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Timeline of Events in American Legal and Political History

More than occasionally it is helpful to know something about American (and even world) history in order to better understand the study of law. This cheat sheet, of course, is no substitute for reading a primer on that history. However, for busy people with plenty of things to do, you may find this of some use.

1492-Columbus finds land in the New World (the present Bahamas).

1497-John Cabot sights the North American continent.

1507-The name "America" is the name erroneously given this new continent, apparently in honor of the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.

1521-Ponce de Leon lands in what is now Florida to attempt to settle it. He is wounded in a fight there, and dies in Cuba.

1565-First European settlement of North America occurs in St. Augustine, Florida.

1584-Sir Walter Raleigh discovers land he calls Virginia, after the virgin queen, Elizabeth.

1587-Virginia Dare is born, first English child born in current United States.

1607-Colony at Jamestown, Virginia established.

1619-First assembly in Virginia sits. Virginia House of Burgesses has little power. First African slaves imported to colony.

1620-Pilgrims arrive in new world, off course. Mayflower compact is signed, initiating type of "government."

1624-Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (New York) occurs.

1629-30-Massachusetts Bay Company is organized and Massachusetts Bay Colony and city of Boston are founded.

1633-34-Maryland is settled as a Roman Catholic colony.

1636-Connecticut settled.

1637-Massachusetts Bay Colony resident Anne Hutchinson banished after "court" holds that her religious utterances are contrary to revealed faith of Puritans.

1644-Roger Williams, a religious seeker whose views on religious toleration are revived more than a century later, is granted a patent for Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

1649-Maryland passes Toleration Act, which grants religious toleration to all Christians, including Roman Catholics. English King Charles I is beheaded.

1653-Puritan Oliver Cromwell becomes Lord Protector in England. In 1657, Cromwell will refuse title of "king."

1658-Cromwell dies. He is succeeded as Lord Protector by his son Richard. Richard will resign a year later.

1660-Charles II is invited to return to England as King. He is crowned the next year, and will reign until his death in 1685.

1664-English take control of New Amsterdam, changing name to New York.

1673-French explorers Marquette and Joliet explore the Mississippi River.

1675-William Penn, a Quaker, obtains rights to what will become Pennsylvania.

1677-William Penn and others publish "The Laws, Concessions and Agreements," which includes provisions protecting religious conscience and trial by jury.

1682-83-William Penn publishes a "Frame for Government," which includes a type of representative government.

1683-Colonists from New York and parts of New England draft a Charter of Liberties, which requires those who are taxed to consent to such taxation. In 1686, King James II of England will declare the Charter invalid.

1685-After the death of Charles II, his brother James II, a Roman Catholic, succeeds him as King.

1688-89-King James II is removed from the throne, and replaced by the Protestants William and Mary, in what the English call the Glorious Revolution.

1689-William and Mary issue the Declaration of Rights. They also reissue charters to American colonies.

1692-The Salem (Massachusetts) witch trials take place. Before the hysteria ends, 20 people are killed. Five years later, many of those involved in the trials apologize for their actions.

1712-A rebellion by slaves in New York is halted, and afterward, 21 slaves are executed.

1732-Benjamin Franklin begins publishing his "Poor Richardís Almanac." The first public stagecoach begins operations in New Jersey. George Washington is born.

1733-The last of the original colonies, Georgia, is settled by Englishmen.

1733-35-John Peter Zenger, a printer, begins printing the New York Weekly Journal. The Journal is highly critical of the government of Governor William Cosby. In 1734, Zenger is jailed on charges of seditious libel. He is acquitted after his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, argues to the jury that truthful statements should not be considered libel.

1734-New England minister Jonathan Edwards gives sermons that stir a religious fervor in New England. Whether Edwards is the source of what becomes known as the Great Awakening (later known as the First Great Awakening) is debatable, but a revival in religious feeling continues for several decades. The most popular preacher during the Great Awakening is George Whitefield, an Englishman who traveled about the colonies, beginning in Georgia in 1738. Whitefield began preaching in New England in 1740, and immediately caused an increase in religious fervor.

1738-New Jersey becomes separated from New York colonial governance.

