Primary Source Archives
Gale Primary Sources contains archives and collections that provide researchers with firsthand content that can be used to examine and analyze the evolution of laws over time.
Investigate the legal history of the United States, which has its roots in the English common law system based on the historic legal document the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta served as a model for the most important legal document in U.S. law: the Constitution, which was ratified in 1788. The Constitution established the first principle of American law: No state can create a law that contradicts the federal Constitution.
Ten amendments, later known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified in 1791, which protected freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly and petition, as well as the right to bear arms, a restriction on quartering soldiers in civilians’ homes, a guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, essential civil liberties relating primarily to the rights of individuals accused of crimes or involved in other legal proceedings, and prohibitions on excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishments.
Throughout U.S. history, an additional 17 amendments were added to the Constitution, including the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery (1865); the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law (1868); the Fifteenth Amendment, which guarantees all men the right to vote (1870); and the Nineteenth Amendment, extending the right to vote to women (1920).
The U.S. Supreme Court has played an important role in shaping U.S. legal history through its interpretation of the Constitution. The importance of the court is particularly noteworthy in its handling of cases dealing with controversial topics, such as civil rights and abortion. In 1857, the court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case established the precedent that even emancipated slaves couldn’t be full citizens of the United States. Occurring in a time of increasing division between abolitionists and those in favor of slavery, the ruling became a rallying point for the antislavery faction and contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. In the case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the court allowed the policy of “separate but equal” to establish the legality of the segregation of races. The court would reverse its position on segregation with the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, outlawing school segregation.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its controversial ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973), setting off a vigorous antiabortion movement that became a cornerstone of conservative politics. Another milestone decision occurred in 2015 when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.
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