A proclamation by President George Washington and a congressional resolution established the first national Thanksgiving Day on November 26, 1789. The holiday was intended to give thanks for the new government formed under the Constitution. It became an official federal holiday under President Lincoln in 1863, and in 1941 was set as the fourth Thursday in November.
One of the most common 19th century civil suits was for alienation of affection, awarding damages to litigants whose marriages disintegrated due to the actions of a third party. In order for a plaintiff to prevail, he or she had to show that the marriage had been a loving one, that the relationship was alienated (i.e., destroyed), and that the defendant was responsible for this alienation. While long since abolished in most states, in 2010 a record $9 million judgment was awarded in North Carolina against a defendant who had seduced the plaintiff’s husband.
Just in time for election day: the oldest third party in the United States is the Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, which advocates against the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages. It declined dramatically in its popularity after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. It has nominated a candidate for president in every election since 1872, and in the last federal election in 2012 garnered a total of 518 votes.
The word rap – referring originally to a mild form of rebuke (such as to rap one’s knuckles) – by the late 18th century referred to punishment or blame for serious offences. By the early 19th century, it entered American slang in a variety of expressions related to criminal justice, such as: to get the rap (to get the blame), to take the rap (to accept the blame), bum rap (to be blamed even if innocent), beat the rap (to avoid conviction), and rap sheet (a police record of arrests and convictions).
The Rule of Lenity is a judicial doctrine requiring that courts use a principle of leniency when resolving ambiguities in statutes related to punishment. Should there be multiple or inconsistent penalties set out in a criminal statute, the Rule requires courts to resolve the ambiguity by applying the more lenient punishment.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law in 1966 after a twelve-year campaign to have it introduced and passed by Congress. Seen as controversial at the time of its passage, it was strengthened by Congressional amendment in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Now widely seen as one of the most important pieces of 20th century legislation, the FOIA Improvement Act was signed into law by President Obama in June 2016, and is designed to further improve and modernize the FOIA, particularly with respect to digital records.
A recent study in The Lancet, led by BU researchers, analyzed gun control laws across the U.S. and concluded that more than 80% of gun deaths could be prevented by national adoption of 3 laws: firearm identification through ballistic imprinting or microstamping; background checks for sale of ammunition; and universal background checks for gun sales.
The legal term “boilerplate” — referring to standard language used in contracts, warranties, and other legal documents — has its origins in industry. A ‘boiler plate’ originally referred to sheet steel used in the manufacture of boilers which was pre-manufactured before being assembled. An analogy was made between these and the steel plates that were distributed in the late 19th-century to newspapers containing pre-written syndicated columns or advertisements, which came to be known as “boilerplates”. These were in common use by publishers until the 1950s.
The Bill of Rights— the first 10 Amendments of the U.S. Constitution– was never an actual bill introduced before Congress. Its name was inspired by the U.K. Bill of Rights of 1689, and borrowed freely from its concepts and language, including terms such as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“Oyez”–a term used to open sessions of the Supreme Court, among other tribunals– is an ancient holdover from the use of Anglo-Norman in law. Meaning “to hear”, over time it was generally replaced by the expression “hear ye”. It is one of relatively few ancient words that still has the same meaning today as it did a millennium ago, although the pronunciation has changed. Commonly pronounced today as ‘oh yay’, it was originally pronounced ‘oyets’.
The Constitution imposes several qualifications and restrictions on Congressional service, most notably in Article I, sections 2 and 3 (which sets out age, citizenship, and residency requirements), and the Incompatibility Clause in Article I section 6 which forbids members of Congress from also serving in the executive or judicial branches. Designed to foreclose patronage and corruption, it also effectively precludes a parliamentary-style of government in which office holders have both legislative and executive powers. Interestingly, it did not forbid simultaneous executive and judicial service – reflected by examples such as John Jay and John Marshall (both of whom served as Secretary of State while also serving on the Supreme Court). Such a practice would now be viewed as constitutionally suspect.
Want to guess the number of federal laws in the U.S.? Good luck– even the Library of Congress doesn’t know. While this is one of the most popular questions asked of the Library’s reference librarians, they point out that simply tallying the number of entries in the 125+ volumes of the Statutes at Large compendium would not suffice. Some laws repeal or amend previous laws, and the Statutes also do not include regulatory provisions or case law that has the force of law. On the state level, it is estimated that approximately 40,000 new state laws take effect every year. Unsurprisingly, there is also no reliable estimate as to the number of state laws in the U.S.