1754-The French and Indian War begins. The War will end in 1763. Benjamin Franklin proposes a "Plan of the Union," to join all colonies other than Georgia under a president.

1760-English King George III is crowned.

1762-Leading colonial thinker James Otis of Massachusetts writes "A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives," which asserts colonial powers and rights under the unwritten English constitution.

1763-The Treaty of Paris ends the French and Indian War. France cedes much of its territory in the New World to England. Patrick Henry defends the colony of Virginia against an cleric who claims he has not been paid in tobacco as promised to him. In the Two Penny Act, the Virginia colonial legislature changed the payment of tobacco to clergy to money, but converted the pay at a rate disadvantageous to the clergy. Henry wins the case with stirring rhetoric invoking ideas of the consent of the governed.

1764-The Sugar Act is passed in England. The act is designed to raise money to pay for the costs of the French and Indian War, among other costs accrued as England becomes the dominant colonial power. Although the Sugar Act actually reduces the rate of taxation, the Sugar Act is to be strictly enforced, unlike earlier tariffs.

1765-The Stamp Act is passed. The act places a fee on all legal documents, deeds, newspapers and other documents. It affects a broad swath of colonists, including lawyers, ministers and other leaders of the colonial communities. The act is strongly resisted by colonists, who force those appointed as Stamp Act collectors to resign. From this resistance the slogan "No taxation without representation" is born.

1766-The Stamp Act is repealed, but a Declaratory Act, making colonists subject to laws passed by the English Parliament, is passed.

1767-The Townshend Act is passed, taxing materials like tea.

1768-English troops are sent to Boston. This raises fears of a "standing army," that is, an army that would remain in place enforcing the dictates of the King.

1770-The Townshend Act is repealed, except for the duty on tea. The same day, March 5, the Boston Massacre takes place. Three persons, including an escaped slave named Crispus Attucks, are killed.

1773-The Boston Tea Party takes place, a reaction against an English effort to allow the British East India Company to monopolize the tea market in the colonies.

1774-In reaction to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passes the Coercive Acts, which attempt to strip political authority from colonists in Massachusetts. In September, the First Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia.

1775-Battles of Concord and Lexington take place. Second Continental Congress meets. George III declares the colonists in rebellion.

1776-Independence from England is declared (the vote took place on July 2). The Declaration of Independence is largely written by Thomas Jefferson. The Revolutionary War, or the War of Independence, increases in intensity. Thomas Paine publishes "Common Sense."

1777-The  Articles of Confederation are proposed. They will become effective only after ratification by all thirteen colonies.

1781 -Maryland becomes the last state to ratify the Articles of Confederation. The English surrender at Yorktown.

1783-84-Treaty of Paris, ending the war between England and the United States, is negotiated, agreed to and ratified.

1785-Ordinance of 1785, which surveys and reserves western lands, is passed by the Congress existing pursuant to the Articles.

1786-The Shay Rebellion strikes western Massachusetts.

1787-Delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island declines to send any delegates) gather in Philadelphia to "amend" the Articles of Confederation. Instead, they draft a Constitution which will become the basic document of the United States of America upon ratification by nine states. Congress adopts the Northwest Ordinance, which attempts to aid in settling western frontier land.

1788-New Hampshire becomes the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, thus making it effective. However, the Constitution is really made effective when New York becomes the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution, by a convention vote of 30-27. (The Federalist Papers, written largely by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, with a few written by John Jay, are written as propaganda pieces to convince New Yorkers to urge their delegates to ratify the Constitution.)

1789-George Washington becomes the first President of the United States. At the end of summer 1789, the First Congress sends the Bill of Rights to the states for ratification, which become the first ten amendments to the Constitution (trivial fact: Congress sent twelve amendments to the states, but only ten were initially ratified). The Bill of Rights are ratified in 1791.

1794-Whiskey Rebellion occurs. Opposition by farmers to tax on liquor requires militia of about 13,000 to quell rebellion. Jayís Treaty signed. First toll road completed in Pennsylvania.

1797-John Adams, a New Englander, becomes our second President. Though elected Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson refuses to serve with the Adams administration. XYZ Affair occurs. French minister Talleyrand requests a bribe, which Americans refuse to offer. Tensions between French and Americans increase.

