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Historical Glossary

There are 102 entries in this glossary.
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Abelman v. Booth

On 7 March 1859, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Constitution's supremacy over state law preempts state courts from serving writs of habeas corpus on federal courts and their officials, or from otherwise interfering with the enforcement of US laws. The ruling blocked northern abolitionists from using state courts or personal liberty laws to nullify the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), whose constitutionality was also (improperly) affirmed.

Abington Township v. Schempp

On 17 June 1963, the Supreme Court (8–1) extended Engel v. Vitale by overturning a Pa. law mandating that school days start with the Lord's Prayer and a Bible reading.

Abnaki Indians

Speakers of one of the Algonquian languages, perhaps 2,000 Abnakis occupied Maine, Vermont, and N.H. in 1600. They traded furs with both English and French (but preferred dealing with the latter), accepted Jesuit missionaries, and were French allies in the colonial wars. In 1722 they raided settlements on the Kennebec River, but in the resulting Dummer's War, Mass. and N.H. militia dispersed them along the Kennebec River, and drove many as far north as Canada. During the Seven Years' War, Rogers' Rangers destroyed their main town at Ste Françoise, Quebec. After 1763 Abnakis drifted back and forth across the US–Canadian border, but most relocated in Canada; by 1800, probably less than 300 remained in Maine and Vt.


The earliest proponents of the abolition of slavery were Quakers, starting with William Edmundson's denunciation at Newport, R.I., in 1676 and an antislavery declaration written in April 1688 by the Germantown, Pa., Monthly Meeting. Every yearly meeting of the Quakers, or Society of Friends, between 1770 and 1776, forbade slaveowning. By 1779 over 80 percent of Quaker slaves were free, but not until 1796 were the last released from bondage.
The American Revolution led to the abolition of slavery in Vt. (1777), Pa. (1780), Mass. (1783), Conn. (1784), R.I. (1784), N.Y. (1799), and N.J. (1804). In 1787 Congress excluded slavery from the Northwest Territory. Every southern state but N.C. passed laws making it easier for masters to free their own slaves. The American Colonization Society also originated as a means of encouraging voluntary emancipation by masters. The proportion of blacks who were free rose from about 2 percent in 1770 to 11 percent by 1810.
Although northern whites held strong convictions about keeping slavery out of unsettled territories, they demonstrated little interest in abolitionism after 1800. It would again become politically influential after William Lloyd Garrison founded the Liberator in 1831 and the American Antislavery Society was formed in 1833. Abolitionism was a major cause of southern alienation from the Union, because its fanatical wing advocated the disregard of slavery's constitutional protections and routinely disparaged southern society in a highly insulting fashion.
In the Civil War, Congress's first Confiscation Act (6 August 1861) allowed the military to free any slaves seized while being used for Confederate military purposes, and a second Confiscation Act (17 July 1862) permitted the army to liberate all slaves owned by active rebels. On 16 April 1862, Lincoln signed a law to free slaves in the District of Columbia and compensate their owners. A proposal made in March 1862 to pay federal subsidies for reimbursing owners if any legislature adopted gradual emancipation failed because of opposition by the border states. After Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Md., W.Va., Mo., and Tenn. voluntarily abolished human bondage, and the Thirteenth Amendment finally ended the institution in Del. and Ky.


In 1973 the Supreme Court invalidated abortion laws in 46 states in Roe v. Wade. In 1972, when N.Y. was the only state with a liberal abortion law, there had been 586,000 legal abortions and perhaps 200,000 illegally-terminated pregnancies. Abortions doubled from 744,000 in 1973 to 1,550,000 in 1980, when they stabilized at around 40 percent of live births. Many states enacted laws discouraging abortions, and Congress passed the Hyde amendment to halt federal financing of them. The Senate demonstrated that it was unwilling to confirm anti-abortion nominees to the Supreme Court with Robert Bork's defeat in 1987.
On 29 January 1988, Ronald Reagan forbade federally-funded health clinics to advise women on abortion, and in 1989, George Bush banned the use of fetal tissue in medical experiments. William Clinton reversed these policies by executive order on 22 January 1992 and committed his administration to appointing judges who were pro-abortion.
Anti-abortion protests turned increasingly confrontational and violent after 1992, when massive pro-life demonstrations led to thousands of arrests in Wichita, Kans., where a family-planning center physician was later wounded on 19 August 1993. At a Pensacola, Fla., abortion clinic, pro-life activists killed one doctor on 10 March 1993; on 29 July 1994, they killed another doctor and wounded two helpers at the clinic. Congress responded with legislation in 1993 that made intimidation or use of force against abortion clinic personnel a federal offense.

Abrams v. United States

In 1919 the Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act's (1918) constitutionality by ruling that the First Amendment did not protect harmful speech, such as encouraging interference with military operations during a declared war.


Following the defeat of French forces at Nova Scotia in 1755 during the Seven Years' War, French Canadians there and in modern New Brunswick refused to swear to cease resistance against British forces. British authorities then ordered all enemy civilians to be forcibly deported, beginning on 8 October, to the thirteen colonies. Over 6,000 persons were exiled until the war's end, at which time many hundreds refused to go back to Canada, which had come under British jurisdiction, and resettled in Spanish Louisiana, where they and their descendants became known as “Cajuns.”

