Ana Elizabeth Rosas
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
On August 4, 1942, the Mexican and U.S. governments launched the bi-national guest worker program, most commonly known as the Bracero Program. An estimated five million Mexican men between the ages of 19 and 45 separated from their families for three-to-nine-month contract cycles at a time, in anticipation of earning the prevailing U.S. wage this program had promised them. They labored in U.S. agriculture, railroad construction, and forestry, with hardly any employment protections or rights in place to support themselves and the families they had left behind in Mexico. The inhumane configuration and implementation of this program prevented most of these men and their families from meeting such goals. Instead, the labor exploitation and alienation that characterized this guest worker program and their program participation paved the way for, at best, fragile family relationships. This program lasted twenty-two years and grew in its expanse, despite its negative consequences, Mexican men and their families could not afford to settle for being unemployed in Mexico, nor could they pass up U.S. employment opportunities of any sort. The Mexican and U.S. governments’ persistently negligent management of the Bracero Program, coupled with their conveniently selective acknowledgement of the severity of the plight of Mexican women and men, consistently cornered Mexican men and their families to shoulder the full extent of the Bracero Program’s exploitative conditions and terms.
N. Bruce Duthu
United States law recognizes American Indian tribes as distinct political bodies with powers of self-government. Their status as sovereign entities predates the formation of the United States and they are enumerated in the U.S. Constitution as among the subjects (along with foreign nations and the several states) with whom Congress may engage in formal relations. And yet, despite this long-standing recognition, federal Indian law remains curiously ambivalent, even conflicted, about the legal and political status of Indian tribes within the U.S. constitutional structure. On the one hand, tribes are recognized as sovereign bodies with powers of self-government within their lands. On the other, long-standing precedents of the Supreme Court maintain that Congress possesses plenary power over Indian tribes, with authority to modify or even eliminate their powers of self-government. These two propositions are in tension with one another and are at the root of the challenges faced by political leaders and academics alike in trying to understand and accommodate the tribal rights to self-government. The body of laws that make up the field of federal Indian law include select provisions of the U.S. Constitution (notably the so-called Indian Commerce Clause), treaties between the United States and various Indian tribes, congressional statutes, executive orders, regulations, and a complex and rich body of court decisions dating back to the nation’s formative years. The noted legal scholar Felix Cohen brought much-needed coherence and order to this legal landscape in the 1940s when he led a team of scholars within the Office of the Solicitor in the Department of the Interior to produce a handbook on federal Indian law. The revised edition of Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law is still regarded as the seminal treatise in the field. Critically, however, this rich body of law only hints at the real story in federal Indian law. The laws themselves serve as historical and moral markers in the ongoing clash between indigenous and nonindigenous societies and cultures still seeking to establish systems of peaceful coexistence in shared territories. It is a story about the limits of legal pluralism and the willingness of a dominant society and nation to acknowledge and honor its promises to the first inhabitants and first sovereigns.
Alison L. LaCroix
Federalism refers to the constitutional and political structure of the United States of America, according to which political power is divided among multiple levels of government: the national level of government (also referred to as the “federal” or “general” government) and that of the states. It is a multilayered system of government that reserves some powers to component entities while also establishing an overarching level of government with a specified domain of authority. The structures of federalism are set forth in the Constitution of the United States, although some related ideas and practices predated the founding period and others have developed since. The balance between federal and state power has shifted throughout U.S. history, with assertions of broad national power meeting challenges from supporters of states’ rights and state sovereignty. Federalism is a fundamental value of the American political system, and it has been a controversial political and legal question since the founding period.
According to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, Congress is barred from abridging the freedom of the press (“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”). In practice, the history of press freedom is far more complicated than this simple constitutional right suggests. Over time, the meaning of the First Amendment has changed greatly. The Supreme Court largely ignored the First Amendment until the 20th century, leaving the scope of press freedom to state courts and legislatures. Since World War I, jurisprudence has greatly expanded the types of publication protected from government interference. The press now has broad rights to publish criticism of public officials, salacious material, private information, national security secrets, and much else. To understand the shifting history of press freedom, however, it is important to understand not only the expansion of formal constitutional rights but also how those rights have been shaped by such factors as economic transformations in the newspaper industry, the evolution of professional standards in the press, and the broader political and cultural relations between politicians and the press.
