Timeline of U.S. Federal History

This timeline highlights select milestones important in the evolution of the U.S. federal government. It will be updated regularly.

©Society for History in the Federal Government (www.shfg.org)


1636    Pilgrim Code of Law

The Pilgrim Code of Law was the first covenant with many basic elements of a constitution. It built upon earlier covenants, including charters and the Mayflower Compact, and was based on popular sovereignty with annual elections. It created an institutional framework with a General Court (legislature) that elected a governor and seven assistants as a council. It specified the powers of officials, required oaths, and provided trial by jury.


Link: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/pilgrim-code-of-law/

Reading:  Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (1988)


1775–1791      First U.S. Currency issued

The Continental Congress issued paper money, known as “continentals.”


1776    Declaration of Independence

On June 10, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman to draft a document expressing the intent of the 13 colonies to declare independence as states. Jefferson penned the original draft, the committee presented a revised version to the Continental Congress on July 2, and the Congress redrafted it before adopting the final version on July 4, 1776. In the months that followed, the Declaration garnered key signatures from representatives of each colony.


Link: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

Reading: Allen Jayne, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, & Theology (1998)


1777–1781  Articles of Confederation

On June 11, 1776, the Second Continental Congress established a committee of representatives from each colony to establish a confederated government for the United States. The Articles of Confederation established a weak government (lacking a military and unable to levy taxes) tasked with facilitating a firm league of friendship between the states rather than a centralized federal government. The Articles of Confederation were adopted on November 15, 1777, but it took until March 1, 1781, to secure the unanimous ratification of the states.


Link: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/artconf.asp

Reading: Gordon S. Wood Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787 (1969)


1778    The Treasury System was reorganized

On September 26, the Continental Congress created an Auditor, Office of Comptroller, Office of Treasurer and two Chambers of Accounts. A committee was also selected to design the Seal of the Treasury.


1786    Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom

First introduced in the Virginia state legislature in 1777, the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom barred the establishment of religious tests for public office as well as any compelled participation in, or subsidization of, religious enterprises. Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the bill, which states that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical” since citizens must be free to support whichever churches they prefer. Section III of the bill warns that if it were ever repealed by a future statute, that such a statute was procedurally allowable but that it would violate natural rights of religious freedom.


Link:  https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-02-02-0132-0004-0082

Reading:  Merrill Peterson and Robert Vaughan, eds., The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: Its Evolution and Consequences in American History (1988)


1787  Constitution of the United States

The Constitutional Convention, which met in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787, was originally tasked with amending the Articles of Confederation to make them workable, since the existing confederation was too weak to protect members from foreign invaders and too ineffectual to preserve the union. With George Washington presiding, the delegates determined that a new constitutional order was needed for the union to survive. The product of many minds, the United States Constitution is a monument of visionary statesmanship and practical compromise. In designing a new constitutional order, the learned framers relied on historical examples from ancient civilizations like Athens, their own experiences with the British and colonial models of government, and the recommendations of contemporary theorists like Montesquieu. Central issues discussed at the convention included the division and separation of powers within the federal government, the allocation of congressional representation between the states, and the extent to which members of the federal government could be elected by (and held accountable to) American citizens. The Constitution was produced in secret and signed into law on September 17, 1787.


Link: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution

Reading: Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution (2005)


The Constitution mandates a congressional journal

Article I, Section 5, requires Congress to keep a “Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same”


1787–1788   Federalist Papers

Published under the penname “Publius,” the Federalist Papers comprise 85 essays authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, to persuade New York citizens to support the Constitution’s ratification. The Federalist Papers are still consulted by historians and lawyers to uncover the original intentions of the Constitution’s drafters, and to understand theoretical justifications for key constitutional provisions. Papers 10 and 51 are particularly famous for explaining the problem of factions in large republics and the importance of a system of checks and balances, respectively.


Link: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/fed.asp


          Northwest Ordinance

Originally titled “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North-West of the River Ohio,” the Northwest Ordinance established several key policies for the unsettled northwestern frontier. Among other things, the Northwest Ordinance required that the Northwest Territory be divided into three to five states, it established procedures for admitting new states into the Union, and it provided a bill of rights.  Other provisions even forbade slavery and promoted public education. The Northwest Ordinance became law on July 13, 1787.

