

As word spread about King’s death, protests started nationwide that included outbreaks of violence, resulting in more than 40 deaths. President Lyndon Johnson ordered a national day of mourning on April 7. Two days later, King’s funeral in Atlanta had more than 100,000 mourners.

In July 1968, a fugitive, James Earl Ray, was extradited from Great Britain to stand trial for the killing. Ray agreed to a controversial plea bargain, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison, where he died in 1998.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black<br>Image Courtesy of Harris & Ewing

Now most of the Bill of Rights applies to the states, too

May 20, 1968

“The great object of the [14th] Amendment is ...to restrain the power of the States and compel them at all times to respect these great fundamental guarantees.”
–Justice Hugo Black
Duncan v. Louisiana

In 1966, a Louisiana teenager charged with battery requested a jury trial. The state turned him down and sentenced him to 60 days. But the Supreme Court today overturned his conviction, saying it violates the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a trial by jury.

When the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, it applied only to the federal government. In recent decades, the Court has been ruling that states, too, must respect most of these protections.

Why? Because the 14th Amendment forbids states from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Certain rights are so fundamental, the Court says, that they’re “incorporated” in the amendment’s guarantee of due process.

The Bill of Rights has been called the “cornerstone of our liberties.” Today’s decision further extends the reach of its protection.


On this day Richard M. Nixon inaugurated as president

Jan 20, 1969

Defeats in the presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy and the 1962 Californian governor’s race led many political observers to predict Nixon’s career was over. Within six years, he was President after winning a hard-fought campaign in 1968.

His political career ended in August 1974, with his historic resignation during the Watergate scandal.



We wrestle with our democratic freedoms, arguing issues old and new

We wrestle with our democratic freedoms, arguing issues old and new

From the New Deal era onward, the power of the president grew. But as the Vietnam War lost the support of the American people, presidential war powers came under fire, and Congress reasserted its role with passage of the War Powers Act. Then the Watergate scandal drove President Richard M. Nixon from office and the end of the “imperial presidency” seemed at hand. By the 1980s, though, a more conservative political voice began to be heard, promoting a strong presidency, attacking judicial activism, and defending states’ rights. President Ronald Reagan exercised strong leadership, questioning the size of the federal government and promising to get it off the backs of the American people. His nominations to the Supreme Court raised questions about how we should interpret the Constitution. The result was a tug-of-war that continues today over issues like abortion rights, prayer in schools, and affirmative action.

On this day National Guardsmen, quelling antiwar protests at Kent State University in Ohio, shoot and kill four students

May 1, 1970


Sixth Amendment: Persons accused of petty crimes gain some jury-trial rights

Jun 22, 1970

The Supreme Court says in Baldwin v. New York (1970)  “that no offense can be deemed ‘petty’ for purposes of the right to trial by jury where imprisonment for more than six months is authorized.”

The Sixth Amendment is phrased in terms of “all criminal prosecutions,” but the Court has always excluded petty offenses from the guarantee to a jury trial in federal courts, defining the line between petty and serious offenses either by the maximum punishment available  or by the nature of the offense. This line has been adhered to in the application of the Sixth Amendment to the states. But in Baldwin, the Court has now held “that no offense can be deemed ‘petty’ for purposes of the right to trial by jury where imprisonment for more than six months is authorized.” A defendant who is prosecuted in a single proceeding for multiple petty offenses, however, does not have a constitutional right to a jury trial, even if the aggregate of sentences authorized for the offense exceeds six months.

Bella Abzug<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Long-time civil rights activist Bella Abzug becomes first Jewish woman elected to Congress

Nov 3, 1970

Bella Abzug (1920-1998)

She Battled For Women’s Rights

Bella Savitsky Abzug was “born yelling” in the Bronx, the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. She was giving speeches by age 13. Abzug earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1947. During the McCarthy era, she was among the few attorneys willing to confront the House Un-American Activities Committee, defending the First Amendment rights of individuals suspected of disloyalty.

At age 50, Abzug – wearing trademark flamboyant hats – was one of 12 women elected to the House of Representatives. The next year, 1971, she teamed up with Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisolm to found the National Women’s Political Caucus. After three terms in the House, Abzug ran for the Senate. She lost and, despite later efforts, never again held elective office.

On this day Supreme Court, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, upholds use of busing to end state-imposed school segregation

Apr 20, 1971

Copy of the Washington Post after winning court case<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

First Amendment: The “Pentagon Papers” case affirms freedom of the press

Jun 30, 1971

“In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy.”
– Justice Hugo L. Black
New York Times v. United States

When the New York Times and Washington Post began publishing the secret Pentagon Papers this month, they provoked a front-page constitutional controversy.

The document reveals the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Saying that publication would damage “national security,” President Nixon went to court to stop the presses.

The Supreme Court disagrees: the government didn’t justify the need to restrain the newspapers. Justice Black went further, saying the First Amendment forbids putting any such “prior restraint” on the press.

The presses are rolling.

<br>National Archives and Records Administration

States ratify Twenty-sixth Amendment, extending voting rights to citizens over 18 years of age

Jul 1, 1971

Passed by Congress March 23, 1971. Ratified July 1, 1971.

Note: The Fourteenth Amendment, section 2, of the Constitution was modified by section 1 of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.

Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Section 2.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


14th Amendment: Reed v. Reed says laws discriminating against women violate Equal Protection Clause

Nov 22, 1971

The Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed (1971) begins issuing decisions applying a higher standard to sex classifications.