Timothy S. Huebner
The Supreme Court of the United States stands at the head of the nation’s judicial system. Created in Article III of the Constitution of 1787 but obscured by the other branches of government during the first few decades of its history, the Court came into its own as a co-equal branch in the early 19th century. Its exercise of judicial review—the power that it claimed to determine the constitutionality of legislative acts—gave the Court a unique status as the final arbiter of the nation’s constitutional conflicts. From the slavery question during the antebellum era to abortion and gay rights in more recent times, the Court has decided cases brought to it by individual litigants, and in doing so has shaped American constitutional and legal development. Composed of unelected justices who serve “during good behavior,” the Court’s rise in stature has not gone uncontested. Throughout the nation’s history, Congress, the president, and organized interest groups have all attempted to influence the Court’s jurisdiction, composition, and decision making. The Court’s prominence reflects Americans’ historically paradoxical attitudes toward the judiciary: they have often been suspicious of the power of unelected judges at the same time that they have relied on independent judicial institutions to resolve their deepest disputes.
Sarah B. Snyder
In its formulation of foreign policy, the United States takes account of many priorities and factors, including national security concerns, economic interests, and alliance relationships. An additional factor with significance that has risen and fallen over time is human rights, or more specifically violations of human rights. The extent to which the United States should consider such abuses or seek to moderate them has been and continues to be the subject of considerable debate.
David S. Tanenhaus
Juvenile justice is a technical term that refers to the specific area of law and affiliated institutions, most notably the juvenile court, with jurisdiction over the cases of minors who are accused of being miscreants. Although the idea that the law should treat minors differently from adults predates the American Revolution, juvenile justice itself is a Progressive Era invention. Its institutional legitimacy rests on the power and responsibility of the state to act as a parent (parens patriae) on behalf of those who cannot care for themselves. Since the establishment of the world’s first juvenile court in Chicago in 1899, this American idea of creating separate justice systems for juveniles has spread across the nation and much of the world. For more than a century, American states have used their juvenile justice systems to respond to youth crime and delinquency. Since the 1960s, the US Supreme Court has periodically considered whether juvenile courts must provide the same constitutional due process safeguards as adult criminal courts and whether juveniles prosecuted in the criminal justice system can receive the same sentences as adults, such as the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole.
Allison Brownell Tirres
Latino Americans have intersected with the law in complicated ways throughout American history. Latinos themselves are a diverse and heterogeneous racial, ethnic, and cultural group, with members hailing from all parts of the Spanish-speaking world and representing all variations on the spectrum of race. Each group has a unique origin story, but all have been shaped by law and legal process. Legal historians and legal scholars explore the role of law in incorporating Latino groups in American society, the effects of law on Latino communities, and the struggles of Latino lawyers, activists, and ordinary people against legal discrimination and for equality. The civil rights story of Latinos bears strong resemblance to that of African Americans: In each case, members have been subjected to de jure and de facto discrimination and social subordination. But the Latino civil rights story has unique valences, particularly in the areas of language discrimination and immigration law and policy. Latino legal history demonstrates the complex ways that Latinos interact with the color line in American law and politics.
Law in early America came from many sources. To focus exclusively on the English common law excludes other vital sources including (but not limited to) civil law, canon law, lex mercatoria (the law merchant), and custom. Also, the number of sources increases the farther back in time one goes and the greater the geographic area under consideration.
By the 18th century, common law had come to dominate, but not snuff out, other competing legal traditions, in part due to the numerical, political, military, and linguistic advantages of its users. English colonists were well-acquainted with the common law, but after arriving in the New World, the process of adaptation to new experiences and new surroundings meant that English common law would undergo numerous alterations.
Colonists in early America had to create legal explanations for the dispossession of Native American land and the appropriation of labor by enslaved Native Americans and Africans. Their colonial charters provided that all colonial law must conform to English law, but deviations began to appear in several areas almost from the first moment of colonization. When controversies arose within the colonies, not all disagreements were settled in courts: churches and merchants provided alternative settings to arbitrate disputes. In part, other groups provided mediation because there were so few trained lawyers and judges available in 17th-century colonies. By the 18th century, however, the number of trained practitioners increased, and the sophistication of legal knowledge in the colonies grew. The majority of legal work handled by colonial lawyers concerned contracts and property.
Law and the language of rights became more widely used by early Americans as the English attempted to tighten their control over the colonists in the mid-18th century. Rights and law became firmly linked with the Revolution in the minds of Americans, so much so that law, rights, and the American Revolution continue to form an integral part of American national identity.
