Today in Legal History: Dawes Severalty Act Signed, Tribes Further Dispossessed

On February 8, 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act, dividing up tribal lands into plots for individuals to farm.  The effect of the Act was to weaken tribes, break up traditional families, and put Indian lands into non-Indian hands.  Under the Act, farmers did not get ownership of the land for 25 years; if the farm failed, lands would be transferred back to the government and sold at auction.  In the meantime, the farmer could not sell any of his allotted 160 acres.  The Dawes Act was abolished in 1934 under Franklin Roosevelt.

More information is available at:

  • The Assault on Indian Tribalism: the General Allotment Law (Dawes act) of 1887 Wilcomb E. Washburn (Law Library – 4th floor @ KF5660.W38)
  • PBS
  • History.com
  • The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian lands D.S. Otis (Law Library – 4th floor @ KF5660.O85)

Today in Legal History: Memorial Day

Memorial Day, initially called Decoration Day, was first observed on May 30, 1868, to honor the Civil War soldiers who died in battle by decorating their graves. While Memorial Day was celebrated in the years following 1868, it was not declared a national holiday until 1971 when Congress declared it be celebrated on the last Monday of May. Today, Americans celebrate Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, participating in parades, and gathering with family and friends.

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Today in Legal History: Thanksgiving

In 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first official Thanksgiving Day proclamation.  In 1817, New York proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving, soon followed by many other states.  Abraham Lincoln set the day as the last Thursday in November.  FDR changed it to the fourth Thursday in November in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941).

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Today in Legal History: Washington Becomes a State

Washington State was once part of the Oregon Territory.  In 1852, settlers wrote Congress asking for a new territory called Columbia.  Congress obliged, but changed the name to Washington Territory to honor the first President.  Originally, Washington Territory included western Idaho and part of Montana.

Washington Territory went through some interesting times.  For some years, white settlers were banned from moving into the eastern part of the territory to alleviate tensions between the native people and the settlers.  During the 1860s, over 300 civil war widows and female orphans settled in the territory as seamstresses, teachers, and brides.

On November 11, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison formally declared Washington State part of the union, making it the 42nd state.  Women were granted suffrage as part of the charter (The territorial legislature had granted women suffrage, but the territorial Court struck it down).  The first governor of Washington was Elisha P. Ferry.

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Check it Out: Conspiracy

Based on the surviving transcript, Conspiracy dramatizes the meeting on January 20, 1942, in Wannsee, where 15 of Adolph Hitler’s mid-ranking men and government officials discussed how to implement Hitler’s latest directive. By the end of the two-hour meeting the men had decided the practicalities of the “final solution,” which entailed the annihilation of all Jews in Europe. The film stars Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, and David Threlfall.

Today in Legal History: Final Draft of the Constitution Sent to Congress

On September 17, 1767, the final draft of the Constitution was sent to Congress.  It had been a long hard struggle to find a compromise that would pass, and even so, two days earlier Edmund Randolph wanted to review it again.  Randolph was outvoted and on September 17 the Constitution was signed.

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Today in Legal History: First Continental Congress Met

The First Continental Congress met on September 5, 1774 in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia.  Every colony except Georgia sent delegates.  The delegates included John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Washington, John Jay and Patrick Henry.  The First Continental Congress formulated some common goals and produced a list of grievances against Britain.  The Congress disbanded on October 26, 1774.

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Today in Legal History: First Labor Day Celebrated

The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City.  Two years, later, the holiday was changed to the first Monday in September.  While it is unclear who first suggested Labor Day (some sources say it was a carpenter, others a machinist), it is clear that the holiday was supported by labor organizations.

Cities were the first to officially recognize this “workingman’s” holiday and the states soon followed.  Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day a legal observance in 1887.   By 1894, Congress followed suit.

The original proposals for the holiday called for a huge parade and a festival for working men and their families. “It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.” – Department of Labor Website

Today in Legal History: Flag Day

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the stars and stripes design for the flag of the United States. While the first national observance of Flag Day occurred on June 14, 1877, the centennial of the adoption of the flag, it was not an official national observance until years later. President Wilson in 1916, and President Coolidge again in 1927, issued proclamations asking for June 14th to be observed as National Flag Day. However, Congress did not approve the national observance until August 3, 1949, and President Truman signed it into law.

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The Lieber Code at 150

President Obama’s recent speech before the National Defense University was designed to initiate a discussion around Presidential power and the conduct of war. The laws of war have been the subject of intense academic discourse since their first systematic explication in the work of Frances Lieber. Professor Lieber first tackled the subject in a series of lectures at Columbia College’s new law school (later Columbia University) in 1861. He later refashioned the lectures into a more structured document that was subsequently issued by President Lincoln as Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, General Orders No. 100 in 1863. The 157 articles in this code treat a variety of topics related to war such as the characteristics of a soldier, the treatment of prisoners and deserters, flags of truce, and assassinations. The Lieber Code influenced the development of similar codes by other states and prefigured the adoption of the Hague Conventions on Land Warfare and parts of the Geneva Conventions.