Link: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/nworder.asp


1789–1791   Bill of Rights

Pursuant to Article V of the United States Constitution, Congress proposed and the states ratified the first 10 amendments now known as the Bill of Rights. The passage of the Bill of Rights placated opponents of the Constitution who feared that the unamended version gave too much leeway to the federal government to encroach on the rights of states and individual citizens. This fear was expressed through several state conventions that ratified the Constitution while requesting swift approval of the amendments. On September 25, 1789, the first Congress offered 12 amendments, and all but the first 2 were ratified by the states on December 15, 1791. Among other things, the Bill of Rights protects the freedoms of speech and religion; the right to bear arms; the right to due process, including a trial by jury; and liberty from warrantless searches and seizures, and from cruel and unusual punishment. The Bill of Rights also recognizes the need to protect unenumerated rights and the rights reserved to the states and to individual citizens.


Link:  https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/billofrights

Reading:  Akhil Reed Amar, The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction (1998)


1789  Federal Judiciary Act

Signed into law on September 24, 1789, the Federal Judiciary Act established the structure and jurisdiction of federal courts, matters that Article III of the United States Constitution left unaddressed. The Federal Judiciary Act recognized the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court found in Article III and gave it appellate jurisdiction in cases arising from federal circuit courts and from state court rulings that rejected federal claims. The Federal Judiciary Act established a structural model that, with slight modifications, still thrives today.


Link:  https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/judiciary.html

Reading:  Maeva Marcus, ed., Origins of the Federal Judiciary: Essays on the Judiciary Act of 1789 (1992)


First U.S. veterans pension law

The first United States veterans pension law was approved during the first session of the U.S. Congress for invalid Revolutionary War soldiers on September 29, 1789.


          The Fifth Act of Congress
          On July 31, Congress established the United States Customs Service.


Department of the Treasury established
On September 2, President Washington approved of Congress’s proposal to create the Department of the Treasury. The Treasury Department is the second oldest department in the federal government.


          Postal Service established

Congress established the Postal Service on September 22, initially requiring the first Postmaster General to report to the President through the Secretary of the Treasury.


          The Department of War was established, August 7


1790   Copyright Act


           Naturalization Act


           First decennial federal census


 1790–1793  Indian Trade Acts


 1791  The Bill of Rights Approved

On December 15, 1791, Articles Three–Twelve, having been ratified by the required number of states, became Amendments 1–10 of the Constitution.


           First Bank of the United States established

Congress established the First Bank of the United States, headquartered in

Philadelphia, in 1791, at the urging of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.


           The Revenue Act of 1791

On March 3 the first system of internal taxation in the United States was established. It imposed an excise tax on distilled liquors and was called the “whiskey tax.”


Readings: Carol Berkin, The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism (2017)


1794    11th Amendment

Passed by Congress on March 4, 1794, the 11th Amendment changed part of Article III, Section 2, of the United States Constitution to protect states against certain lawsuits in federal courts. The amendment was a legislative reaction against Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), a Supreme Court case recognizing a lawsuit brought by a South Carolina citizen against the state of Georgia for unpaid debts incurred in the War for Independence. The Supreme Court determined that, based on the text of Article III, a state could, in fact, be sued in federal court by citizens of other states. The 11th Amendment prohibited such suits, and it was ratified on February 7, 1795.


Link:   https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxi


1796   President Washington’s Farewell Address

After refusing to consider the presidency for a third term, George Washington prepared and delivered a handwritten farewell speech to the American people. The speech originally spanned 32 pages, and it was distributed in newspapers on September 19, 1796. In it, President Washington encouraged United States citizens to recognize that liberty is based on private virtue, and that both depend for their vitality on religious faith. The speech also warns against the corrosive effects of political factions and cautions against entanglements in the affairs of foreign nations.


Link:  https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp


Seat of Government established

An Act of Congress on May 6 authorized a loan for the establishment of the seat government in Washington, DC. Had been in the temporary national capitals of New York and Philadelphia.


1798   Alien and Sedition Acts

Readings:  Carol Berkin, The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism  (2017)


1800    Library of Congress moved to Washington


1803   Marbury v. Madison

Established the principle of judicial review.


 Louisiana Purchase Treaty
The Louisiana Territory was purchased from France, doubling the size of the    United States.


1819   McCullough v. Maryland


1820   Missouri Compromise


1823   Monroe Doctrine

President James Monroe warned European nation against further involvement in and colonization in the Western Hemisphere.


