The Most Important Cases, Speeches, Laws & Documents in American History
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Give me liberty or give me death! -- or at least give me a respectable top-40 list.
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that end, our own team of expert lawyer-editors got together and assembled top-40 lists in four categories -- speeches, historical documents, laws, and landmark Supreme Court cases -- that they consider the most important legal documents in American history.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.
Get inspired! Browse our top-40 collection now!
40 Greatest American Speeches
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 Address
- Daniel Websters Second Reply to Hayne
- Sojourner Truths Aint I a Woman?
- Frederick Douglass The Hypocrisy of American Slavery
- Abraham Lincoln's "A House Divided"
- Abraham Lincolns Gettysburg Address
- Abraham Lincolns Second Inaugural Address
- Susan B. Anthonys On Womens Right to Vote
- William Jennings Bryans Cross of Gold
- Theodore Roosevelts The Man with the Muck-Rake
- Robert LaFollettes Free Speech in Wartime
- Eugene Debs Statement to the Court
- Woodrow Wilsons Fourteen Points
- Franklin D. Roosevelts First Inaugural Address
- Huey Longs Every Man a King
- Franklin D. Roosevelts Four Freedoms
- Franklin D. Roosevelts Pearl Harbor
- Harold Ickes' "What Is an American?"
- George C. Marshalls The Marshall Plan
- Harry S. Trumans The Truman Doctrine
- Margaret Chase Smiths Declaration of Conscience
- William Faulkners Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
- Douglas MacArthurs Old Soldiers Never Die
- Richard Nixons Checkers
- Dwight D. Eisenhowers Military Industrial Complex
- John F. Kennedy's "Inaugural Address"
- John F. Kennedys Ich bin ein Berliner
- Martin Luther Kings I Have a Dream
- Malcolm Xs The Ballot or the Bullet
- Lyndon B. Johnsons We Shall Overcome
- Robert F. Kennedys On the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Richard Nixons The Great Silent Majority
- Shirley Chisholms For the Equal Rights Amendment
- Barbara Jordans Statement on the Articles of Impeachment
- Ronald Reagans Tear Down This Wall
- Mary Fishers A Whisper of AIDS
- George W. Bushs Address to the Nation on September 11, 2001
- Barack 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 Orders
- Massachusetts Body of Liberties
- The Albany Plan
- Articles of Confederation
- Declaration of Independence
- Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions
- The Mayflower Compact
- Death Warrant of Bridget Bishop
- The Lee Resolution
- Declaration of Rights and Grievances
- Thomas Paine's "Common Sense"
- Treaty of Paris
- The Federalist Papers
- The Virginia Plan
- The Constitution
- The Bill of Rights
- Jeffersons Wall of Separation Letter
- Louisiana Purchase Treaty
- Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
- Telegram Announcing the Surrender of Fort Sumter
- Emancipation Proclamation
- War Department Order 143 (U.S. Colored Troops)
- Surrender of The Army of Northern Virginia
- 13th Amendment
- 14th Amendment
- 15th Amendment
- 17th Amendment
- 18th and 21st Amendments
- 19th Amendment
- Executive 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 Treaty
- Tonkin Gulf Resolution
- 26th Amendment
- The Warren Report
- The Iran-Contra Report
- 9/11 Commission Report
40 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 Act
- Federal Judiciary Act
- Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798
- Missouri Compromise
- Compromise of 1850
- Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
- Pacific Railway Act of 1862
- Morrill Land Grant Act
- Act to Establish Yellowstone National Park
- Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
- Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act
- Interstate Commerce Act of 1887
- Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887
- Sherman Antitrust Act
- Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906
- Federal Reserve Act of 1913
- Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914
- Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916
- National Prohibition Act of 1919 (Volstead Act)
- Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933
- Social Security Act of 1935
- National Labor Relations Act (The Wagner Act)
- Fair Labor Standards Act and Equal Pay Act
- Servicemen's Readjustment Act (G.I. Bill)
- Lanham (Trademark) Act
- Economic Cooperation Act (The Marshall Plan)
- Federal Tort Claims Act
- Federal-Aid Highway Act
- Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Social Security Act Amendments of 1965
- Voting Rights Act of 1965
- Anti-Discrimination Acts
- Fair Housing Act and Amendments
- Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)
- Occupational Safety and Health Act
- Endangered Species Act of 1973
- Federal Land Policy and Management Act
- Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993
- Defense of Marriage Act
- Matthew Shepard Act (Hate Crimes Act)