After the death of their adopted son, Sally Reed and Cecil Reed, who are separated, each wanted to be named the administrator of their son's estate.

According to the Idaho Probate Code, Cecil Reed was named as the administrator because of compelling a preference for a male under that law. Sally Reed challenged the law in court. For a unanimous Supreme Court, Chief Justice Warren Burger said to “give a mandatory preference to members of either sex over members of the other, merely to accomplish the elimination of hearings on the merits, is to make the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

On this day Congress sends Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), barring discrimination based on sex, to states for ratification

Mar 22, 1972


On this day Five burglars arrested at Washington, D.C. , Watergate complex while breaking into Democratic National Party headquarters

Jun 17, 1972

Today marks another important milestone in the Watergate saga: The 42nd anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation announcement on national television and radio on August 8, 1974. But the saga took more than two years to unfold.

After that fateful June event, growing press coverage of the developing scandal caught the nation’s attention, as President Nixon’s administration clashed with Congress over the details of an extensive cover-up related to the break-in.

In late July 1974, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in United States v. Nixon, that the president had to surrender tapes made within the White House to a special prosecutor. On August 9, 1974, President Nixon officially resigned his office, a day after his national speech, rather than face an impending impeachment proceeding in the House.

The electric chair and Sing Sing prison<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Eighth Amendment: Supreme Court temporarily overturns state death penalty laws

Jun 29, 1972

“The Eighth and 14th Amendments cannot tolerate the infliction of a sentence of death under legal systems that permit this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed.”
–Justice Potter Stewart
Furman v. Georgia

They all wrote separate opinions, but five Supreme Court Justices have agreed on one thing: because state death penalty laws are applied in an “arbitrary and capricious” way, they violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The debate among the Justices mirrors the debate among citizens. Opponents say the death penalty itself is cruel and unusual. Supporters say it’s a deterrent.

Today’s decision won’t end the debate. But it will end executions until states write laws that make use of the death penalty more predictable and uniform.

<br>California Community Foundation

Vilma S. Martinez elected president and general counsel of Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Jan 1, 1973

Vilma S. Martinez, (1943 - )

She Fought Discrimination in Many Forms

Attorney Vilma Martinez is a civil rights activist whose major tool has been constitutional law. She’s used it to bring bilingual education into public schools, expand voting rights for Spanish-speaking citizens, and strike down discriminatory hiring policies. As head of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) for nine years, Martinez led the fight to require school districts to meet the needs of non-English-speaking students. She successfully based many lawsuits on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and on the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection of the law.

Martinez grew up in Texas. After earning her law degree, she went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and then for the New York State Division of Human Rights. She is now an attorney in Los Angeles.

Norma McCorvey, Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann" width="300">

In Roe v. Wade, the Court overturns state prohibition of abortions

Jan 22, 1973

“The right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but…this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.”
—Justice Harry A. Blackmun
Roe v. Wade

“Jane Roe” didn’t set out to change the Constitution; she just wanted a legal abortion in Texas. By 1971, several states had liberalized abortion laws. Texas hadn’t.

Roe’s lawyers challenged the Texas law, claiming a constitutional right to privacy—a right broad enough to cover a woman’s decision to continue or terminate her pregnancy.

The Supreme Court agreed, saying that such a right is part of the “liberty” protected by the 14th Amendment. Today the Court struck down all state limitations on abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.

This decision sparks a heated debate that’s likely to burn for years to come.

Anti-war protesters<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Our nation’s been in turmoil over the war in Vietnam

Jan 27, 1973

“Hell no. We won’t go!”
—Antiwar chant
The Vietnam War—and its casualties—continued to grow under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

The war split America apart. Many people supported a war to contain communism. But as the evening news brought the war home, people began to wonder: could this war be won? And if so, at what price?

Students and peace groups organized massive rallies to end the war. Increasingly militant antiwar protests set off a debate that frayed the nation but eventually moved popular opinion. Most Americans became convinced the loss of life wasn’t worth it.

The clamor against the war prevailed. As of today, the U.S. “will stop all its military activities” in Vietnam. We’ve signed the Paris Peace Accord with North Vietnam.

As Americans, we can change government policy—through our constitutional rights of protest, free assembly and free speech.

On this day U.S. withdraws combat troops from Vietnam

Mar 29, 1973


Seventh Amendment: Court allows smaller civil jury size

Jun 21, 1973

In Colgrove v. Battin, Justice William Brennan says that departures from the English practices in 1791 are permitted, including using six jurors instead of twelve, in certain federal civil suits.

USS Yorktown<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Congress reasserts its role with the War Powers Act

Nov 7, 1973

Ever since FDR, Americans have watched presidential war-making powers expand.

Truman and Johnson led us into the Korean and Vietnam wars without a congressional declaration of war. Nixon authorized the secret bombing of Cambodia.

The world has changed, say those who defend presidential power. In a nuclear age, events move quickly, and the Constitution makes only one person—the president—the Commander in Chief.

But Congress has had enough. The Constitution, they say, gives Congress the power to declare war for a reason.

Today, in an effort to rein in the president’s power to commit troops without its approval, Congress passed the War Powers Act—over Nixon’s veto.

Richard M. Nixon<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

In the wake of Watergate, Nixon resigns the presidency

Aug 8, 1974

“Our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men.”
—Gerald R. Ford

“What did the President know, and when did he know it?”

The question has preoccupied our nation ever since the Senate began investigating the Watergate scandal.

For more than a year, as evidence of illegal White House activities has mounted, President Nixon has been clashing with congressional committees, special prosecutors and the federal courts. He’s refused to turn over documents and tapes, claiming “executive privilege.”

