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.
The NAACP, established in 1909, was formed as an integrated organization to confront racism in the United States rather than seeing the issue as simply a southern problem. It is the longest running civil rights organization and continues to operate today. The original name of the organization was The National Negro League, but this was changed to the NAACP on May 30, 1910.
Organized to promote racial equality and integration, the NAACP pursued this goal via legal cases, political lobbying, and public campaigns. Early campaigns involved lobbying for national anti-lynching legislation, pursuing through the US Supreme Court desegregation in areas such as housing and higher education, and the pursuit of voting rights. The NAACP is renowned for the US Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that desegregated primary and secondary schools and is seen as a catalyst for the civil rights movement (1955–1968). It also advocated public education by promoting African American achievements in education and the arts to counteract racial stereotypes. The organization published a monthly journal, The Crisis, and promoted African American art forms and culture as another means to advance equality. NAACP branches were established all across the United States and became a network of information, campaigning, and finance that underpinned activism. Youth groups and university branches mobilized younger members of the community. Women were also invaluable to the NAACP in local, regional, and national decision-making processes and campaigning. The organization sought to integrate African Americans and other minorities into the American social, political, and economic model as codified by the US Constitution.
The 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines established that students in public elementary and secondary schools do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Before Tinker, students often faced punishment from school officials for their role in protests both on and off campus. A rise in civil rights protests and the role of young people in the social movements of the 1960s led to frequent conflicts between students and school administrators. Many black students were especially vocal in contesting racial discrimination at school in the two decades following the 1954Brown v. Board of Education decision. But before Tinker, students in public elementary and secondary schools were not considered to have any constitutional rights, including the right to free expression. Some of these students brought lawsuits in response to punishments they believed unfairly disciplined them for participating in legitimate protests. The political activism of young people and developments in First Amendment law eventually brought the Constitution into the public school classroom, leading to Tinker and other cases that established students’ rights.
The Clinton scandals have settled in the annals of American political history in the context of the era’s recurrent presidential misbehavior. Viewed through a historical lens, the activities, investigation, and impeachment trial of the forty-second president are almost inevitably measured against the weight of Watergate and Iran-Contra. As a result, the actions and consequences of this high-profile moment in the late-20th-century political history of the United States arguably took on a weightier meaning than it might otherwise have. If Watergate tested the U.S. constitutional system to its limits and Iran-Contra was arguably as grave, the Clinton affair was crisis-light by comparison. Originating with an investigation into a failed 1970s Arkansas land deal by Bill Clinton and his wife, the saga developed to include such meandering subplots as Filegate, Travelgate, Troopergate, the death of White House counsel Vince Foster, and, most infamously, the president’s affair with a White House intern. Unlike Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, even Bill Clinton’s most ardent critics could not find a national security threat among the myriad scandals linked to his name.
By the time that Justice Department appointee Robert Fiske was replaced as prosecutor by the infinitely more zealous Kenneth Starr, the case had become synonymous with the culture wars that permeated 1990s American society. As the Whitewater and related tentacles of the investigation failed to result in any meaningfully negative impact on the president, it was his marital infidelities that came closest to unseating him. Pursued with vigor by the Independent Counsel, his supporters remained loyal as his detractors spotted political opportunity via his lapses in judgment.
Certain key factors made the Clinton scandal particular to its era. First, in an unprecedented development, the personal indiscretion aspect of the story broke via the Internet. In addition, had the Independent Counsel legislation not been renewed, prosecutor Fiske would likely have wrapped up his investigation in a timely fashion with no intention of pursuing an impeachment path. And, the relentless cable news cycle and increasingly febrile partisan atmosphere of the decade ensured that the nation remained as focused as it was divided on the topic.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), designed to enshrine in the Constitution of the United States a guarantee of equal rights to women and men, has had a long and volatile history. When first introduced in Congress in 1923, three years after ratification of the woman suffrage amendment to the US Constitution, the ERA faced fierce opposition from the majority of former suffragists. These progressive women activists opposed the ERA because it threatened hard-won protective labor legislation for wage-earning women. A half century later, however, the amendment enjoyed such broad support that it was passed by the requisite two-thirds of Congress and, in 1972, sent to the states for ratification. Unexpectedly, virulent opposition emerged during the ratification process, not among progressive women this time but among conservatives, whose savvy organizing prevented ratification by a 1982 deadline. Many scholars contend that despite the failure of ratification, equal rights thinking so triumphed in the courts and legislatures by the 1990s that a “de facto ERA” was in place. Some feminists, distrustful of reversible court decisions and repealable legislation, continued to agitate for the ERA; others voiced doubt that ERA would achieve substantive equality for women. Because support for an ERA noticeably revived in the 2010s, this history remains very much in progress.
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.