Adair v. United States

 On 27 January 1908, the Supreme Court ruled (6–2) that the Erdman Act (1898) was unconstitutional for forbidding railroads to require that their employees sign yellow-dog contracts. The Court held that the Fifth Amendment gave businesses the widest range of latitude to protect their property rights in contract negotiations, and that federal regulation of interstate commerce did not properly concern the organization of unions.

Adams, Charles Francis

(b. Boston, Mass., 18 August 1807; d. Boston, Mass., 21 November 1886)    Son of John Q. Adams, he opened a law office at Boston in 1829. He strongly supported abolitionism, was the nominee of the Free-Soil party for vice-president in 1848, and sat in Congress as a Republican (1859–61). As ambassador to Britain (1861–8), he performed valuable services by placating British anger over the Trent affair, blocking the shipment of ironclad rams for the CSA navy, and countering the efforts of CSA envoys for British aid or recognition for the Confederacy.

Adams, John

 (b. Quincy, Mass., 19 October 1735; d. Quincy, Mass., 4 July 1826)    In 1768 Adams opened a law office in Boston, where he was the political lieutenant of his second cousin, Samuel Adams. He successfully defended the British troops tried for the Boston massacre. At the first and second Continental Congresses, he molded support for the Declaration of Independence. He was the principal author of the Massachusetts Constitution (1780), which influenced the federal Constitution's structure. He helped negotiate the treaty of Paris (1783), was minister to Britain (1785–8), and as first vice-president, decided the fate of legislation in 20 tie-votes during his term. His term as president, representing the Federalist party (1797–1801) was dominated by extremists from that party who controlled Congress, and after Adams broke with them in 1800, he lacked sufficient support for reelection. He then left politics.

Adams, John Quincy

(b. Quincy, Mass., 11 July 1767; d. Washington, D.C., 23 February 1848)    Son of John Adams, he was envoy to the Netherlands (1794–6) and Prussia (1797–1801). Elected to the Senate in 1803, he resigned in 1808 under pressure from his Mass. constituents for having supported the embargo (see Embargo Act). He headed the US delegation at the negotiations for the treaty of Ghent and was ambassador to Britain (1815–17). He negotiated the Adams–Onis Treaty. Running for president in 1824 as a Democrat, he gained just 30.5 percent of the ballots but won through the “ corrupt bargain.”
His domestic agenda was the boldest yet proposed by a president, and included federal funding of internal improvements, scientific explorations, an astronomical observatory, a national university, and an Interior Department, but Congress enacted little of his program. Adams suffered another major defeat when Ga. forced him to accept the treaty of Indian Springs. It was Adams and Henry Clay around whom the National Republicans formed. In part because he refused on principle to use patronage to build a political machine, he took only 44.0 percent of the popular vote against Jackson in 1828. While in Congress (1831–48), he opposed the annexation of Texas and the extension of slavery to the territories. He was known as “Old Man Eloquent” for his efforts to overturn the Gag Rule.

Adams, Samuel

(b. Boston, Mass., 27 September 1722; d. Boston, Mass., 2 October 1803)    By 1764, Adams had become the dominant influence over Boston's town meeting. By his shrewd use of demonstrations and written propaganda, he made Boston the principal center of resistance to unconstitutional parliamentary measures. He helped found the Sons of Liberty, created the committees of correspondence and published the inflammatory account of Boston's occupation by British troops, A Journal of the Times. Recognizing before any other major colonial leader that American rights would never be assured under British rule, he pressed resolutely for the Declaration of Independence at the first and second Continental Congresses. He was governor of Mass. (1794–7).

Adamson [Eight-hour] Act

(3 September 1916)    In 1916 the largest railway unions threatened to strike on 4 September unless an eight-hour workday was instituted. Urged by Woodrow Wilson to avoid nationwide transportation disruption, a day before the strike date Congress set an eight-hour workday, plus time-and-a-half pay after that, for interstate railroad workers. Wilson v. New upheld the law.

Adams–Onis Treaty

To end tensions caused by the first Seminole War and establish the Louisiana Purchase's precise southern line, John Q. Adams negotiated this treaty with Luis de Onis, Spain's ambassador at Washington. Spain agreed to cede both East and West Florida to the US. The US gave up its claim to much of east and central Tex. under the Louisiana Purchase, and accepted the Sabine River as La.'s border. Spain and the US fixed their western boundary as the Red and Arkansas rivers, north along the Rockies' eastern slope, and then west along the 42nd parallel to the Pacific. The US gained 72,000 square miles, including Fla. and most of the Santa Fe Trail; it also reinforced the US claim to Oregon. Adams and Onis signed the agreement on 22 February 1819. The Senate ratified it on 19 February 1821, and the treaty went into effect three days later.

Addyston Pipe and Steel Company v. United States

In 1899 the Supreme Court held that collusion by businesses to split markets among themselves fell within federal regulation of interstate commerce and violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. The decision partly offset the restrictive interpretation of that act in United States v. E. C. Knight Company.