The result: a botched burglary at the Watergate apartment complex has become a major constitutional test of presidential power.

Two weeks ago, a unanimous Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over tapes of Oval Office conversations. Presidents can claim executive privilege, they ruled, but not even a president is above the law.

Evidence on the tapes cost Nixon the presidency.

Today, before the House could vote to impeach him, Nixon resigned—the first president in American history to do so.

President Gerald Ford<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

For the first time, a president pardons a former president

Sep 8, 1974

“My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book.”
–Gerald R. Ford

Tonight on TV, President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon for any crimes he might have committed in the Watergate scandal. Nixon resigned one month ago to avoid being forced out of office.

Ford is using his constitutional power to grant pardons to try to heal the nation.

Many Americans are still upset with Nixon. The courts have said that a president’s pardoning power is unlimited, but Ford may be risking his own future by granting this one.

Ellen McCormack<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Ellen McCormack becomes first woman to receive federal funds for presidential race

Jan 1, 1976

Ellen McCormack (1926 - )

She Was The First Woman To Receive Federal Funds For A Presidential Race

New York housewife Ellen McCormack campaigned for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1976, entering 20 state primaries as an anti-abortion candidate. Her quest for the nomination was boosted by recent changes in the election law – she qualified for federal matching campaign funds.

In 1980, she ran again for president. This time, she was the candidate of the Right to Life Party and earned 32,327 votes from three states. Since then, the party has campaigned against abortion, especially in New York. The party supports a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. McCormack’s 1976 campaign was among the right-to-life movement’s first political responses to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision legalizing abortion.

A protest against the discrimination of Americans of Mexican descent<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Latinos mobilize for political strength

Dec 8, 1976

Today, one in every 20 Americans is Latino. Coming here from Mexico, Central and South America, Cuba and Puerto Rico, Latino citizens have grown in numbers…and political influence.

In the last two years, Congress reauthorized an act providing bilingual education for Latino youth, and amended the Civil Rights Act to ban literacy tests and create bilingual ballots.

Now, five Latino congressmen have formed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. They’ll monitor issues ranging from immigration to the constitutional status of aliens.

The Latino voice is getting stronger.

On this day Jimmy Carter inaugurated as president

Jan 20, 1977

Allan Bakke's first day of school<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

14th Amendment: Affirmative action tests our attitudes toward race and equality

Jun 28, 1978

Allan Bakke, a white man, had been denied access to the University of California Medical School at Davis on two separate occasions. The medical school set aside 16 spots for minority candidates in an attempt to address unfair minority exclusion from medical school. All 16 candidates from both years had test scores lower than Bakke’s but gained admission. Bakke contested that his exclusion from the Medical School was entirely the result of his race.

The Supreme Court ruled in a severely fractured plurality that the university’s use of strict racial quotas was unconstitutional and ordered that the medical school admit Bakke, but it also said that race could be used as one of several factors in the admissions process. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., cast the deciding vote ordering the medical school to admit Bakke. However, in his opinion, Powell said that the rigid use of racial quotas violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

In addition to these 10 famous cases, this June's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which recognized a national right to same=sex marriage, will likely join the list of notable 14th Amendment cases. In the Court's 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that “the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”

President Carter signing Indian Land Dispute Bill<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Native Americans in Maine sue the state over land claims

Oct 10, 1980

Since Native tribes are considered dependent sovereign nations under the Constitution, age-old treaties can be the basis of new legal claims.

In 1972, the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indians sued to get federal help in their dispute with Maine. They say the state took 12.5 million acres illegally—in fraudulent treaties signed 200 years ago when Maine was still part of Massachusetts.

Today, the lawsuit was settled. President Carter signed the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

The settlement is controversial. It gives the tribes $81.5 million if they give up their sovereign claim to the land —nearly two-thirds of the state of Maine.

On this day Ronald Reagan inaugurated as president

Jan 20, 1981

Senator S.I. Hayakawa<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Senator S.I. Hayakawa proposes amendment establishing English as official language of U.S.

Apr 27, 1981

S. I. Hayakawa (1906-1992)

He Curbed Student Protest During The Vietnam War

Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa, a professor of English at San Francisco State University, became university president in 1968, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Student and faculty anti-war demonstrations periodically closed San Francisco State. Impatient with student radicals, Hayakawa used a firm hand in shutting down the protests. The right to free speech, he believed, is balanced against the rights of others to pursue their lives and studies without disruption.

As a result of his actions, Hayakawa became a well-known – and popular – figure. California voters elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1976. There, he introduced a constitutional amendment to make English the sole official language of the nation. After serving a single term, Hayakawa retired from the Senate in 1983.

Sandra Day O'Connor taking oath<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Women join the fight for equality under the law

Sep 25, 1981

“The arbitrary preference established in favor of males cannot stand in the face of the 14th Amendment’s command that no state deny the equal protection of the laws to any person.”
–Chief Justice Warren E. Burger
Reed v. Reed

Inspired by the civil rights movement, other groups are pressing for equal treatment. These days we see Latinos, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities—and women—marching down Main Street, calling for an end to discrimination.

Women have revitalized the movement begun by 19th-century suffragists. Bringing lawsuits and lobbying legislatures, women have broken through barrier after barrier.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed job discrimination based on sex.

Title IX of the Education Act barred sex discrimination in schools that take federal dollars. That opened up opportunities in sports, medicine, business and law.