1798-Supreme Court decides Calder v. Bull. Alien and Sedition Acts (four in total) passed. United States and France engaged in undeclared war on the high seas. Virginia and Kentucky resolutions (authored by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively) condemn Alien and Sedition Acts. Eleventh Amendment, which bars citizens from suing states, is formally incorporated into Constitution.

1799-John Fries, leader of Friesí Rebellion in Pennsylvania, is arrested. After he is convicted, Adams pardons him.

1800-In the presidential election of this year, political parties form. The Republicans (who eventually will become our modern Democrats) support the Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who defeats the Federalist Party (a political party that died before the Civil War) candidate and incumbent President John Adams. Most historians believe the nation was closely divided between the two parties, although no popular vote totals exist.

1801-Jefferson is not elected President by the electoral College, because he and Aaron Burr, Jeffersonís Vice-Presidential running mate from New York, each receive 73 electoral votes. (This leads to the ratification in 1804 of the Twelfth Amendment, which requires electors to vote separately for President and Vice-President.) On the 36th vote, the House of Representatives (votes are counted by state, not as individuals) finally elects Jefferson President. During these votes, lame duck President John Adams nominates John Marshall as Chief Justice, and William Marbury as a local justice of the peace.

1803-04-Louisiana Purchase completed.

1803-Marshall writes the opinion for the Court in Marbury v. Madison, creating judicial review of congressional legislation.

1804-Lewis and Clark head for the westward end of the American continent. Senate convicts federal judge John Pickering and removes impeached judge from office. Aaron Burr loses race for governor of New York. Kills Alexander Hamilton in duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.

1805-Jefferson inaugurated President for second term. Lewis and Clark see Pacific Ocean.

1806-07-Aaron Burr arrested and charge with treason. In trial presided over by John Marshall, Burr is acquitted.

1808-The importation of slaves is prohibited by an Act of Congress.

1809-Jefferson is succeeded as President by James Madison.

1810-Supreme Court decides Fletcher v. Peck, concerning the Yazoo land fraud in Georgia, the nature of judicial review and the incorporation of natural law into the constitution, and the contracts clause of the Constitution.

1812-The United States declares war on Great Britain, despite British efforts to defuse trade disagreements.

1813-Madison is inaugurated for a second term.

1814-British exact their revenge in the War of 1812, burning the White House.

1815-The War of 1812 ends, with the British largely victorious in battle. However, Andrew Jackson wins the Battle of New Orleans after the War has formally ended (communications then were primitive), and becomes a hero, and, fourteen years later, President.

1817-James Monroe becomes the third consecutive Virginian inaugurated as President.

1819-Panic takes place, depressing economy. Supreme Court decides cases of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, Sturges v. Crowninshield, and McCulloch v. Maryland.

1820-The Missouri Compromise, which prohibits slavery north of 36į, 30' latitude (Missouri excepted), is passed by Congress, thus averting the first crisis over the "peculiar institution," slavery.

1821 -Monroe is reinaugurated for his second term.

1824-25-John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams, becomes the sixth President of the United States. No one wins electoral vote. Popular vote won by Andrew Jackson. Adams wins presidency in the House of Representatives with assistance of Henry Clay, one of the four presidential candidates in 1824.

1826-On July 4, exactly 50 years after the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both die. Once political enemies, they become avid correspondents in retirement.

1829-Andrew Jackson, a Republican-Democrat, is inaugurated after defeating Adams. After his inaugural speech, he invites his supporters to the White House, and they join him, leaving "proper" Washington agasp.

1831-Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia, slays his master and the masterís family, and begins the "Turner Rebellion." After two months, Turner is captured, tried and hung. Southerners use the Turner Rebellion to justify passing laws restricting the masterís right to manumit (free) his slaves, and bar gatherings of more than ten slaves, prohibit slaves from learning to read, and adopt other laws making more severe the institution of slavery.

1833-After Jackson is reelected to his second term, South Carolinians, led by John C. Calhoun, claim the authority as a state to "nullify" any federal law with which it disagrees. The Nullification Doctrine is the most serious effort concerning "states' rights," for it suggests that the Constitution is not an agreement of "We, the People," but an agreement among "We, the States."