The reproductive experiences of women and girls in the 20th-century United States followed historical patterns shaped by the politics of race and class. Laws and policies governing reproduction generally regarded white women as legitimate reproducers and potentially fit mothers and defined women of color as unfit for reproduction and motherhood; regulations provided for rewards and punishments accordingly. In addition, public policy and public rhetoric defined “population control” as the solution to a variety of social and political problems in the United States, including poverty, immigration, the “quality” of the population, environmental degradation, and “overpopulation.” Throughout the century, nonetheless, women, communities of color, and impoverished persons challenged official efforts, at times reducing or even eliminating barriers to reproductive freedom and community survival.
Between 1900 and 1930, decades marked by increasing urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, eugenic fears of “race suicide” (concerns that white women were not having enough babies) fueled a reproductive control regime that pressured middle-class white women to reproduce robustly. At the same time, the state enacted anti-immigrant laws, undermined the integrity of Native families, and protected various forms of racial segregation and white supremacy, all of which attacked the reproductive dignity of millions of women. Also in these decades, many African American women escaped the brutal and sexually predatory Jim Crow culture of the South, and middle-class white women gained greater sexual freedom and access to reproductive health care, including contraceptive services.
During the Great Depression, the government devised the Aid to Dependent Children program to provide destitute “worthy” white mothers with government aid while often denying such supports to women of color forced to subordinate their motherhood to agricultural and domestic labor. Following World War II, as the Civil Rights movement gathered form, focus, and adherents, and as African American and other women of color claimed their rights to motherhood and social provision, white policymakers railed against “welfare queens” and defined motherhood as a class privilege, suitable only for those who could afford to give their children “advantages.” The state, invoking the “population bomb,” fought to reduce the birth rates of poor women and women of color through sterilization and mandatory contraception, among other strategies. Between 1960 and 1980, white feminists employed the consumerist language of “choice” as part of the campaign for legalized abortion, even as Native, black, Latina, immigrant, and poor women struggled to secure the right to give birth to and raise their children with dignity and safety. The last decades of the 20th century saw severe cuts in social programs designed to aid low-income mothers and their children, cuts to funding for public education and housing, court decisions that dramatically reduced poor women’s access to reproductive health care including abortion, and the emergence of a powerful, often violent, anti-abortion movement. In response, in 1994 a group of women of color activists articulated the theory of reproductive justice, splicing together “social justice” and “reproductive rights.” The resulting Reproductive Justice movement, which would become increasingly influential in the 21st century, defined reproductive health, rights, and justice as human rights due to all persons and articulated what each individual requires to achieve these rights: the right not to have children, the right to have children, and the right to the social, economic, and environmental conditions necessary to raise children in healthy, peaceful, and sustainable households and communities.
Courts and legislatures in colonial America and the early American republic developed and refined a power to compel civilians to assist peace and law enforcement officers in arresting wrongdoers, keeping the peace, and other matters of law enforcement. This power to command civilian cooperation was known as the posse comitatus or “power of the county.” Rooted in early modern English countryside law enforcement, the posse comitatus became an important police institution in 18th- and 19th-century America. The posse comitatus was typically composed of able-bodied white male civilians who were temporarily deputized to aid a sheriff or constable. But if this “power of the county” was insufficient, law enforcement officers were often authorized to call on the military to serve as the posse comitatus.
The posse comitatus proved particularly important in buttressing slavery in the American South. Slaveholders pushed for and especially benefited from laws that required citizens to assist in the recapture of local runaway slaves and fugitive slaves who crossed into states without slavery. Though slave patrols were rooted in the posse comitatus, the posse comitatus originated as a compulsory and noncompensated institution. Slaveholders in the American South later added financial incentives for those who acted in the place of a posse to recapture slaves on the run from their owners.
The widespread use of the posse comitatus in southern slave law became part of the national discussion about slavery during the early American republic as national lawmakers contemplated how to deal with the problem of fugitive slaves who fled to free states. This dialogue culminated with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in which the US Congress authorized officials to “summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus” and declared that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required.” During Reconstruction, the Radical Republican Congress used the posse comitatus to enforce laws that targeted conquered Confederates. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern states pushed Congress to create what would come to be known as the “Posse Comitatus Act,” which prohibited the use of federal military forces for law enforcement. The history of the posse comitatus in early America is thus best understood as a story about and an example of the centralization of government authority and its ramifications.