In 1971, the Supreme Court began applying tougher standards to judge the constitutionality of state laws that discriminate based on sex.

Today, another barrier fell. The Supreme Court swore in its first female Justice: Sandra Day O’Connor.

On this day Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) fails, having fallen three states short of 38 needed for ratification

Jun 30, 1982

President Ronald Reagan<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

A triumphant President promotes conservative constitutionalism

Aug 23, 1984

“While a constitution may set forth rights and liberties, only the citizens can maintain and guarantee those freedoms.”
–Ronald Reagan

Four years ago, Ronald Reagan promised to get the government “off the backs” of the American people.

To wild cheers of “Four more years,” the President tonight accepted the Republican nomination for a second term. He renewed his pledge to reverse 50 years of federal government growth.

The men who wrote the Constitution, he said, favored less government and more liberty.

Reagan has nominated conservatives to the bench, and is calling for constitutional amendments to ban abortion and restore prayer in schools.

His critics say he’s reversing decades of constitutional principles and progress. His supporters say it’s activist judges who are out of step, imposing their own values on the Constitution instead of enforcing its original meaning.

The President’s campaign slogan says that it’s “morning again in America.” His supporters hope it’s the dawn of a new constitutional era.

On this day Supreme Court rules that laws criminalizing homosexual conduct are constitutional in Bowers v. Hardwick

Jun 30, 1986

On this day William H. Rehnquist succeeds Warren E. Burger as Chief Justice of the U.S.

Sep 25, 1986



We the People are still making history

We the People are still making history

As our nation grows ever more diverse, it confronts never-ending challenges. When President Bill Clinton’s questionable personal behavior got him in very public trouble in 1997 and 1998, the Constitution of 1787 provided a remedy. Only the second president in American history to be impeached, Clinton’s presidency survived a trial in the Senate. The first presidential election of the new millennium created another constitutional crisis. The race between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush ended up so close, with the results in Florida so disputed, that the Supreme Court stepped in to effectively determine the outcome. Then came another crisis, as foreign terrorists attacked. After September 11, 2001, we were faced with some familiar questions, questions about the balance between liberty and national security that the Framers asked back in 1787.


Ninth Amendment: Bork calls Ninth Amendment an “ink blot”

Sep 9, 1987

During his failed confirmation hearing to become a Supreme Court justice in 1987, Robert Bork analogized the Amendment to an “inkblot,” which hid the constitutional text that was under it. Just as judges should not guess what was under an inkblot, he argued, so too they should not guess at the Ninth Amendment’s meaning. Bork’s very public denial that any meaning of the Amendment could be discovered fueled intense academic interest in the original meaning of the text.

Robert Bork<br>

Senate rejects Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court

Oct 23, 1987

Robert Bork (1927 - )

He Is A Leading Legal Voice On The Constitution

Robert Heron Bork is a distinguished legal scholar whose views on the meaning of the Constitution are both highly respected and controversial.

President Reagan appointed Bork, a former U.S. Solicitor General, to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1982, then tried to name him to the Supreme Court in 1987. In his confirmation hearings, Bork was attacked for his view that the Constitution should be interpreted to reflect the original intent of the Framers. His opponents, who believe the Constitution can be interpreted to reflect social changes since the document was written, dominated the contentious hearings. Bork was rejected.

He resigned from the federal court in 1988 but continues to be a leading voice in the debate on interpreting the Constitution.

Oliver North<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

The Iran-Contra affair tests our system of checks and balances

Nov 13, 1987

Ever since President Reagan confirmed that the U.S. secretly sold weapons to Iran, questions about the conduct of foreign policy have dogged the White House.

Criticism mounted when newspapers reported that money from the arms deal went to support anti-Communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua, at a time when Congress prohibited such aid.

Administration supporters say Congress’s ban on Contra funding didn’t apply to this operation, and might not be constitutional in any case.

A majority in the House and Senate disagree. A report issued today says that by circumventing Congress’s power of the purse, the administration’s actions “strike at the very heart of the system of checks and balances.”

On this day George Bush inaugurated as president

Jan 20, 1989

People in wheelchairs demonstrate<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

American with disabilities fight for dignity and equal rights

Jul 26, 1990

“We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals. We want the law enforced. We want no more segregation.”
–Judy Heumann, Disability Rights Activist

Inspired by leaders like Justin Dart, and by the success of civil rights protesters, thousands of demonstrators with disabilities have been lobbying for equal rights since the ’70s.

Today, their long fight took them to the White House lawn, where President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Dart received the first pen used in the signing.

The new law forbids discrimination on the job and in public places like buses, restaurants, hotels and stores.

Now, more than 43 million disabled Americans are guaranteed “reasonable accommodations” to meet their needs.

<br>National Archives and Records Administration

States ratify Twenty-seventh Amendment (first proposed in 1789), limiting congressional pay raises

May 7, 1992

Originally proposed Sept. 25, 1789. Ratified May 7, 1992.

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.


10th Amendment: New York v. United States better defines states’ rights

Jun 19, 1992

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor establishes the idea of the Commandeering Clause in the majority decision of New York v. United States, a matter about the federal government mandating state control over radioactive waste management.

“Either type of federal action,” O'Connor said, “would 'commandeer' state governments into the service of federal regulatory purposes, and would for this reason be inconsistent with the Constitution's division of authority between federal and state governments.”

O'Connor said this violated the Tenth Amendment.