1837-Almost like clockwork every 18-20 years, the United States undergoes another "Panic," what we today call a depression. It lasts for over three years. Supreme Court decides Charles River Bridge case, which modifies vested rights doctrine of Contracts Clause.

1846-The Mexican-American War begins in May. It lasts for a year, when fighting ends. The resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Feb. 2, 1848) annexes to the United States from Mexico parts New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The countries agree that the boundary between Texas and Mexico is the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo del Norte).

1849-Gold is found in California!

1850-After several sessions of Congress fail to "resolve" the crisis of slavery, the Compromise of 1850 is passed. This complicated series of laws bans the sale of slaves in the District of Columbia but permits the owning of slaves in the District, and determines that the Territory of Kansas (and other territories) will determine the legality of slavery by voting. This leads to "Bloody Kansas," in which both pro- and anti-slavery groups (John Brown is the most famous of the latter) kill opponents and bystanders. The proslavery group is more ruthless than the antislavery group, and manages to wrest control of the Kansas Territoryís government in an action decried by those opposed to slavery.

1850s-The Presidents (including James Buchanan, our only bachelor President) and Congress attempt to avoid the slavery issue.

1857-Dred Scott v. Sanford is decided by the Supreme Court, and the opinion is issued a couple of days after Buchananís inauguration. Chief Justice Roger Taney holds the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional on fifth amendment due process grounds, for the Compromise interferes with a personís right to property (the slave). This is only the second time an Act of Congress has been held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Panic of 1857 occurs.

1858-Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas engage in their famous series of debates in Illinois. Lincoln is a member of the newly-formed Republican Party, and Douglas is the sitting Democratic Senator from that state. They are running for Senator. (Remember, the state legislatures chose Senators, not the people. It was not until the first election after 1913 that people began directly electing senators.)

1859-John Brown's raid of the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) takes place. Brown is captured and hung. Oil is discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

1860-Lincoln is elected President with 43% of the popular vote, but with just under 60% of the electoral vote. He carries all northern states but one. Douglas finishes second in the popular vote, but last (out of four candidates) in electoral votes, winning neither southern nor northern states.

1861-One month after Lincoln is sworn in as President, the first shot is fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Civil War begins.

1862-Between July and September, Lincoln decides to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which by decree "frees" all the slaves in the southern, now Confederate, states. The Emancipation Proclamation is made effective January 1, 1863.

1863-At the Battle of Gettysburg (Pennsylvania), which takes place on July 1-3, and which may have changed the course of the Civil War, over 7,000 men are either maimed or killed in fifteen minutes during what became known as Pickettís Charge across an open field.

1864-Lincoln is re-nominated, and wins general election against George McClellan, former commanding general of the Union Army.

1865-On April 9, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. The Civil War ends. Five days later, Lincoln is shot by John Wilkes Booth, and dies early the next morning. Vice-President Andrew Johnson becomes President. In January, Congress sends to the states for ratification the 13th Amendment, which abolishes slavery and any involuntary servitude. The Amendment is ratified in December.

1866-The Radical Republicans take control of Congress, and ignore Lincolnís successor, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat who wants to return the southern states to full participatory status as soon as possible. Instead, Congress imposes Congressional Reconstruction of the south in place of Presidential Reconstruction. The first Civil Rights Act is passed over Johnsonís veto, the first time major legislation is adopted over a Presidential veto in American history. The 14th Amendment is sent to the states for ratification. The amendment overrules Dred Scott.

1867-Seward's Folly, the purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million, is completed. Two years later, gold is found in Alaska. Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson proposed.

1868-Andrew Johnson is impeached by the House of Representatives. In ensuing trial, Johnson is acquitted. The 14th Amendment is ratified, after southern states are told they must ratify to rejoin the Union.  Republican Ulysses S. Grant is elected President.

1869-The 15th Amendment is proposed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. The reconstructed southern states must ratify this amendment as a condition to returning to the Union. Judiciary Act enlarges number of Supreme Court Justices to nine from seven, which has been the case ever since. First transcontinental railroad completed.

