In honor of Nolos 40th anniversary as America's pioneer do-it-yourself legal publisher, we're looking back -- not just at our own past, but at milestones in our nation's legal history. To that end, our own team of expert lawyer-editors got together and assembled top-40 lists in four categories -- speeches, historical documents, laws, and landmark Supreme Court cases -- that they consider the most important legal documents in American history. Think Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, The Bill of Rights, or the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
There were many documents we would have loved to include, but those we did include share one thing in common: they mark an important idea, movement, or event that figured in our nation's history. And of course, we were somewhat biased toward documents that capture the Nolo law for all spirit, like Thomas Paines Common Sense, which contains a powerful, stirring argument for democracy.
From Patrick Henrys legendary pronouncement, Give me liberty or give me death! to Martin Luther King, Jr.s famous I Have a Dream speech, for centuries American orators have changed attitudes, spurred action, or summed up a nations collective sorrow. Here are 40 of the greatest (listed in order from the oldest to the most recent).Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death"George Washingtons "Farewell Address to the Nation"James Monroes Monroe Doctrine AddressDaniel Websters Second Reply to HayneSojourner Truths Aint I a Woman?Frederick Douglass The Hypocrisy of American SlaveryAbraham Lincoln's "A House Divided"Abraham Lincolns Gettysburg AddressAbraham Lincolns Second Inaugural AddressSusan B. Anthonys On Womens Right to VoteWilliam Jennings Bryans Cross of GoldTheodore Roosevelts The Man with the Muck-RakeRobert LaFollettes Free Speech in WartimeEugene Debs Statement to the CourtWoodrow Wilsons Fourteen PointsFranklin D. Roosevelts First Inaugural AddressHuey Longs Every Man a KingFranklin D. Roosevelts Four FreedomsFranklin D. Roosevelts Pearl HarborHarold Ickes' "What Is an American?"George C. Marshalls The Marshall PlanHarry S. Trumans The Truman DoctrineMargaret Chase Smiths Declaration of ConscienceWilliam Faulkners Nobel Prize Acceptance SpeechDouglas MacArthurs Old Soldiers Never DieRichard Nixons CheckersDwight D. Eisenhowers Military Industrial ComplexJohn F. Kennedy's "Inaugural Address"John F. Kennedys Ich bin ein BerlinerMartin Luther Kings I Have a DreamMalcolm Xs The Ballot or the BulletLyndon B. Johnsons We Shall OvercomeRobert F. Kennedys On the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.Richard Nixons The Great Silent MajorityShirley Chisholms For the Equal Rights AmendmentBarbara Jordans Statement on the Articles of ImpeachmentRonald Reagans Tear Down This WallMary Fishers A Whisper of AIDSGeorge W. Bushs Address to the Nation on September 11, 2001Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union"40 Significant American Legal Documents
A lot can be learned about American history by reading what our forebears and their contemporaries wrote -- contracts, declarations of independence, death warrants, executive orders, and the like. Some of these historical documents changed the way we governed ourselves (the Declaration of Independence), or expanded rights for certain groups of our citizens (the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments). Others serve as a warning of how easily we can collectively run astray of American principles of freedom and respect (the 1692 Death Warrant of Bridget Bishop or Executive Order 9066, which relocated Americans of Japanese descent to internment camps during World War II). Here are 40 historical documents that mark important points, both good and bad, in our nations story (listed in order from the oldest to the most recent).The Fundamental OrdersMassachusetts Body of LibertiesThe Albany PlanArticles of ConfederationDeclaration of IndependenceDeclaration of Sentiments and ResolutionsThe Mayflower CompactDeath Warrant of Bridget BishopThe Lee ResolutionDeclaration of Rights and GrievancesThomas Paine's "Common Sense"Treaty of ParisThe Federalist PapersThe Virginia PlanThe ConstitutionThe Bill of RightsJeffersons Wall of Separation LetterLouisiana Purchase TreatyTreaty of Guadalupe HidalgoTelegram Announcing the Surrender of Fort SumterEmancipation ProclamationWar Department Order 143 (U.S. Colored Troops)Surrender of The Army of Northern Virginia13th Amendment14th Amendment15th Amendment17th Amendment18th and 21st Amendments19th AmendmentExecutive Order 8802 (Fair Employment Act)Executive Order 9066 (Japanese Internment)Senate Resolution 301 (McCarthy Censure)Executive Order 10730 (Desegregation of Central High)Executive Order 10924 (Peace Corps)Nuclear Test Ban TreatyTonkin Gulf Resolution26th AmendmentThe Warren ReportThe Iran-Contra Report9/11 Commission Report40 Landmark Supreme Court Cases
The United States Supreme Court has played a large role in U.S. history, at times reflecting the mass sentiment of the era (upholding slavery in Dred Scott v. Sandford) and at other times disregarding popular views to extend rights to our citizens (as in Brown v. Board of Education when it ruled that separate is not equal). Other famous Supreme Court decisions established the Courts own power (Marbury v. Madison) or reshaped the political landscape (for example, by ruling on voter redistricting in Baker v. Carr). Here are 40 of the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions (listed in order from the oldest to the most recent).Marbury v. Madison The Court decides that it is the ultimate arbiter of the U.S. Constitution.McCulloch v. Maryland The federal government has implied power -- and the states cant interfere with it.Gibbons v. Ogden The Court makes the Commerce Clause very broad indeed.Dred Scott v. Sandford In perhaps the worst decision in its history, the Court sides with slavery and declares that blacks cannot be citizens of the United States.Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad An offhand remark creates the doctrine that corporations have rights just like people.Plessy v. Ferguson The Court embarks on an era of separate but equal, allowing segregation in public places.Lochner v. New York The Court rules against a group of bakers -- and begins an era in which it strikes down progressive laws seeking to regulate working conditions.Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States The Court strikes a blow for competition -- and a blow against John D. Rockefeller.Schecter Poultry Corp v. United States The Court makes an enemy of President Roosevelt by striking down a key provision of the New Deal.Korematsu v. United States The Court allows the internment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II.Shelley v. Kraemer The Court invalidates restrictions on the ownership of property by non-whites.Brown v. Board of Education The Court says separate is not equal -- and begins the end of segregation in public life.Mapp v. Ohio The Court says police must follow the Fourth Amendment -- or have any evidence they find excluded from trial.Baker v. Carr The Court enters the debate over voting districts -- and reshapes the political landscape.Engel v. Vitale Prayer in public schools violates the separation of church and state.Gideon v. Wainright Criminal defendants have the right to an attorney, even if they cant afford to pay for one.Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States The Court sides with Congress in the major constitutional challenge to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.New York Times v. Sullivan The New York Times runs an advertisement with factual errors -- and gets First Amendment protection anyway.Reynolds v. Sims Voting districts must be roughly equal in population.Griswold v. Connecticut The Court rules that the First Amendment guarantees a right to privacy, even though it doesnt explicitly say so.Miranda v. Arizona Miranda rights are born.Frontiero v. Richardson The Supreme Court justices decide that discrimination based on gender is unconstitutional -- but dont agree on much else.In Re Gault Even juvenile defendants get certain constitutional rights when they are charged with a crime.Loving v. Virginia The Court strikes down laws prohibiting interracial marriage.Griggs v. Duke Power Co. The Court fashions the concept of disparate impact, meaning an employer can be guilty of discrimination even without proof of intent.Lemon v. Kurtzman The Court creates the Lemon test for deciding cases involving the separation of church and state.Roe v. Wade Women have the constitutional right to terminate pregnancy.United States v. Nixon The Court rejects Nixons assertion of unqualified executive privilege and orders the release of the Watergate tapes, ultimately toppling his presidency.Gregg v. Georgia The Court finds that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual punishment.Regents of the University of California v. Bakke affirmative action is okay, but quotas arent.Texas v. Johnson Flag burning is a form of expressive speech protected by the First Amendment.Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health There needs to be clear and convincing evidence of a patients wishes before ending life-sustaining medical treatment.Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey A woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy, but the government can put a lot of restrictions on that right.United States v. Lopez The Court curbs the Commerce Clause and strikes down a school gun ban.Reno v. ACLU The Court gives Internet content the highest level of First Amendment protection.Boy Scouts of America v. Dale The Court allows the Boy Scouts to bar gays from becoming troop leaders.Bush v. Gore The justices end the Florida recount and put George W. Bush in the White House.Lawrence v. Texas The Court strikes down laws prohibiting sexual acts between consenting adults.District of Columbia v. Heller The Second Amendment guarantees an individuals right to bear arms, at least in ones home.Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission The Court uses the First Amendment to strike down limits on corporate campaign contributions.40 Most Important American Laws
Congress, presidents, activists, and voters have all influenced the enactment and repeal of our nations federal laws. Those laws have influenced American lives in many ways by changing the way we do business (the Interstate Commerce Act and the Sherman Antitrust Act), preserving our environment (the Endangered Species Act and the Act to Establish Yellowstone National Park), and protecting our citizens (Keating-Owen Child Labor Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act). Here are 40 of our countrys most important federal laws, some still existing, some now greatly expanded, and some thankfully no longer with us (listed in order from the oldest to the most recent).Homestead ActFederal Judiciary ActAlien and Sedition Acts of 1798Missouri CompromiseCompromise of 1850Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854Pacific Railway Act of 1862Morrill Land Grant ActAct to Establish Yellowstone National ParkChinese Exclusion Act of 1882Pendleton Civil Service Reform ActInterstate Commerce Act of 1887Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887Sherman Antitrust ActFederal Meat Inspection Act of 1906Federal Reserve Act of 1913Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916National Prohibition Act of 1919 (Volstead Act)Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933Social Security Act of 1935National Labor Relations Act (The Wagner Act)Fair Labor Standards Act and Equal Pay ActServicemen's Readjustment Act (G.I. Bill)Lanham (Trademark) ActEconomic Cooperation Act (The Marshall Plan)Federal Tort Claims ActFederal-Aid Highway ActCivil Rights Act of 1964Social Security Act Amendments of 1965Voting Rights Act of 1965Anti-Discrimination ActsFair Housing Act and AmendmentsRacketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)Occupational Safety and Health ActEndangered Species Act of 1973Federal Land Policy and Management ActFamily and Medical Leave Act of 1993Defense of Marriage ActMatthew Shepard Act (Hate Crimes Act)Are you a legal expert interested in writing for Nolo? Learn about writing opportunities.
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