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Legal History 

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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Legal History Resources

Gale provides scholarly resources to advance the study of international legal history, including databasesprimary source archives, and eBooks.


Gale databases offer researchers access to credible, up-to-date content, including full-text articles from legal publications and legal forms. 

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. 

Gale eBooks

Gale offers a variety of eBooks covering a wide range of legal history topics, including social policies, slavery, Roman law, and much more. Users can add Gale eBooks to a customized collection and cross-search to pinpoint relevant research. Workflow tools help users easily share, save, and download material. 

  • Aristotle and The Philosophy of Law: Theory, Practice and Justice, 1st Edition

    Aristotle and The Philosophy of Law: Theory, Practice and Justice, 1st Edition

    Springer | 2014 | ISBN-13: 9789400760318

    The book presents a new focus on the legal philosophical texts of Aristotle, which offers a much richer frame for the understanding of practical thought, legal reasoning, and political experience. It allows understanding how human beings interact in a complex world and how extensive the complexity is that results from humans’ own power of self-construction and autonomy. The Aristotelian approach recognizes the limits of rationality and the inevitable and constitutive contingency in law. All this offers a helpful instrument to understand the changes globalization imposes to legal experience today. The contributions in this collection don’t merely pay attention to private virtues but focus primarily on public virtues. They deal with the fact that law is dependent on political power and that a person can never be sure about the facts of a case or about the right way to act. They explore the assumption that a detailed knowledge of Aristotle’s epistemology is necessary because of the direct connection between enlightened reasoning and legal positivism. They pay attention to the concept of proportionality, which can be seen as a precondition to discuss liberalism.

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  • The Cambridge Companion to Roman Law, 1st Edition

    The Cambridge Companion to Roman Law, 1st Edition

    Cambridge University Press | 2018 | ISBN-13: 9781316235843

    This book reflects the wide range of current scholarship on Roman law. The essays, newly commissioned for this volume, cover the sources of evidence for classical Roman law, the elements of private law, as well as criminal and public law and the second life of Roman law in Byzantium, in civil and canon law, and in political discourse from AD 1100 to the present. Roman law nowadays is studied in many different ways, which is reflected in the diversity of approaches in the essays. Some focus on how the law evolved in ancient Rome, others on its place in the daily life of the Roman citizen, still others on how Roman legal concepts and doctrines have been deployed through the ages. All of them are responses to one and the same thing: the sheer intellectual vitality of Roman law, which has secured its place as a central element in the intellectual tradition and history of the West.

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  • Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 4th Edition

    Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 4th Edition

    Facts on File | 2016 | ISBN-13: 9781438141398

    Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 4th Edition, 4-volume set, examines the biographical facts of each Supreme Court justice’s life, including his or her background in the law, the paths that led each one to the Supreme Court, and each justice’s major decisions. All entries and their corresponding bibliographies are completely up to date.

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  • Primary Sources of the Abolitionist Movement: Legal Debates of the Antislavery Movement, 1st Edition

    Primary Sources of the Abolitionist Movement: Legal Debates of the Antislavery Movement, 1st Edition

    Cavendish Square Publishing | 2017 | ISBN-13: 9781502605276

    This title explores how the abolition of slavery was debated for years in U.S. courts. Aimed at students in grades 5 and higher, the title examines some of the most important cases and debates of this era and includes a timeline, primary sources, photographs, and excerpts from the time period.

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  • The State and Federal Courts: A Complete Guide to History, Powers, and Controversy, 1st Edition

    The State and Federal Courts: A Complete Guide to History, Powers, and Controversy, 1st Edition


    ABC-CLIO | 2017 | ISBN-13: 9781440841460

    How does the American judiciary impact the development of legal and social policies in the United States? How are the state and federal court systems constructed? This book answers these questions and many others regarding politics, the U.S. courts, and society.

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