On this day Supreme Court refuses to overrule its controversial Roe v. Wade abortion decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey

Jun 29, 1992

On this day Bill Clinton inaugurated as president

Jan 20, 1993

Vaclav Havel<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

The idea of rule by “We, the People” takes root around the world

Jul 4, 1994

“The idea of human rights and freedoms must be an integral part of any meaningful world order.”
–Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, was honored today in Philadelphia for a lifetime of struggle in the cause of freedom.

Like the Czech Republic, a number of other countries that once imprisoned political activists like Havel are now abandoning their former governments and writing new constitutions. They’re adopting the principles of democracy and the rule of law.

None of these new constitutions is a “copy” of ours, exactly. Many of them look to European parliamentary systems too. And each country draws on its own traditions as we once drew on ours.

But there’s still a powerful connection between these new constitutions and our old one.

The “fundamental ideas of modern democracy,” Havel said as he stood in front of Independence Hall, were “first declared in this building”—the idea of inalienable rights, and “the principle that all power derives from the people.”

On this day Republicans gain control of both Houses of Congress for first time in 40 years

Nov 5, 1994

The Rehnquist Court<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

A little more power to the states; a little less to the federal government

Apr 26, 1995

“We start with first principles. As James Madison wrote,‘[t]he powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist
United States v. Lopez
Americans have debated the balance of power between the federal government and the states since 1787.

Today the Supreme Court struck down the Gun-Free School Zones Act, arguing that the matter should rest with the states.

For the first time since 1937, the Court has said Congress exceeded its power to use the Constitution's commerce clause to regulate private behavior.

The Act, said Chief Justice Rehnquist, has nothing to do with “any sort of economic enterprise.”

The balance may be tipping toward the states again.

On this day Supreme Court strikes down state laws limiting congressional terms

May 22, 1995

Plaintiffs in Romer v. Evans<br>lambdalegal.org

Colorado can’t ban laws protecting homosexuals

May 20, 1996

“Central…to our constitution’s guarantee of equal protection is the principle that government…remain open on impartial terms to all who seek its assistance.”
–Justice Anthony Kennedy
Romer v. Evans

Since 1969 the gay rights movement has been gaining strength and making waves. When several towns in Colorado made it illegal to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, controversy erupted.

Critics complained that the local laws gave gays special rights. Colorado voters amended the state constitution to prohibit those laws.

In response, a Denver municipal employee took Colorado to court—and won.

Today, in a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court said the state’s amendment violates the U.S. Constitution's promise of equal protection. No state can make any group “a stranger to its laws.”

On this day Proposed constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms fails in House of Representatives

Feb 27, 1997

On this day Proposed constitutional amendment requiring balanced budget fails in Senate

Mar 4, 1997

On this day Supreme Court rules Paula Jones may press her sexual harassment suit against President Clinton during his term of office

May 27, 1997

Answering a constitutional question that the Supreme Court left open nearly 21 years ago in a case against President Bill Clinton, a state trial judge in New York ruled Tuesday that President Trump does not have immunity to being sued in state court on claims related to sexual misconduct that did not involve official acts.

The ruling keeps alive a lawsuit filed in January last year by a former TV reality show performer, who alleges that Trump has harmed her reputation by accusing her of lying about her claims of sexual assault.


10th Amendment: Scalia confirms Commandeering Clause in Printz

Jun 27, 1997

In Printz v. United States, Justice Antonin Scalia says part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act violates the 10th Amendment.

Scalia said the Brady Act’s requirement for local sheriffs to perform gun background checks conflicted with the concept of the Commandeering Clause articulated by Justice O’Connor in New York v. United States.

The independence of state and local governments from being compelled to enforce federal laws was rooted “in historical understanding and practice, the structure of the Constitution, and in the jurisprudence of this Court.”

Congress impeaches Bill Clinton following

Dec 19, 1998

Map of World Governments

Jan 1, 1999

National Constitution Center

Now, after the fall of Soviet Communism, more than half the world’s nations have democratically elected governments. Many principles underlying our own Constitution have taken hold in nations around the world.

President William J. Clinton<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Clinton’s the second president to be impeached but stay in office

Feb 12, 1999

“The laws of our Country are applicable to us all, including the President, and they must be obeyed.”
–Kay Bailey Hutchinson,
Senator from Texas

“The Constitution does not say remove the President if he fails to be a good role model for our children.”
–Barbara Boxer,
Senator from California

What constitutes the “high crimes and misdemeanors” for which the Constitution says officials may be removed from office?

We’ve debated the issue for months, since a private lawsuit, a special prosecutor and President Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern collided to put this presidency in peril.

In December, the House impeached Clinton for lying under oath. Clinton’s opponents say no one is above the law. Defenders say personal lapses aren’t the same as public misdeeds.

Tonight, the Senate voted to acquit. The President stays in office.

On this day U.S. warplanes strike Serbia as part of NATO campaign to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo

Mar 24, 1999

Ballots and chads from the 2000 Presidential election<br>National Constitution Center

A disputed election ends with a dignified transfer of power

Dec 13, 2000

“Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Yet it came, and now it has ended. Resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.”
-Albert Gore, Jr.

For five weeks we've been wondering who won the presidential election, ever since a dispute in the Florida popular vote led Democrat Al Gore to ask for a recount.

Everyone has questions. What's the best way to count votes? Is the electoral system fair? Which legal body should finally determine the winner?

Not since 1876 has a presidential election been so disputed.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered a recount. But yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the recount was unconstitutional.

Both rulings were deeply controversial, but we will abide by the outcome. Tonight, Gore conceded to Republican George W. Bush.

