Looking for some reading material.

May 2017
5
Upstate NY
#1
For the past week or so I've been on a kick to learn about the legislative history of the U.S. I've been sifting through a lot of the more well known "major" pieces of legislation throughout the years, but I was wondering if anyone here has any recommendations for books I can find about the subject.

I've done a few google searches, but all I keep getting in response is information about the legislative history that gets associated with individual pieces of legislation as they're becoming laws through the system. What I'm looking for is more of a survey of the evolution of legislation that shaped our country and legal system from the inception of the Constitution and Bill or Rights up through the Affordable Care Act. There's a fascinating chain of events that lead us here, and I'd love to learn in more depth about it.

So, what say you? Anyone know where I can find such a book?
 

Asherman

Forum Staff
May 2013
3,280
Albuquerque, NM
#2
That's a big gulp. Its much easier to back track from appellate cases to the legislation that triggered the legal challenge. If you take the written opinions, you will find all the legislation and previous appellate decisions that led to the case being heard. That's a lot of legal research unless you narrow you prioritize your search. Ah, but you want it seems some books where some of the research is already published. Secondary sources again.

You might try isolating the legislation passed by Congress in a period of great interest, because Congress normally doesn't pass much during times of peace and tranquility. They like making holidays, honoring beloved politicians, and pork barrel. The really big cases are pretty well known, but secondary sources tend to be as narrowly focused as the Supreme Court's practice is to limit decisions to the narrowest possible focus, and of course, they do not "retry" the case so a single piece of legislation may result in multiple Supreme Court cases. You should find a number of secondary sources for cases like Roe v. Wade, or Brown.


An interesting case that is sometimes overlooked was the Tenure in Office Act of 1867. Johnson inherited Lincoln's Cabinet, and it was filled with Radical Republicans who thought they should be the driving force in Reconstruction. Johnson, following Tyler's assertions, disagreed, and tried to hire the most difficult of his Cabinet, the Secretary of War, James Stanton. Stanton refused to stand-down and barricaded himself in the War Office. Johnson escaped Impeachment by a single vote, and Johnson's policies, rather than the radical's, for Reconstruction prevailed. That single case could load up ten feet of shelf space alone, and yet outside the community of historians and lawyers, whoever heard of the legislation? Even if you asked an undergraduate history major, they might not correctly identify the legislation and its importance.

A significant (that's an over-statement) number of significant cases that end up in the Appellate Courts originates in State and Local legislation of the legislation. Out of what laws did the Roe and Brown cases spring? Federal, State, or Local?

Then there is the matter of what makes a piece of legislation "significant"? Short answer is that significance is subjective, and often will not be regarded as significant for decades after its become a part of our social definitions.
 
May 2017
5
Upstate NY
#3
That's all definitely helpful information to keep in mind, but I'm really looking for something that explores how legislation has evolved over time. Something looking through the way that we got from Andrew Jackson vetoing the national bank to the Missouri Compromise to the Kansas-Nebraska Act to Reconstruction to the New Deal to the Civil Rights Act. I know most of it has to do with socioeconomic conditions and any number of other factors, but I think examining the evolution of the country through its legislation would be fascinating.
 

Asherman

Forum Staff
May 2013
3,280
Albuquerque, NM
#4
I'm not aware of a secondary source that might satisfy your curiosity. It is an interesting sounding study, but would have to be tightly constrained, defined, and the methodology carefully worked out. The end product, it seems to me, would be a great thesis, or a sound dissertation. I don't think there would be much of a popular market for the book beyond armchair historians and politicians.

Your example above (Federal Legislation: Jackson to Civil Rights) at least narrows the field considerably. Of these items, which doesn't belong in the set: Jackson, the Missouri Compromise, The Kansas-Nebraska Act, Reconstruction, New Deal and Civil Rights Act? Instead of Jackson, the set really needs to deal with Jim Crow Laws and how Congress dealt with them. For that sort of information, there are a couple of places to look.

Congress maintains a detailed history for each Bill considered, and the starting point would probably to contact the Congressional Library, or the Internet site, "Thomas". Your search criteria might be, Racial legislation+1800 to the Present. There should be a whole lot in the take. Bills come and vanish without a trace for topics like slavery and race relations in the US. Prior to the Civil War there were always a number of Bills "tabled" and never acted upon. Some legislation might be titled (the search would at least begin with a title search) differently, so variants of the research would be a good idea.

The second important place would be the in Appellate and Supreme Court decisions. Any legal library will be a good place to start your research.

Here is a useful guide to finding Federal documents:

https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/267.html
 
May 2017
5
Upstate NY
#5
Thank you for the information. If this is something that hasn't been done before, then maybe it's time it was. I appreciate the advice greatly.

On a side note: I know race relations has always been a source of tension (to say the least) in American history, but it never hit me until now just how much it permeates in every facet of our story as a nation.
 

Asherman

Forum Staff
May 2013
3,280
Albuquerque, NM
#6
There probably are books relevant to your topic out there, but how can an old man keep up? The potential market for such a book must be very small. Finding a publisher might be difficult.

For secondary sources you will want to research PhD Dissertations, and here is one of several sites that can help: https://www.ebscohost.com/academic/american-doctoral-dissertations In under a minute I found: Institutional Racism: Is Law Used as a Tool to Perpetuate Racial Inequality?, Chambers, Cheryl (2008). Its a Doctoral Dissertation at North Carolina University, and I believe the full text is available on line. Thats with almost zero effort, so serious research into the question may be productive.
 
May 2017
5
Upstate NY
#7
If I were to take on such a massive undertaking I wouldn't be doing it simply to get published. It would purely be out of academic curiosity and a willingness to get this sort of reference out there for others. Still, at the very least it's a great idea for if/when I go back to school for my masters/Ph.D.