1834    The Indian Department is established in the War Department


1836    Charter of Second Bank of the United States not renewed


1842    Commonwealth v. Hunt

            Condoned workers’ bargaining with employers


1846   Oregon Treaty

President James K. Polk signed the treaty with Great Britain, gaining territory in the northwest that would become the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Wyoming and Montana.


            Smithsonian Institution established


1848   Mexican-American War


           Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

With the defeat of Mexico, the United States gained California and southwest territories


1849    Department of the Interior established


1850    Compromise of 1850

Congressional compromise with provisions that included that California was admitted as a free state with its current boundaries, territories in the new Utah Territory and New Mexico Territory could decide on slavery through popular sovereignty, and the slave trade was banned in Washington, DC.


1856-57   Dred Scott Case


1860     Government Printing Office created
            Congress established the office to print government publications.


1861    Election of Abraham Lincoln as president, secession of Southern States


            Ex Parte Merriman


  First Medals of Honor authorized by Congress
For Navy petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and marines who “shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities during the present war.”


 Department of State’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series

Publication begins as Diplomatic Correspondence


1862    Homestead Act
           Citizens could acquire 160 acres of land by farming the land for five years


           Department of Agriculture established


           National Agricultural Library established

Department of Agriculture and the Secretary of Agriculture are charged with the duty “to acquire and preserve in his Department all information concerning agriculture which he can obtain by means of books and correspondence.”


           Morrill Act

The federal government allotted land to township for public schools in the first case of public aid to education.


           Army Medal of Honor established


1863   Habeas Corpus Suspension Act


 Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln proclaimed the freedom of slaves in areas still in rebellion.


           National Banking Act

The act allowed nationally chartered banks that could circulate notes backed by U.S. government securities, in effect establishing a national currency.


1865   Freedmen's Bureau

The Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau) was established by Congress on March 3, 1865, in the Department of War. It was the first federal agency to be responsible for direct public assistance, helping nearly four million newly freed blacks transition from slavery. Commissioner Gen. Oliver O. Howard headed the bureau, helped by assistant commissioners in 11 former Confederate states and the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and West Virginia and Washington, DC. The bureau helped freedpeople with education, food, housing, medical care, and employment; helped them secure labor contracts, legalize marriages, and locate lost relatives; and worked with African American soldiers and sailors and their heirs to secure back pay, bounty payments, and pensions. Bureau officers manned special courts to adjudicate disputes where local courts were discriminatory. The bureau was to be temporary and was undermanned and underfunded. Faced with a resurgence of white violence and oppressive racial laws, and pressure from white southerners, Congress disbanded the bureau in summer 1872. The bureau was transformative in providing blacks with a direct, protective relationship with the federal government— thus establishing the premise of citizenship for freedmen.


Link:  https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau

Readings:  Paul Cimbala and Randall Miller, Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999); Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 2017)


13th Amendment

Adopted on December 18, it abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.


           National Asylum Act

Origins of today’s VA hospitals were authorized by Congress on March 3, 1865. as the first National Soldiers & Sailors Asylum for disabled veterans of the Union Army’s volunteer forces. All of the National Asylums continue in operation today as VA hospitals or medical centers.


1866   Civil Rights Act


1867   Purchase of the Alaska Territory


1868   Impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson


           14th Amendment

Adopted on July 9, the amendment guarantees citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws, especially in reference to the newly emancipated African Americans after the Civil War.


           Naturalization Act


1870   Department of Justice established
          Expanded the duties of the attorney general to head the department


           15th Amendment

Ratified on February 3, 1870. It prohibits denial of the right to vote to any citizen based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”


1871    U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries created


1874    Official Records of the Rebellion
             Compilation started by historians under the Secretary of War


1875    Civil Rights Act


1876   Civil Henderson v. Mayor of New York (1876)
           Transferred control over the admission of immigrants from the states to the federal government.


1882    Chinese Exclusion Act (22 Stat. 58)

On May 6, 1882, a 10-year suspension of immigration of Chinese laborers, and Chinese not allowed to become citizens


1884    American Historical Association (AHA) founded


1887    The U.S. Pension Building opened


             Interstate Commerce Act


1890    Sherman Antitrust Act

Outlawed practices deemed monopolistic and thus harmful to consumers and the market economy.


1891    Evarts Act

Gave the U.S. courts of appeals jurisdiction over the great majority of appeals from the U.S. district and circuit courts.