On this day George W. Bush inaugurated as 43rd president of the U.S.

Jan 20, 2001

Naturalization ceremony<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

We’re still a nation of immigrants, growing even more diverse

Jul 10, 2001

This morning, President Bush welcomed 29 newly sworn-in citizens at Ellis Island.

“With a single oath,” he said, “you become as fully American as the most direct descendant of a founding father.”

It’s an old idea—that it’s not where we come from but what we believe that makes us American. Eight of the 55 men who wrote the Constitution weren’t born here.

That idea is more powerful than ever. Last year, 849,807 immigrants became U.S. citizens; 48,054 more applied for political asylum.

And we’ve become more diverse than ever. New voices from around the world are part of our culture and politics. Such diversity raises issues, like English-only education and the legal rights of aliens…issues that can raise tensions. But that’s the price of the Constitution’s success.

Despite our problems, the freedom that our Constitution guarantees still draws people from all over who are “yearning to breathe free.”

On this day Terrorists attack the World Trade Center and Pentagon, provoking war on terrorism

Sep 11, 2001

On this day The war on terrorism begins in Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks

Oct 7, 2001

New York's World Trade Center<br>Image Donated by Corbis - Bettmann

Fourth Amendment: USA Patriot Act passed

Oct 25, 2001

When the Twin Towers fell on September 11, we wondered if liberty in America would ever be the same. Freedom had allowed terrorists to commit the unthinkable. Would freedom now have to be curtailed?

Like his predecessors in wartime, the President has pressed for sweeping powers to meet the crisis. Today, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act. Although it increases the government's surveillance authority, many of its most controversial provisions will expire in four years, at Congress's insistence.

As Americans, we're torn as our Founders were between a need for security and a commitment to our liberties.

Have we found the right balance?

We look to the Constitution for the answers. But the Constitution depends on us as much as we depend on it.


Eighth Amendment: Atkins v. Virginia rules executions of intellectually disabled individuals unconstitutional

Jun 20, 2002

Atkins v. Virginia was one of a series of decisions in which the Justices were setting up categories of people for whom the death penalty would be considered cruel and unusual punishment and thus barred by the Eighth Amendment.  In Atkins, the Court changed its mind from its refusal in 1989 to include intellectually disabled people in the protected category, and added them (in that ruling, it referred to this group as “mentally retarded,” but that is a phrase that has since become culturally discredited, so the Court no longer uses it).

At the time, however, it was not entirely clear who would be put into that grouping. The Court remarked candidly in that decision that there was no consensus on “which offenders are retarded,” so it chose to leave it to the states to devise standards to implement the new constitutional mandate. That may or may not have been intended as a signal that the states could experiment with their own definitions, but they have done so in response.

On this day The war in Iraq begins when the United States launches Operation Iraqi Freedom

Mar 20, 2003

Students demonstrate as the Supreme Court debates Grutter v. Bollinger<br>Courtesy of Associated Press

Supreme Court rules a narrowly tailored use of race in student admission decisions may be permissible

Jun 23, 2003

“I viewed filing a lawsuit as a positive thing.”
-Barbara Grutter

We embrace equal opportunity, but can't agree on how to create a level playing field for all Americans.

Today in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that colleges and universities may sometimes admit minority students with lower test scores and grades than white applicants who are denied admission, in order to create a diverse student body.

Twenty-five years ago the Court issued a similar ruling, permitting the use of race as a plus factor in the admissions process. Justice O'Connor predicts that such racial preferences will not be necessary in another 25 years. One thing is certain: we will be debating this issue for years to come.

On this day Supreme Court strikes down Texas law criminalizing homosexual conduct

Jun 26, 2003


Sixth Amendment: Court says prosecution may not introduce out-of-court statements by non-testifying witnesses

Mar 8, 2004

The Sixth Amendment's Compulsory Process Clause lets defendants subpoena witnesses to force them to testify at trial. This Clause (combined with other constitutional provisions) also now impliedly guarantees defendants the right to testify in their own defense if they wish.

The Confrontation Clause requires prosecution witnesses to testify under oath and subject to cross-examination; except for small children who would be traumatized by the process, they must also testify in court and in the presence of the defendant. To preserve the integrity of these confrontation requirements, the Court in Crawford v. Washington (2004) that the prosecution may not introduce out-of-court statements by nontestifying witnesses when those statements are “testimonial”—that is, when the statements were made primarily to establish facts for the criminal prosecution. So if, for example, the police investigate a crime and a witness identifies the defendant in order to have him arrested and charged, the prosecution cannot use that statement as evidence in court against the defendant, unless the witness is brought to court so that the defendant can cross-examine him. 

Justice Antonin Scalia spoke for a unanimous court in Crawford.

On this day Supreme Court rules that U.S. jurisdiction over Guantanamo is sufficient for the application of habeas corpus rights

Jun 28, 2004


Eighth Amendment: Roper v. Simmons says a sentence of death may not be imposed on juveniles

Mar 1, 2005


Fifth Amendment:  Supreme Court says a town could seize private homes

Jun 23, 2005

On this day Hurricane Katrina hits the southern coast of the United States with devastating effect

Aug 28, 2005

On this day John G. Roberts, Jr. is confirmed by the Senate as the seventeenth Chief Justice of the United States

Sep 9, 2005

President Bush tours the National Security Agency<br>Courtesy of Associated Press

Fourth Amendment: NSA conducts warrantless electronic surveillance of Americans

Dec 16, 2005

Today, the Times reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) is conducting a surveillance program of warrantless domestic wiretapping in the US. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush authorized the NSA to intercept international phone calls and e-mail messages if a supervisor believed there was a link to the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Under the spy program, the surveillance can be conducted on Americans without first obtaining court approval.