1870-The 15th Amendment is ratified.

1871 -The Ku Klux Klan Act is passed, and is successful in limiting the Klan as a terrorist force, for a short period of time. The Klan comes back with a vengeance, and Act is later declared unconstitutional.

1873-Grant is re-inaugurated for his second term as President. The Slaughterhouse Cases is decided. Another Panic strikes the country. It lasts for nearly five years.

1875-A lame duck Republican Congress, which is about to become a Democratic stronghold, passes the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which is declared unconstitutional in 1883 in The Civil Rights Cases.

1876-77-In the Presidential contest between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, Tilden has a slight popular majority. However, Tilden lacks a majority in the electoral college by one vote. Three states (South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana) send in competing vote counts. An electoral commission is created, consisting of 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 5 members of the Supreme Court. By an 8-7 vote, the Commission decides that the returns for Hayes will be considered the official tally of results.  

1877-Reconstruction ends after Hayes is inaugurated. Labor unrest and crackdowns against striking laborers begin. The United States is becoming an industrialized society, and an immigrant society as well. First large labor strike occurs, which is ended when Hayes sends in federal troops.

1881-James Garfield is inaugurated as President. He is President for less than four months when he is shot by Charles Guiteau. Garfield lives for another two and one half months. Chester A. Arthur becomes President upon Garfield's death in September.

1884-Grover Cleveland is elected President, the first Democrat to be elected to that post in nearly 30 years.

1886-Haymarket Square riot occurs in Chicago. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) is organized.

1887-The first administrative agency of the federal government, the Interstate Commerce Commission, is created.

1890-The Sherman Antitrust Act is passed. "Jim Crow" laws, laws that segregate blacks and whites in the south, are passed beginning at this time by several southern states.

1893-Another Panic strikes. Grover Cleveland is inaugurated, winning the presidency four years after losing it. Chicago Exposition takes place.

1895-The Supreme Court, in three decisions, indicates its fear of the masses. The Courtís decisions suggest that efforts by state legislatures attempting to "redistribute" property will be subject to a constitutional challenge in court.

1898-The Supreme Court decides Plessy v. Ferguson, which upholds "separate but equal" treatment of blacks against an Equal Protection challenge. Spanish-American War takes place.

1901-Teddy Roosevelt becomes our youngest President, after William McKinley is assassinated.

1902-Oliver Wendell Holmes is nominated to the Supreme Court at age 62. He will remain on the Court for nearly 30 years.

1903-Wright brothers fly a plane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

1905-The Court decides the infamous case of Lochner v. New York. This decade sees millions of immigrants, many from southern and eastern Europe, arrive in the United States.

1908-The Court decides Muller v. Oregon, which seems contradictory to Lochner. The author of the brief in Muller is Louis D. Brandeis, who in 1916 will become the first Jewish Justice on the Supreme Court. Henry Ford begins selling Model T, first affordable car. William Howard Taft, the only man to be both President and a Justice (he was Chief Justice from 1921-30) is elected President.

1909-W.E.B. Du Bois founds National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Sixteenth Amendment, permitting federal government to adopt an income tax, is proposed. Amendment is ratified in 1913. First wireless message sent.

1912-Teddy Roosevelt runs for President as nominee of Bull Moose Party. TR and Taft split Republican vote, and Woodrow Wilson wins the presidency, first Democratic President since Grover Cleveland in 1892.

1913-Both Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments ratified. The latter amendment calls for direct election of Senators.

1914-Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian empire is shot and killed in the Balkans. World War I begins.

1916-In his campaign for reelection, Woodrow Wilson uses slogan "He kept us out of war." Wilson reelected.

1917-Wilson is re-inaugurated. Guess who enters World War I? The Communists take over Russia, and consolidate different lands as the Soviet Union.

1918-The War to End All Wars (not true, unfortunately) ends, and Germany is treated very poorly in the Treaty of Versailles. This embitters many Germans, including an Austrian-German named Adolf Hitler, who was wounded in World War I.