Adena Culture

This culture flourished from 700 BC to AD 200 in the eastern Ohio River valley and was centered in southern Ohio. The Adena was the first Indian society east of the Mississippi to settle in sedentary villages, establish widespread trade networks, and construct large earthworks for burial sites. The Adena coexisted with, and was succeeded by, the Hopewell Culture.

Adkins v. Children's Hospital

On 9 April 1923, the Supreme Court struck down (5–3) a 1918 US law allowing the District of Columbia Wage Board to set minimum salaries for women and children, as a price-fixing measure violating the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments' guarantee to negotiate free contracts. On 1 June 1936, in Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo, the Court ruled (5–4) that all minimum wage laws violated due process. West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish overruled these decisions.

Administration of Justice Act

 (20 May 1774)    Parliament passed this law in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party. In cases where a royal soldier or civil officer was accused of a crime punishable by death in Mass., the trial could be transferred to Britain or another colony if the governor believed public prejudices would not permit a fair trial in Mass. It was dubbed the “Murder Act” in the colonies and considered one of the Intolerable Acts.

Admiralty courts

Under British law, the High Court of Admiralty had jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases concerning foreign trade and the merchant marine. Beyond London, Vice-admiralty courts heard maritime cases. All verdicts were given by a judge sitting without a jury. Vice-admiralty courts were established in the thirteen colonies after 1696; although they had jurisdiction over the Navigation acts, they did not try smuggling cases—which were heard in common law courts with juries—until the Sugar Act.

Advice and Consent

Article II provides that Presidents may nominate judges and high-level executive branch officers and negotiate treaties with the "Advice and Consent of the Senate." The Constitution is clear about what constitutes "consent" (it requires a majority of the Senate to approve a nominee and two- thirds of the Senate to consent to a treaty) but ambiguous on "advice," leading to frequent quarrels with Presidents who acted without consulting with the Senate. The House plays no role in the advice and consent process.

affirmative action

This concept originated as a means of eliminating racial prejudice in hiring to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964) either voluntarily or in consequence of a lawsuit. By providing compensatory advantages to disadvantaged minorities or fixing specific goals to hire nonwhites, affirmative action plans sparked complaints that they inflicted reverse discrimination upon whites by hiring according to racial quotas regardless of personal merit. The Supreme Court ruled on this issue in Regents of University of California v.  Bakke, United Steelworkers of America et al. v. Weber, and  Wygant v.  Jackson Board of Education.

African Methodist Episcopal church

This denomination originated in a dispute over segregated seating arrangements at Philadelphia's St George Methodist church. Richard Allen led his fellow blacks out of the congregation in protest and formed the Free African Society. Allen founded the Bethel church and was ordained the first black Methodist deacon in 1793. In 1816 the Bethel church called a general conference of black Methodists, which founded the African Methodist Episcopal church, with Allen as bishop. By 1865, the church included 53,670 members and 2,613 clergy. In 1990 it had 6,200 churches and 2,210,000 members (1.5 percent of all churchgoers).

African Methodist Episcopal Zion church

 This denomination originated in 1796 when James Varick led black members of New York's John Street Methodist church to withdraw in protest at discriminatory treatment. In 1821 a conference representing six churches, 19 preachers, and 1,426 members organized the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. Varick became the first bishop in 1822. By 1865 it had 30,600 members and 661 clergy. In 1990 it had 6,060 congregations and 1,220,260 members.

Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933)

(12 May 1933)    This law created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) to stabilize farm income by setting price supports and capping crop acreage. Its provisions were eventually extended to cotton, tobacco, beef, pork, wheat, corn, barley, rye, potatoes, grain sorghum, flax, peanuts, sugar beets, and sugar cane. It was supplemented by the Jones–Connally Farm Relief Act, Jones–Costigan Sugar Act, Bankhead Cotton Control Act, Kerr–Smith Tobacco Control Act, and Warren Potato Control Act. The AAA operated the Commodity Credit Corporation. By spring 1934, 3,000,000 farmers had joined 4,000 local AAA marketing associations to set limits on output. The law inadvertently led to large-scale dispossession of tenants, especially cotton sharecroppers, who were evicted so that landlords could receive AAA stipends for taking land out of production; it consequently stimulated the migration of southern blacks to northern cities. The law was held unconstitutional on 6 January 1936 in United States v. Butler. Congress satisfied the Court's objections by passing the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (1936) and another Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1938.

Agricultural Adjustment Act, second

(16 February 1938)    Congress revived the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) because the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act failed to keep an imbalance of supply over demand from depressing farm prices in 1937–8. To satisfy constitutional objections raised in United States v. Butler, Congress financed its operations from general revenues instead of taxes on food-processing companies; it also required compulsory crop-limitation programs to win two-thirds approval from affected farmers in special elections. The law used subsidies, loans, and soil conservation stipends as incentives for farmers to accept government limits on acreage in production; it established a permanent federal storage program to take surplus commodities off the market; it authorized the Commodity Credit Corporation to value surplus crops used as collateral on loans to farmers at parity; and it created the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation to insure wheat crops, and capitalized it at $100,000,000. It was held constitutional in Mulford v. Smith (1939).

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