Administration critics maintain that this warrantless surveillance of American citizens violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA), which was passed in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The Bush administration maintains that the warrant requirements of FISA were implicitly superseded by the passage of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists.

On this day President Bush signs the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act

Mar 9, 2006

On this day In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court rules that Guantanamo Bay detainees may not be tried by a military commission

Jun 29, 2006

President Bush declares that Hamdan had committed crimes triable by a military commission. When before such a commission, the accused is afforded military counsel and a copy of the charges against him; however, in the interest of national security, he is denied the right to see all evidence or hear all witness statements, and the hearing may take place outside of his presence. The commission designated Hamdan as an enemy combatant, trying and convicting him of conspiracy. In response, Hamdan filed a writ of habeas corpus—protected by the Suspension Clause in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which says that habeas cannot be suspended except in circumstances of rebellion or invasion—and challenged the constitutionality of his commission. 

The case went to the Supreme Court, which issued a 5-3 decision, 10 years ago today, reversing the lower court. The majority’s main rationale was that there was no constitutional basis for acts of Congress or any inherent executive powers that authorized the military commission in question. As such, the commission was required to be in compliance with federal law and the laws of war. The Supreme Court therefore had the power to enforce both the Geneva Convention and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The structure of the military commission—namely, the exclusion of Hamadan from parts of his own trial—violated both the terms of the Convention and the Code, and was therefore unconstitutional.

On this day Nancy Pelosi is elected Speaker of the House. She becomes the first woman to hold this office.

Jan 3, 2007

On this day In Meredith v. Jefferson County BOE, Supreme Court rules that assigning students to schools by race is unconstitutional

Jun 28, 2007

Immigration rally in New York<br>Courtesy of Associated Press

Congress is stalemated over immigration reform

Oct 25, 2007

Our national chorus is becoming ever more diverse, full of new voices from around the world. Over the past seven years, a record 10.3 million new immigrants have arrived.

Growing diversity creates tensions. More than half the new immigrants are illegal, fueling a contentious debate. Should we create pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants or try to deport millions of people?

Yesterday, a Senate vote dashed hopes that major immigration legislation will be passed this year.

These battles are the price of having a nation that draws people from all over who are yearning to breathe free.

Lakhdar Boumediene<br>

Supreme Court rules terrorism suspects have the right to challenge their detention at Guantanamo Bay

Jun 12, 2008

In 2002, Lakhdar Boumediene and five other Algerian natives were seized by Bosnian police for their suspected involvement in a plot to attack the U.S. embassy there. The U.S. government classified the men as enemy combatants in the war on terror and detained them at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

Boumediene filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging violations of the Constitution's Due Process Clause, various statutes and treaties, and international law. The District Court granted the government's motion to have all of the claims dismissed on the ground that Boumediene, as an alien detained, had no right to a habeas petition. The case was brought before the Supreme Court.

Today, in a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed the District Court's ruling and found in favor of the detainees. The Court stated that foreign terrorism suspects have the constitutional right to challenge their detention in the U.S. courts and could not be denied this right based on their designation as enemy combatants or being held at Guantanamo Bay.

<br>Courtesy of Comstock

Supreme Court rules that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own firearms

Jun 26, 2008

In March 2007, the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned a 30-year-old law that forbids almost all D.C. residents from owning handguns. The law was challenged by six Washington, D.C., residents who said they wanted to keep guns in their homes to protect themselves against crime.

Challenges to the Second Amendment's right to bear arms have been circling through the courts for years. Opponents of gun control maintain that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to have firearms. Gun-control supporters say the amendment originated as a collective right of the states to maintain militias.

Today, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme court upheld the Appeals Court's ruling, in a 5-4 vote. In the first Supreme Court case to rule directly on the issue of individual vs. militia rights, the majority opinion states, “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”


Fourth Amendment: FISA Amendments Act permits surveillance of foreign targets without a warrant

Jul 10, 2008

Under the FISA Amendments Act, the Federal government has the authority to collect data from these companies belonging to foreigners abroad. The ACLU described that the Act is “predicated on the theory that foreigners aboard have no right to privacy”, and while public outcry in the U.S. mostly focused on the collection of private data belonging to American citizens, EU officials were forced to reexamine whether this treatment of their citizens’ data by the United States was permissible.

Certificate of Domestic Partnership<br>Courtesy of Associated Press

Same-sex unions divide the nation

Nov 4, 2008

Tension over the rights of gays and lesbians is growing. They say that marriage is a basic civil right to which they are entitled, but many Americans believe gay marriage violates religious commandments and undermines the family.

Today California's voters approved an amendment to their state constitution that says only people of the opposite sex may marry. Similar measures have been adopted in 30 states.

Gay rights advocates vow to continue their fight. Last year they won a new ally. Mildred Loving, who with her husband, Richard, brought the Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage in 1967, declared, “I support the freedom to marry for all.”

Barack Obama taking the Oath of Office<br>Courtesy of Associated Press

Barack Obama is inaugurated 44th President of the United States

Jan 20, 2009

Today, Barack Obama was sworn in as our 44th president. Crowds estimated at over one million people filled the National Mall and lined the streets of Washington, D.C., while countless more tuned into broadcasts across the country and around the world to witness this historic event.