1893   Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia established
          To hear appeals from the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia


          Fong Yue Ting v. United States
          The 1893 Supreme Court decision upheld the federal government’s right to remove from the country Chinese laborers
          who did not possess a certificate of residence, and set the precedent that it could do so without due process (judicial trial or


1895   American Historical Association promotes source materials

Prof. J. Franklin Jameson of Brown University urged the American Historical Association to advocate greater use of archival sources


1898    Wong Kim Arc decision


            Curtis Act


1899    Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act

The act made it a misdemeanor to discharge refuse matter into navigable waters or tributaries without permit, to alter the course or condition of any port or harbor without permit, and to dam navigable streams without a license (or permit) from Congress. It is generally administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


1901    Hay-Pauncefote Treaty


1902    Reclamation Act passed—United States Reclamation Service established

Established within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In 1923, renamed Bureau of Reclamation


1903    The Revolutionary Archive the Library of Congress

            The Revolutionary Archive was transferred to the Library of Congress per President Theodore Roosevelt’s Executive Order.
            This was the State Department’s collection of historic records. This included records of the Continental Congress, and Presidents Washington,
            Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.
           (see p. 14 in http://www.jstor.org/stable/25080707)



1903    First wildlife refuge established

On March 14 at Pelican Island National Bird Reservation by President Theodore Roosevelt


1904  Guide to the Archives of the Government of the United States

Published by the Public Archives Commission


Roosevelt Corollary


1906  The Antiquities Act

The Antiquities Act (16 U.S.C. 431-433) was the first U.S. law to provide general protection for any general kind of cultural or natural resource. Signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906.


Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization established (32 Stat. 596)

Naturalization papers became standardized and contained more detail about aliens. Any court having common law jurisdiction could naturalize aliens.


Pure Food and Drugs Act

Outlawed the adulteration and misbranding of food and drug products moving in interstate commerce.


1907  Mississippi Valley Historical Association founded

Renamed the Organization of American History in 1965


Hague Peace Conference


1911    The Judicial Code of 1911

The code abolished the U.S. circuit courts, effective January 1, 1912, transferring their jurisdiction, pending cases, and records to the U.S. district courts and making the district courts the sole trial courts of general jurisdiction in the federal judiciary.


1913   Sixteenth Amendment

The first constitutionally mandated income tax.


The Federal Reserve System was established
The December 23, 1913 act (63-43 Pub.L. 63–43) established a central bank that could provide a safer and more flexible (“elastic”) currency, supervise banking, and stabilize the economy. All nationally chartered banks were required to join one of the 8–12 districts in the Federal Reserve System. The central bank issued Federal Reserve Notes and provided check clearing and collection for all members of the Federal Reserve, which purchased stock in their regional Reserve Bank and had to maintain non-interest bearing reserves to promote solvency. The Reserve’s Board of Governors was to foster long-term growth of the monetary system in conjunction with the nation’s ability to increase production, thus advancing employment, stable prices, and “moderate long-term interest rates.” The central bank was to retain independence from Congress and the executive branch, but its actions to contain inflation and regulate growth, especially in times of economic panic or recession, have been controversial.


Links:  https://www.federalreserve.gov/aboutthefed/fract.htm; https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/federal_reserve_act_signed

Readings:  West, Robert Craig. Banking Reform and the Federal Reserve, 1863-1923. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974; Meltzer, Allan H., A History of the Federal Reserve, Volume 1: 1913–1951. University of Chicago Press, 2002.


U.S. Department of Labor established


Act for a national archives

President William Howard Taft signed a bill authorizing planning a national archives of 3 million cubic feet.


1914   Clayton Antitrust Act

The act built on the Sherman Antitrust Act by now enabling the federal government to outlaw practices that it foresaw as potentially damaging to consumers and the competitive market.


Legislative Reference Service established
To assist Congress with reference information


Smith Lever Act


1915  National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), established

Created through the Naval Appropriations Act of April 12


Federal Trade Commission established

Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson to protect consumers and promote competition.


1916   National Park Service created


1917   Jones Act –Puerto Ricans as citizens


 Selective Service Act


1919   Treaty of Versailles

Ended World War I and included the League of Nations Covenant


Historical Section of the Army War College

Begins preparation of the history of U.S. participation in World War I


Volstead Act

Implemented Prohibition


1920   Nineteenth Amendment

Gave women the right to vote


1921    First consolidation of federal veterans programs

On August 9, 1921, Congress established the Veterans Bureau by merging all World War I programs, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance (Treasury Dept.), the Rehabilitation Division of the Federal Board for Vocational Education, and all Public Health Service (Treasury Dept.) veterans’ hospitals, including those under construction. The Veterans’ Bureau was renamed as the “United States Veterans Bureau” by a joint resolution of Congress on April 24, 1921. By helping a select group of Americans, these programs provided precedents for the New Deal programs of the 1930s.