Decided by the Supreme Court in 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion across the United States. The 7-2 decision came at the end of a decades-long struggle to reform—and later repeal—abortion laws. Although all of the justices understood that Roe addressed a profoundly important question, none of them imagined that it would later become a flashpoint of American politics or shape those politics for decades to come.
Holding that the right to privacy covered a woman’s choice to terminate her pregnancy, Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, struck down many of the abortion regulations on the books. The lead-up to and aftermath of Roe tell a story not only of a single Supreme Court decision but also of the historical shifts that the decision shaped and reflected: the emergence of a movement for women’s liberation, the rise of grassroots conservatism, political party realignment, controversy about the welfare state, changes to the family structure, and the politicization of science. It is a messy and complicated story that evolved parallel to different ideas about the decision itself. In later decades, Roe arguably became the best-known opinion issued by the Supreme Court, a symbol of an ever-changing set of beliefs about family, health care, and the role of the judiciary in American democracy.
Adam R. Shaprio
The 1925 Scopes trial was a widely followed court case in Dayton, Tennessee, that attracted the attention of the nation. A prosecution against a schoolteacher charged with violating Tennessee’s new law prohibiting the teaching of human evolution, the trial became a great public spectacle that saw debates over the meaning and truth of the Bible, and the relationship between science and religion. The trial is most famous for the involvement of the lawyers William Jennings Bryan (for the prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (for the defense).
Despite being a legally insignificant case, the trial has remained important in American history because it is seen as symbolizing some of the country’s great social issues in the early 20th century: fundamentalist responses to modernity, the autonomy and clout of the “New South,” and the eternal clash between religion and science.
Steven K. Green
Separation of church and state has long been viewed as a cornerstone of American democracy. At the same time, the concept has remained highly controversial in the popular culture and law. Much of the debate over the application and meaning of the phrase focuses on its historical antecedents. This article briefly examines the historical origins of the concept and its subsequent evolutions in the nineteenth century.
Christopher W. Schmidt
One of the most significant protest campaigns of the civil rights era, the lunch counter sit-in movement began on February 1, 1960 when four young African American men sat down at the whites-only lunch counter of the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Refused service, the four college students sat quietly until the store closed. They continued their protest on the following days, each day joined by more fellow students. Students in other southern cities learned what was happening and started their own demonstrations, and in just weeks, lunch counter sit-ins were taking place across the South. By the end of the spring, tens of thousands of black college and high school students, joined in some cases by sympathetic white students, had joined the sit-in movement. Several thousand went to jail for their efforts after being arrested on charges of trespass, disorderly conduct, or whatever other laws southern police officers believed they could use against the protesters.
The sit-ins arrived at a critical juncture in the modern black freedom struggle. The preceding years had brought major breakthroughs, such as the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling in 1954 and the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956, but by 1960, activists were struggling to develop next steps. The sit-in movement energized and transformed the struggle for racial equality, moving the leading edge of the movement from the courtrooms and legislative halls to the streets and putting a new, younger generation of activists on the front lines. It gave birth to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important activist groups of the 1960s. It directed the nation’s attention to the problem of racial discrimination in private businesses that served the public, pressured business owners in scores of southern cities to open their lunch counters to African American customers, and set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations across the nation.
K. Tsianina Lomawaima
In 1911, a group of American Indian intellectuals organized what would become known as the Society of American Indians, or SAI. SAI members convened in annual meetings between 1911 and 1923, and for much of that period the Society’s executive offices were a hub for political advocacy, lobbying Congress and the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA), publishing a journal, offering legal assistance to Native individuals and tribes, and maintaining an impressively voluminous correspondence across the country with American Indians, “Friends of the Indian” reformers, political allies, and staunch critics. Notable Native activists, clergy, entertainers, professionals, speakers, and writers—as well as Native representatives from on- and off-reservation communities—were active in the Society. They worked tirelessly to meet daunting, unrealistic expectations, principally to deliver a unified voice of Indian “public opinion” and to pursue controversial political goals without appearing too radical, especially obtaining U.S. citizenship for Indian individuals and allowing Indian nations to access the U.S. Court of Claims. They maintained their myriad activities with scant financial resources solely through the unpaid labor of dedicated Native volunteers. By 1923, the challenges exhausted the Society’s substantial human and miniscule financial capital. The Native “soul of unity” demanded by non-white spectators and hoped for by SAI leaders could no longer hold the center, and the SAI dissolved. Their work was not in vain, but citizenship and the ability to file claims materialized in circumscribed forms. In 1924 Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting birthright citizenship to American Indians, but citizenship for Indians was deemed compatible with continued wardship status. In 1946 Congress established an Indian Claims Commission, not a court, and successful claims could only result in monetary compensation, not regained lands.