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama spoke of the challenges we face both at home and abroad, but that America, as it has in the past, has the capacity and resolve to meet them. He told the nation:

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize grandly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and promise of citizenship.”

Barack Obama inaugurated as 44th president

Jan 20, 2009

Federal stimulus bill signed in Denver

Feb 17, 2009

President Barack Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a $787 billion stimulus bill designed to fend off a  significant economic crisis.


Sonia Sotomayor joins Supreme Court

Aug 8, 2009

Sotomayor is the first Justice of Hispanic hertiage on the Court as David Souter retires from the bench.

Town Hall meetings roil health-care debate

Aug 25, 2009

Contentious debates take over Town Hall meetings about a proposed extension of health care coverage mandated by the federal government.

Citizens United decision changes campaign finance laws

Feb 21, 2010


President signs Obamacare into law

Mar 23, 2010

After a contentious fight in Congress, President Obama signs the Afforable Care Act, the biggest health-care expansion in four decades. Republican opponents vow to fight against the ACA's implementation.


Supreme Court rules again on the Second Amendment

Jun 28, 2010

In McDonald v. Chicago, a divided Court says that the right to  keep and bear arms for self defense in one's home is extended to the states, as it clarifies its Heller decision from 2008. Justice Samuel Alito writes the majority opinion.


Fourth Amendment: Wikileaks releases trove of government documents to public

Jul 10, 2010

Elena Kagan becomes fourth female Justice

Aug 7, 2010

Former solicitor general and Harvard Law dean Elena Kagan joins the Supreme Court, replacing the retiring John Paul Stevens.

GOP gets control of House in Obama backlash

Nov 2, 2010

The Republicans take back the House as voters react to President Obama's policies and the Tea Party emerges as a political force. 

Westboro Baptist Church<br>

First Amendment: Court sides with Westboro Church in free-speech case

Mar 2, 2011

In an 8-1 decision, the Court says even offensive speech from a group picketing a soldier's funeral is protected in a public place.

U.S. forces kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan

May 2, 2011

The daring commando strike closes one chapter started a decade earlier in the war on terrorism.

Justices uphold the legality of Obamacare

Jun 28, 2012

The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that Obamacare is legal in a complicated decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion. But the Court also limits the expansion of Medicaid in a significant restriction of the law's scope.

Obama wins second term in the White House

Nov 6, 2012

President Barack Obama defeats Republican challenger Mitt Romney, while the GOP retains the House and the Democrats keep the Senate. 


Documents leaked by Edward Snowden released in media

Jun 5, 2013

Former government contractor Edward Snowden gives documents from the National Security Agency to several media outlets that reveal surveillance programs. Snowden is soon charged with espionage and seeks asylum in Russia.


15th Amendment: Voting Rights Act limited by Court decision

Jun 25, 2013

Part of the Voting Rights Act is ruled unconstitutional in the Shelby County v. Holder decision.  In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down a formula used to determine if certain states and regions needed Justice Department approval to change voting laws, based on their legacy of discrimination before 1965. The Cout did say Congress could establish a new formula, and it left other parts of the Act in place.

“Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in [Section] 2. We issue no holding on [Section] 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions,” said Chief Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion.

Justice Anthony Kennedy<br>

Fifth Amendment: Same-sex marriage gets a big victory in Supreme Court

Jun 26, 2013

In the case of United States v. Windsor, the divided Court says the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause, and the federal government must acknowledge same-sex marriages legally authorized by states.

Affordable Care Act goes into effect

Jan 1, 2014

Despite a website glitch and numerous lawsuits, Obamacare's main provisions go into effect in the New Year.

Town of Greece<br>

First Amendment: Public prayer upheld at local government meetings

May 5, 2014

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court says a local government didn't violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause by opening its meetings with prayers that didn't force participation by nonadherents. 


First Amendment: Court limits contraceptive mandate in Hobby Lobby decision

Jun 30, 2014

The Supreme Court says closely held corporations can opt out of Obamacare's contraception mandate if the mandate is found religiously objectionable.

Republicans gain full control of Congress in mid-term elections

Nov 4, 2014


14th Amendment: Supreme Court confirms same-sex marriage is legal nationally

Jun 26, 2015

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court recognized a national right to same-sex marriage. In the Court's 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that “the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”


Justice Antonin Scalia dies in Texas

Feb 13, 2016

The conservative bulwark of the Supreme Court passes away at the age of 79 while on vacation in Texas. Scalia is recognized widely for his long-term impact on the Court.

Merrick Garland nominated to Court but not confirmed

Mar 16, 2016

President Obama nominated Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to replace Scalia. However, the Republicans block Garland's consideration in the Senate during a presidential election year.

Court rules against abortion restrictions in Texas

Jun 27, 2016

In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court says the state of Texas can't restrict the delivery of abortion services using admitting privilege and service requirements.

Donald Trump tops Hillary Clinton in general election

Nov 8, 2016

After a hard-fought campaign, businessman Donald Trump wins the presidencty after successes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin


We win a hard-fought Revolution and seize its promise of liberty

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We adopt a Constitution for our new Republic

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We forge a nation where the people rule

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We become a land of the common man, though not yet a democracy for all

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We are a house divided, a nation torn by bloody civil war

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We rebuild the Union and amend the Constitution

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We encounter prosperity and its perils in an industrial age

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We are a diverse nation, confronting our differences

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We meet crisis in the Depression, and again in World War II

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We struggle to preserve freedom in a dangerous world

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We demand liberty and justice for all

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We wrestle with our democratic freedoms, arguing issues old and new

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We the People are still making history

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