1919-Eighteenth Amendment, which ushers in prohibition, is ratified. Prohibition will go into effect in 1920. Experiment in prohibiting the consumption and distillation and transportation of liquor is a failure. Eighteenth Amendment repealed by Twenty-first Amendment, ratified in 1933. Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, is sent to the states for ratification. Wilson suffers stroke, and is largely incapacitated physically for remainder of term in office.

1920-The first Red Scare takes place. The United States government in general, and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in particular, claim thousands of Communists are in the United States, and must be rooted out. The Court decides, in this and in the preceding year, its first Free Speech cases, in which it permits a great deal of restriction on political speech. Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti arrested and charged with robbery and murder. Case remains controversial even today. Nineteenth Amendment ratified. Warren G. Harding elected President.

1920s-This decade is known as the Roaring Twenties. For the first time in American history, more Americans live in cities than in rural areas.

1923-Harding dies. He is succeeded by his Vice-President "Silent" Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge wins election in 1924. Supreme Court holds minimum wage law unconstitutional in Adkins v. Children's Hospital. Case will be reversed in 1937.

1927-Charles Lindbergh flies the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic Ocean.

1928-Herbert Hoover is elected on the promise of "a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage."

1929-In October, the stock market crashes, and the Great Depression begins. It will last until the United States goes to war in late 1941.

1933-Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a distant cousin of Teddy, is inaugurated as President. Although FDR campaigns on a platform of balancing the budget, he begins his First 100 Days by closing the banks, engaging in deficit spending and commencing the New Deal. Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany, and the Bundestag gives him nearly unlimited power.

1936-The Supreme Court holds unconstitutional another aspect of the New Deal, and also holds unconstitutional a state minimum wage law. FDR is reelected by a landslide.

1937-Inauguration is moved from March to January 20 by constitutional amendment. Two weeks after re-inauguration, FDR announces his Court Reorganization Plan. In late March and again in early April, the (same) Supreme Court holds constitutional acts that a year ago were held unconstitutional. This is the famous "switch in time that saved nine." Court Reorganization Plan dies in Congress, but FDR is finally able to appoint a person to the Supreme Court. He chooses Hugo Black, a Senator from Alabama and a devoted supporter of the New Deal.

1939-World War II begins when Germany invades Poland, and pursuant to an agreement, Great Britain defends Poland and declares war against Germany.

1941-On December 7, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The next day, the United States declares war against Japan.

1944-D-Day, the invasion of the French beaches of Normandy, takes place on June 6.

1945-At the end of April, Hitler commits suicide. Shortly before then, FDR dies, and is succeeded by Harry S (no period, for it was just an initial) Truman. In August, the United States drops two atomic bombs, the first on Hiroshima, and two days later, on Nagasaki. Shortly thereafter, the Japanese surrender, ending World War II.

1946-The Cold War between erstwhile allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, begins.

1948-China falls to the Communists. Truman miraculously defeats Thomas Dewey in the presidential race. Whittaker Chambers claims that Alger Hiss, a former aide to FDR, is a Communist. Hiss denies allegation under oath, and is eventually charged with perjury. First trial results in a hung jury (8-4 for conviction). In early 1950, at second trial, Hiss is convicted.

1949-On September 22, 1949, the Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) treaty became law. Chinese Communists took over mainland China. The second Hiss trial began.

1950-Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy claims to have a list of Communists who worked in the State Department. McCarthy repeats charges, but offers no list. Korean police action (the United States did not declare war, but the action was authorized by the United Nations) begins. It will end in 1953.

1951-Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who are alleged to have acted as spies for the Soviet Union, are convicted and sentenced to death. They are executed in 1953.

1952-The Republicans draft Dwight D. Eisenhower, former commander of the Allied Forces in World War II, as their presidential nominee. Ike easily defeats Adlai Stevenson.

1954-The Supreme Court decides Brown v. Board of Education, holding separate but equal is inherently unequal in public education. The next year, the Supreme Court will hold that all segregated schools must be desegregated "with all deliberate speed." The second Red Scare finally comes to an end when Joe McCarthyís "investigations" come to an end.

1955-Too tired (and unwilling) to move to the back of the bus so a white man could sit in her seat, Rosa Parks is arrested for violating Montgomery, Alabama laws requiring the separate seating of blacks and whites. A young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., leads a boycott of the Montgomery transportation system.

