Major laws passed the year you were born
The first documented law in the United States was passed in 1789 by Congress and signed by President George Washington. Americans have been voting on, passing, repealing, and amending legislation ever since. Many of these laws were impactful and significant to the nation’s history and growth and still are today.
From 1919 to 2019, Stacker has put together the following slideshow of major legislation passed in the United States federal government. Some state and local laws that are significant and garnered national attention are also included, but you’ll mostly read about legislation that has affected the country as a whole—be it culturally, politically, socially, or economically.
You cannot find a decade without a groundbreaking moment in legal history: Major voting rights legislation passed in the 1920s that broke domestic gender barriers, while the 1930s saw a radical attempt to isolate and distance America from international conflict. A G.I. Bill in the ‘40s revolutionized our perspective on veterans’ rights, rehabilitation, and reintegration into society, while the ‘50s saw the first Civil Rights Acts passed since Reconstruction. A ‘60s Equal Pay Act was a seminal step in curtailing workplace discrimination, and the landmark ‘70s case Roe v. Wade kickstarted a discussion on abortion rights that persists today.
The last four decades, too, have included monumental examples like the biggest tax cut in history in the 1980s, a unanimously passed digital copyright right law in the ‘90s, the post-9/11 PATRIOT Act in response to 21st-century terrorism, and the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which overhauled and expanded the entire American health-care system.
Data for this list was acquired from trusted online sources and news outlets. Read on to discover what major law was passed the year you were born and learn its name, the vote count (where relevant), and its impact and significance.
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1919: The National Prohibition Act
U.S. legislation in 1919 passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. The National Prohibition Act was ratified Jan. 16 and originally vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, only to be overruled by Congress with a 287-100 vote. The movement for prohibition began with concerns in the early 19th century about the negative effects of drinking. The National Prohibition Act was ineffective and failed to control the distribution and use of alcohol, and led to an increase in organized crime. Still, it remained in effect until the 21st Amendment was passed 14 years later.
[Pictured: New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach, right, watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition.]
1920: The Nineteenth Amendment women's right to vote
On Aug. 18, 1920, women were empowered like never before in the United States after the 19th Amendment was passed. After a fight for women's rights that began more than a century before, the Nineteenth Amendment—the women's right to vote—was ratified to the U.S. Constitution. The act was passed after a sweeping victory of 304-89 votes—42 more than the required two-thirds majority. On voting day that year, more than 8 million women around the nation showed up to vote for the first time.
[Pictured: Suffragists watch as the Governor of Nevada signs the resolution for ratification of the 19th Amendment on Feb. 7, 1920.]
1921: The Emergency Quota Act
In an overwhelming vote of 78-1 in favor, the Emergency Quota Act was passed and signed into law May 19 by President Warren G. Harding to restrict immigration in the United States by imposing a temporary quota system. The Act was the first federal law to limit European immigration. It came in on a wave of anti-immigration hysteria following a series of events including the 1919 recession and the resulting high unemployment rates and governmental policy at the time of isolation.
[Pictured: Newly arrived European immigrants at Ellis Island in 1921.]
1922: The Cable Act
The Expatriation Act was passed in March of 1907 with a number of impositions, including stipulations that if a woman lived abroad for more than two years or was married to a man who wasn't eligible for citizenship, she could be revoked of her status. The Cable Act of 1922—also known as the Married Women's Independent Nationality Act—was passed Sept. 22 and allowed women to remain citizens even if they married men who were not.
[Pictured: Immigrants being sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens in 1928.]
1923: Meyer v. Nebraska
Probably as a result of World War I and heightened national sentiments, a Nebraska law was put in place forbidding the teaching of any modern language other than English. The law was challenged and overruled, though, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Justice Reynolds, a teacher at Zion Parochial School who had been teaching German to a 10-year-old student, claiming it was an invasion of the 14th Amendment.
[Pictured: Justices of the Supreme Court (and others) in 1923, Chief Justice Taft is front and center.]
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1924: Indian Citizenship Act
Citizenship for Native Americans before the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act was hard to come by. Before the Civil War, only those with one-half or less Native American blood were offered citizenship. Most Native American women who had married U.S. citizens were offered citizenship by 1888, and in 1919, veterans of Native American descent who had fought in World War I could naturalize. Even after Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which was all-encompassing, citizenship rights were still governed by each state and the right to vote was often denied to Native Americans.
[Pictured: President Calvin Coolidge with Native American representatives near the south lawn of the White House on Feb. 18, 1925.]
1925: Air Mail Act
Mail service was for the first time turned over to private contractors after congressional pressure on the post office with the Air Mail Act of 1925, also known as the Kelly Act. This was the first chess piece to be moved in an effort to accelerate aviation technology and aircraft performance. Under this piece of legislation, eight airline routes were advertised from which carriers could receive up to 80% of postal revenue.
[Pictured: A U.S. Air Mail Service biplane with postal workers on an airfield in Cleveland Ohio in 1925.]
1926: Air Commerce Act
A year later on May 20, Congress approved the Air Commerce Act making the government responsible for air commerce, airways, navigation improvement, and the enforcement of flight safety restrictions. This act opened the floodgates for U.S. expansion and development of its aviation program. Now the U.S. Post Service could pay private airlines for mail delivery services and base payments on shipping weight.
[Pictured: Group at U.S. Air Mail airplane in 1926; Herbert Hoover, second from left.]
1927: Radio Act
The Radio Act was made official law on Feb. 23 and put the newly established Federal Radio Commission (FRC) in charge of regulating radio. This allowed much tighter restrictions and limitations on broadcasting licenses: The FRC had the power to deny licenses and control frequencies and power levels, unlike the Commerce Department that had previous regulatory powers.
[Pictured: W.H.G. Bullard, chairman of the newly created Federal Radio Board,”tunes in" on a radio set on April 14, 1927.]
1928: The Kellogg-Briand Pact
In efforts to avoid another World War, The Kellogg-Briand Pact—also known as the Pact of Paris—was an agreement to outlaw war signed by the United States and 14 other nations. The U.S. Senate ratified the pact in a vote of 85-1, but only after noting that U.S. would still reserve the right to self-defense or to act against any nations that broke the agreement. Later, 47 other countries would sign the pact. Despite this and other anti-war efforts, militarism continued to rise through the 1930s and the break of World War II in 1939.
[Pictured: Man displays book with “Pact of Paris” signatures in 1928.]
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