- Historic Sites
101 Things Every College Graduate Should Know About American History
This is not a test. It’s the real thing.
December 1986 | Volume 38, Issue 1
(1803). William Marbury sued Secretary of State James Madison in order to obtain a commission appointing him a justice of the peace that had been signed but not delivered by retiring President John Adams. Although the Court initially decided for Marbury, it later realized that its powers to enforce the decision were based on a congressional act that was not constitutional. Marbury never got his post. This was the first time the Court declared a law of Congress unconstitutional.
(1819). John W. McCullough, cashier of the Baltimore branch of the Bank of the United States, was sued by Maryland because he refused to pay a tax levied on the bank by the state legislature. The case is notable because, in deciding it in favor of the bank, Chief Justice John Marshall interpreted the powers of Congress broadly. The Constitution did not specifically grant Congress the right to create a bank, but a bank was a reasonable way for Congress to exercise powers enumerated in the document. “Let the end be legitimate,” Marshall declared, “and all means which are appropriate … are constitutional.” Since the bank was constitutional and since the Constitution was the supreme law, the state tax on the bank was unconstitutional because “the power to tax involves the power to destroy.”
(1824). Thomas Gibbons and Aaron Ogden were rival ferryboat operators. Ogden had been granted the exclusive right to operate a ferry between New York City and New Jersey by New York State, but Gibbons set up a competing line. When Ogden sued, the Supreme Court decided that the New York law was unconstitutional because it interfered with interstate commerce, a prerogative of the federal government. By defining commerce as “intercourse” (and not merely as the movement of goods), the Court laid the basis for the later federal regulation of navigation, radio, and television, and other forms of transportation and communication.
(1876). This case involved the refusal of Ira V. Munn, a Chicago grain-elevator operator, to obey an 1871 Illinois law regulating the practices of railroads, warehouses, and similar businesses providing services to the public. The Court upheld the Illinois law and seven other similar state laws, ruling that “when private property is devoted to a public use, it is subject to public regulation.”
(1896). Homer Adolph Plessy, a light-skinned Louisiana black man, was arrested for sitting in a railroad car reserved by Louisiana law for whites. In a New Orleans court his lawyers argued that the law was unconstitutional, but Judge John H. Ferguson ruled against them, on the ground that the railroad had provided separate but equally good cars for blacks, as the law required. This line of reasoning was upheld by the Supreme Court. The case is remembered today mainly for the dissent of Justice John Marshall Harlan. “Our Constitution is color-blind,” Harlan wrote. “The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race … is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with civil freedom.”
(1954). This is the famous school-desegregation case in which the Court unanimously overturned Plessy v. Ferguson . “In the field of public education,” Chief Justice Earl Warren stated, “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
(1973). Norma McCorvey (or Jane Roe), a woman prevented from having an abortion by a Texas law, sued to have the law overturned. Henry Wade, a Dallas district attorney, pushed the case up to the Supreme Court. Texas claimed that the case should be dismissed as moot, since the plaintiff had already had her baby. In a controversial decision the Court ruled in McCorvey’s favor, establishing the right of women to have abortions during the early months of pregnancy.
(1857). A slave, Dred Scott sued for his freedom on the ground that his master, an Army surgeon, had taken him into Illinois and then the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been barred by Congress in the Missouri Compromise. The Court, whose majority decision was read by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because it violated the property rights protected by the Fifth Amendment, since it denied slave owners the right to take their property wherever they wanted to. In effect, this decision opened all the West to slavery, infuriated the North, and pushed the nation more precipitously toward civil war.
shot and killed Lincoln in a Washington theater in April 1865. Booth was a rabid Confederate sympathizer who believed slavery was “one of the greatest blessings … God ever bestowed upon a favoured nation.”
shot and killed President James Garfield in Washington’s Union Station in July 1880, not, as has often been claimed, because he was a disappointed office seeker, but on the order (he insisted) of “the Diety.” Guiteau was, however, an admirer of the New York senator Roscoe Conkling, leader of the Republican faction, who had clashed with Garfield over patronage questions.