1956-Eisenhower wins reelection, again defeating Stevenson.

1957-Orval Faubus refuses to integrate Little Rock (Arkansas) Central High School. Eisenhower eventually calls in Army troops to escort nine black students to the school. Martin Luther King, Jr. organizes Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

1958-Court holds in Cooper v. Aaron Faubus's actions violate Constitution. This is the Court's first opinion concerning issues of race since Brown II in 1955.

1960-John F. Kennedy is elected President, the youngest President in American history to be elected. He defeats Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's Vice-President, in a close election. Some argue Nixon harmed politically when he refused to use makeup to cover up his "six o'clock shadow" in a televised debate. A minor conflict in Asia, which Eisenhower counseled was not Americaís war, will become the Vietnam War.

1961-The Freedom Riders, young civil rights advocates, begin riding buses across the south contrary to the rules and laws of southern states. Televised images show a number of peaceful advocates being brutally beaten. The issue of civil rights becomes front page news.

1962-The Cuban Missile crisis, a crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union, in which the United States demanded that no missiles be delivered to Cuba, and blockaded Cuban waters (which, in international law, is an act of war), heats up the Cold War.

1963-Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald (alone). Lyndon Baines Johnson becomes President.

1964-The first major civil rights bill since reconstruction is passed. In an effort to derail the bill, a southern congressman suggests (facetiously) that the bill also prohibit discrimination against women. The bill, much to his chagrin, passes and bars not only racial discrimination, but sex discrimination.

1965-The Voting Rights Act is passed.

1968-Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are both assassinated. LBJ decides not to run for reelection. Riots tear apart cities. The Democratic convention in Chicago becomes emblematic of the appearance that the United States is tearing itself apart. Hubert Humphrey obtains the Democratic nomination for the Presidency. He is opposed by Richard Nixon. In a close election, Nixon wins. Earl Warren sends a letter of resignation to LBJ, agreeing to resign upon the appointment of his successor. LBJ nominates Abe Fortas to replace Warren, and Homer Thornberry to take Fortas's seat as an Associate Justice. Fortas will withdraw after concerns about his extrajudicial activities are raised. He will resign from the Court in 1969. 

1969-Nixon is inaugurated President. He nominates Warren Burger to replace Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the United States.

1972-Burglars enter Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate apartment/office complex in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, D.C. They are apprehended by police after a security guard notices tape on door latch. Nixon is reelected overwhelmingly, gaining nearly 60% of the vote against George McGovern.

1973-The United States leaves Vietnam. Roe v. Wade is decided. Supreme Court holds death penalty is unconstitutional. Oil crisis resulting in long lines for gasoline.

1974-Nixon resigns the Presidency as a result of Watergate affair. Gerald Ford, who was named Vice-President after the resignation of Spiro T. Agnew (after Agnew was convicted of bribery), becomes President. Ford pardons Nixon. Rioting occurs in South Boston after school busing to integrate schools commences.

1976-Jimmy Carter defeats Gerald Ford in the Presidential contest. Supreme Court reinstates death penalty as option for states.

1977-Jimmy Carter is sworn in as President. Gary Gilmore is executed by firing squad in Utah. United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez, signs agreement with Teamsters Union.

1978-Supreme Court holds racial quotas in education impermissible, but affirmative action is constitutionally acceptable in field of higher education. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

1979-Iranians take Americans hostage in Teheran. They are not released until after Ronald Reagan becomes President in 1981. Inflation reaches its highest rate since 1946.

1980-Ronald Reagan defeats Jimmy Carter in the presidential race.

1981-Reagan is shot, less than three months after inauguration. Sandra Day O'Connor is nominated to the Supreme Court, the first woman to be named to the Court.

1985-Reagan begins his second term as President.

1986-Chief Justice Warren Burger retires. Reagan nominates Justice William Rehnquist to replace Burger, and Antonin Scalia to take the Associate Justice seat vacated by Rehnquist. After a bitter debate in the Senate concerning Rehnquist's record as an Associate Justice, and his record as a law clerk and attorney, he is confirmed. Scalia is confirmed by a vote of 98-0.

