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Legal History

A guide to some important dates in legal history.


4 - Elton John Wins Defamation Suit

On November 4, 1993, the award-winning singer won a $518,000 (£350,000) defamation claim against the Daily Mirror for publishing a false article about his eating habits. The transcript of the appeals case, John v. MGN LTD, reveals that on appeal, the award for exemplary damages was reduced because the newspaper did not attack Mr. John‘s reputation as an artist.

With roots stretching back to the Roman Empire, defamation is a tort which is steeped in common law history. While Mr. John sued in Great Britain, many of the elements of defamation are the same in our legal system. Available to students and library patrons, The Making of Modern Law is an excellent database for researching historic common law doctrine. The database contains over 21,000 legal treatises covering a period between 1800 and 1926.

5 - Susan B. Anthony Votes (Illegally) in Federal Election

Upon threat of a lawsuit, Susan B. Anthony and 14 other women succeeded in registering to vote in Rochester N.Y. on November 1st 1872. A few days later, on November 5, Susan B. Anthony successfully cast her vote in a federal election. By November 18th she was arrested and later tried for “knowingly, wrongfully and unlawfully” voting. She was found guilty and after a widely publicized trial, was sentenced to pay a fine of $100 which she vowed to never pay and never did. Ultimately, the arrest and trial elevated her status and that of the women’s suffrage movement. Though it occurred earlier in some states, national women’s suffrage was not established until 1920.

7 - FDR Wins 4th Term

Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a fourth term on November 7, 1944. Other than Franklin Roosevelt, no president has ever served more than two terms.  George Washington stepped down after two terms and many other presidents followed his example.  Teddy Roosevelt ran for a third term but lost that election.  After FDR’s tenure, the 22nd Amendment was ratified, limiting the term of a presidency.

11 - 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.

11 - Veteran's Day

Veterans’ Day was originally known as Armistice Day. Armistice Day, proclaimed by President Wilson, commemorated the signing of an armistice on November 11, 1918, ending major hostilities between the Allied forces and Germany during World War I. In 1938 it was made an annual holiday and in 1954 the name was changed to Veterans’ Day, to honor veterans of all wars.

18 - Railroads Implement Uniform Time Zones

Rail travel transformed the world in many ways, including creating time zones.  Prior to the railroads, time was set by the sun.  As a result, cities and towns adhered to “local times” in their locality.  Timekeeping on a broad geographic scale was a logistical nightmare.  To solve this problem, the railroads adopted a uniform time zone system on November 18, 1883.

While average citizens cheerfully adopted the railroad time zone system, Congress did not adopt it until 1918, at which time it was put under the control of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

19 - Reagan and Gorbachev Meet

On November 19, 1985, President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time in Geneva, Switzerland.  Reagan was no friend of the Soviet Union, referring to it as the “Evil Empire,” but Gorbachev was newly in power, with great plans for his country.  The two hit it off.  It was, perhaps, the start of something beautiful.  Within five years, the Cold War would be over.

29 - Coffee Rationed

To aid the war effort, the United States rationed coffee on November 28, 1942.  After a long eight months, the ration ended on July 28, 1943.  While Americans generally had it much easier than residents of other Allied countries, rationing was challenging.  To obtain a rationed item, you had to have coupons and hope it was in stock.  Coffee was not rationed in Britain, but tea was.  Britons were allotted two ounces per week.