Throughout American history, gender, meaning notions of essential differences between women and men, has shaped how Americans have defined and engaged in productive activity. Work has been a key site where gendered inequalities have been produced, but work has also been a crucible for rights claims that have challenged those inequalities. Federal and state governments long played a central role in generating and upholding gendered policy. Workers and advocates have debated whether to advance laboring women’s cause by demanding equality with men or different treatment that accounted for women’s distinct responsibilities and disadvantages.
Beginning in the colonial period, constructions of dependence and independence derived from the heterosexual nuclear family underscored a gendered division of labor that assigned distinct tasks to the sexes, albeit varied by race and class. In the 19th century, gendered expectations shaped all workers’ experiences of the Industrial Revolution, slavery and its abolition, and the ideology of free labor. Early 20th-century reform movements sought to beat back the excesses of industrial capitalism by defining the sexes against each other, demanding protective labor laws for white women while framing work done by women of color and men as properly unregulated. Policymakers reinforced this framework in the 1930s as they built a welfare state that was rooted in gendered and racialized constructions of citizenship.
In the second half of the 20th century, labor rights claims that reasoned from the sexes’ distinctiveness increasingly gave way to assertions of sex equality, even as the meaning of that equality was contested. As the sex equality paradigm triumphed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, seismic economic shifts and a conservative business climate narrowed the potential of sex equality laws to deliver substantive changes to workers.
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.
International law is the set of rules, formally agreed by treaty or understood as customary, by which nation-states interact with each other in a form of international society. Across the history of U.S. foreign relations, international law has provided both an animating vision, or ideology, for various American projects of world order, and a practical tool for the advancement of U.S. power and interests. As the American role in the world changed since the late 18th century, so too did the role of international law in U.S. foreign policy. Initially, international law was a source of authority to which the weak American government could appeal on questions of independence, sovereignty, and neutrality. As U.S. power grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries, international law became variously a liberal project for the advancement of peace, a civilizational discourse for justifying violence and dispossession, and a bureaucratic and commercial tool for the expansion of empire. With the advent of formal inter-governmental organizations in the 20th century, the traditional American focus on neutrality faded, to be replaced by an emphasis on collective security. But as the process of decolonization diluted the strength of the United States and its allies in the parliamentary chambers of the world’s international organizations, Washington increasingly advanced its own interpretations of international law, and opted out of a number of international legal regimes. At the same time, Americans increasingly came to perceive of international law as a vehicle to advance the human rights of individuals over the sovereign rights of states.
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.
Benjamin C. Waterhouse
Political lobbying has always played a key role in American governance, but the concept of paid influence peddling has been marked by a persistent tension throughout the country’s history. On the one hand, lobbying represents a democratic process by which citizens maintain open access to government. On the other, the outsized clout of certain groups engenders corruption and perpetuates inequality. The practice of lobbying itself has reflected broader social, political, and economic changes, particularly in the scope of state power and the scale of business organization. During the Gilded Age, associational activity flourished and lobbying became increasingly the province of organized trade associations. By the early 20th century, a wide range at political reforms worked to counter the political influence of corporations. Even after the Great Depression and New Deal recast the administrative and regulatory role of the federal government, business associations remained the primary vehicle through which corporations and their designated lobbyists influenced government policy. By the 1970s, corporate lobbyists had become more effective and better organized, and trade associations spurred a broad-based political mobilization of business. Business lobbying expanded in the latter decades of the 20th century; while the number of companies with a lobbying presence leveled off in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of lobbyists per company increased steadily and corporate lobbyists grew increasingly professionalized. A series of high-profile political scandals involving lobbyists in 2005 and 2006 sparked another effort at regulation. Yet despite popular disapproval of lobbying and distaste for politicians, efforts to substantially curtail the activities of lobbyists and trade associations did not achieve significant success.
Mark G. Hanna
Historians of colonial British North America have largely relegated piracy to the marginalia of the broad historical narrative from settlement to revolution. However, piracy and unregulated privateering played a pivotal role in the development of every English community along the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas to New England. Although many pirates originated in the British North American colonies and represented a diverse social spectrum, they were not supported and protected in these port communities by some underclass or proto-proletariat but by the highest echelons of colonial society, especially by colonial governors, merchants, and even ministers.
Sea marauding in its multiple forms helped shape the economic, legal, political, religious, and cultural worlds of colonial America. The illicit market that brought longed-for bullion, slaves, and luxury goods integrated British North American communities with the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans throughout the 17th century. Attempts to curb the support of sea marauding at the turn of the 18th century exposed sometimes violent divisions between local merchant interests and royal officials currying favor back in England, leading to debates over the protection of English liberties across the Atlantic. When the North American colonies finally closed their ports to English pirates during the years following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), it sparked a brief yet dramatic turn of events where English marauders preyed upon the shipping belonging to their former “nests.” During the 18th century, colonial communities began to actively support a more regulated form of privateering against agreed upon enemies that would become a hallmark of patriot maritime warfare during the American Revolution.
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.