1987-The Dow Jones Industrial Average falls over 500 points in one day. Robert Bork is nominated to the Supreme Court by President Reagan after the retirement of Lewis Powell. The Bork nomination becomes extremely contentious, which results in the coining of a new verb ("to bork") by those supporting his nomination. The Senate votes and refuses to confirm Bork's nomination. After an aborted nomination of a former Harvard Law School professor named Douglas Ginsberg (for alleging smoking marijuana while at Harvard), Anthony Kennedy, a judge for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, is nominated and confirmed.

1989-The Berlin Wall comes down, and the Cold War ends. George Bush succeeds Reagan as President.

1990-David Souter, a so-called "stealth" candidate, is nominated to the Supreme Court to replace Justice William Brennan.

1991-President Bush nominates Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall. Thomas is the second black American to be nominated to the Court. His confirmation hearing becomes a battleground, particularly after he is a accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. Thomas wins confirmation by a vote of 52-48. 

1993-Bill Clinton is inaugurated President. After the resignation of Byron White, Clinton nominates Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Court, making her the second women justice.

1994-Clinton nominates Stephen Breyer to succeed Harry Blackmun on the Supreme Court. Breyer is the most recent appointee to the Court, making the current Supreme Court second in length of tenure. Only the unchanged Marshall Court from 1811-23 had a longer period of continuous service by the same members. In the off-year election, Republicans win a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives, making it the majority party for the first time in four decades.

1995-The Internet becomes much more accessible to ordinary Americans, sparking an internet and "dot.com" boom. The government shuts down due to a spat between President Clinton and the Republican majority in Congress.  

1996-Clinton becomes the first Democrat to be reelected since FDR in 1936.

1998-Clinton is impeached on two counts.

1999-Clinton is acquitted of charges by the Senate.

2000-The stock market crashes. The NASDAQ falls from over 5,000 to less than 2,000. The dot.com boom becomes a bust.

2000-01-In the Presidential election of 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore end up in a statistical dead heat, with Gore winning slightly more votes than Bush, but with neither obtaining a majority. The presidential contest does not end on election night, for the outcome in the State of Florida is too close to call. The media first call the vote in  Florida for Gore, then for Bush, and then leave it undecided. By an extraordinarily thin margin, varying between 300 and 1800 votes, it appears that Bush has won more votes in Florida than Gore. Litigation over the counting and disallowing of votes there ensues. Twice the Supreme Court of the United States overturns decisions made by the Florida Supreme Court requiring a recount. Gore eventually concedes, and Bush is sworn in as the 43rd President in January 2001.

2001-Terrorists from a group known as Al Qaeda commandeer four passenger jets in the United States. Two of the jets are crashed into the World Trade Center towers, which collapse on national televsion, and another crashes into the Pentagon. In the fourth plane, passengers learn of the other hijackings and fight back, causing the plane to crash into a Pennsylvania field. Nearly 3,000 persons die in these attacks. The United States attacks the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan, and a war on terrorism is declared.

2002-The NASDAQ bottoms out at slightly above the 1000 mark. The United States is in a recession, and the debate begins whether it began at the end of the Clinton administration or the beginning of the Bush (43) administration.

2003-The Supreme Court, in a momentous Term, overrules its decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) in Lawrence v. Texas. The Court also revisits its Bakke (1978) decision, which concerned the use of affirmative action in higher education. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court holds constitutional the use of race in admissions decisions to the University of Michigan law school, on the ground that race was just one of many factors used to determine whom to admit. The companion case, Gratz v. Bollinger, declares unconstitutional the particular use of race in undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan. The swing vote is Justice O'Connor. Her opinion in Grutter suggests that affirmative action should come to an end in 25 years; Bakke itself was decided 25 years ago.  

2003-The United States sends troops to Iraq and deposes Saddam Hussein. Hussein is captured in a "spider's nest" in December. The economy heats up, but critics claim that it is a "jobless" recovery, for unemployment is still about 6% at the end of the year. The Dow Jones reaches 10,000 for the first time in several years, and the NASDAQ reaches 2,000 at the end of the year.