From the 1890s to World War I, progressive reformers in the United States called upon their local, state, and federal governments to revitalize American democracy and address the most harmful social consequences of industrialization. The emergence of an increasingly powerful administrative state, which intervened on behalf of the public welfare in the economy and society, generated significant levels of conflict. Some of the opposition came from conservative business interests, who denounced state labor laws and other market regulations as meddlesome interferences with liberty of contract. But the historical record of the Progressive Era also reveals a broad undercurrent of resistance from ordinary Americans, who fought for personal liberty against the growth of police power in such areas as public health administration and the regulation of radical speech. Their struggles in the streets, statehouses, and courtrooms of the United States in the early 20th century shaped the legal culture of the period and revealed the contested meaning of individual liberty in a new social age.
Risa L. Goluboff and Adam Sorensen
The crime of vagrancy has deep historical roots in American law and legal culture. Originating in 16th-century England, vagrancy laws came to the New World with the colonists and soon proliferated throughout the British colonies and, later, the United States. Vagrancy laws took myriad forms, generally making it a crime to be poor, idle, dissolute, immoral, drunk, lewd, or suspicious. Vagrancy laws often included prohibitions on loitering—wandering around without any apparent lawful purpose—though some jurisdictions criminalized loitering separately. Taken together, vaguely worded vagrancy, loitering, and suspicious persons laws targeted objectionable “out of place” people rather than any particular conduct. They served as a ubiquitous tool for maintaining hierarchy and order in American society. Their application changed alongside perceived threats to the social fabric, at different times and places targeting the unemployed, labor activists, radical orators, cultural and sexual nonconformists, racial and religious minorities, civil rights protesters, and the poor. By the mid-20th century, vagrancy laws served as the basis for hundreds of thousands of arrests every year. But over the course of just two decades, the crime of vagrancy, virtually unquestioned for four hundred years, unraveled. Profound social upheaval in the 1960s produced a concerted effort against the vagrancy regime, and in 1972, the US Supreme Court invalidated the laws. Local authorities have spent the years since looking for alternatives to the many functions vagrancy laws once served.
Rebecca J. Mead
Woman suffragists in the United States engaged in a sustained, difficult, and multigenerational struggle: seventy-two years elapsed between the Seneca Falls convention (1848) and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). During these years, activists gained confidence, developed skills, mobilized resources, learned to maneuver through the political process, and built a social movement. This essay describes key turning points and addresses internal tensions as well as external obstacles in the U.S. woman suffrage movement. It identifies important strategic, tactical, and rhetorical approaches that supported women’s claims for the vote and influenced public opinion, and shows how the movement was deeply connected to contemporaneous social, economic, and political contexts.
Terri L. Snyder
Everywhere across European and Indigenous settlements in 17th- and 18th-century North America and the Caribbean, the law or legal practices shaped women’s status and conditioned their dependency, regardless of race, age, marital status, or place of birth. Historians have focused much of their attention on the legal status, powers, and experiences of women of European origin across the colonies and given great consideration to the law of domestic relations, the legal disabilities of coverture, and women’s experiences as plaintiffs and defendants, both civil and criminal, in colonial courts. Early American legalities, however, differed markedly for women of color—whether free, indentured, or enslaved, and whether Native or African in origin or descent—whose relationships to the legal regimes of early America were manifold and complex. In their status under the law, experiences at the bar, and, as a result, positions in household polities, women of color reckoned with a set of legalities that differed from those of their European counterparts. The diversity of women’s experiences of the law was shaped not only by race but also by region: Indigenous people had what one historian has labeled jurispractices, while Europeans brought and created a jurisprudence of race and status that shaped treatments of women of color across imperial spaces. A widely comparative analysis of women and the law reflects ways in which race shaped women’s status under and experiences of the law as well as the legalities of their marriages in pre-Revolutionary America.