Readings:  Jessica L. Adler, Burdens of War: Creating the United States Veterans Health System (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Rosemary Stevens, A Time of Scandal: Charles R. Forbes, Warren G. Harding, and the Making of the Veterans Bureau (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)


 Quota Act of 1921 (42 Stat. 5)

The Quota Act was passed on May 19, 1921. It established annual immigrant admissions per country using a formula based on the 1910 federal population census


1922   Cable Act


1924    Shrine for Declaration of Independence and Constitution

            In 1924, the Library of Congress opened a specially designed case known as the Shrine to house the Declaration of Independence
             and Constitution.  The documents were sent to Fort Knox in 1941 as an emergency precaution and returned to LC in 1944.


1924    Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act, 43 Stat. 153)

Limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia.


1926  Air Commerce Act
          The landmark act empowered the federal government to regulate air travel safety and commerce amid the rapid development of  
          aircraft and rising number of air accidents. The Secretary of Commerce could license pilots, certify airworthiness of aircraft, establish
          airways, issue and enforce air traffic rules, and promote research.


1928   Kellogg-Briand Pact


1929–1933      Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression
Nearly 10,000 banks failed, with high unemployment, and the Roosevelt administration developed the New Deal programs in an attempt to restore economic health.


1933  Society for Military History founded


The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)

Conceived by Charles E. Peterson, National Park Service


1934    The National Archives of the United States was established

On June 19, President Franklin Roosevelt signed “An Act to Establish a National Archives of the United States Government, and for other purposes.” Construction commences, and R.D.W. Conner became the first Archivist of the United States


National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) established

The National Archives act also established the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC).


Original Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act passed


1935    Banking Act

Specified further changes in the Federal Reserve system, including removal of the Treasury Secretary and the Comptroller of the Currency from the Fed’s governing board.


The Federal Register Act

Passed July 26, it established the publication of government documents within the National Archives system.


Social Security Act


National Labor Relations Act

Established the right of labor unions to engage in collective bargaining


Historic Sites Act

Included formal authorization of HABS


1936     Society of American Archivists (SAA) formed


1937    Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson Act)

Federal funds were now to be available for state wildlife protection and propagation


1938    Civil Aeronautics Act

Created the Civil Aeronautics Authority and Air Safety Board to regulate commercial air operations.


Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act

Replaced the 1906 law, including the provision that all new drugs had to be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that they were safe prior to marketing.


Fair Labor Standards Act

The act established minimum wage, required overtime pay, and abolished child labor


1940    Microfilm publication program

Started at the National Archives as a method of preserving federal records and promoting access.


Fish and Wildlife Service is created

Combined the Bureau of Fisheries and the Bureau of Biological Survey within the Department of Interior


Nationality Act


1941  The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

In Hyde Park, NY. Dedicated on June 30 as the first presidential library.


U.S. Army Air Forces was established


Executive Order 8802

The order banned employment discrimination in the defense industry


1942–1945  Wartime at the National Archives

The U.S. military, the National Resources Planning Board, and the Office of Strategic Services stationed employees in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, for research in records and intelligence gathering.


1942  Committee on Records of War Administration established

President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed on March 4 that a Committee on Records of War Administration be established to preserve military records for “an accurate and objective account of our present experience.”


Air Forces Historical Branch
Historical Branch, established in the Headquarters U.S. Army Air Forces Office of the Assistant Chief of Air Staff, A-2 (Intelligence), supervised the preparation of histories of the AAF


1943  Army in World War II series

General Staff in the Army’s historical branch began recording the official history of World War II in preparation for the United States Army in World War II series (“green books”)


1944    The “G.I. Bill” or Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944

Provided new education, training, housing, and rehabilitation benefits. It declared the Veterans Administration as an essential war agency, entitled second only to the War and Navy Departments, in funding, staffing, etc., priorities.


1945    United Nations (UN) created

50 nations at United Nations Conference, San Francisco, June 26


Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, and Japanese surrender

The United States dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and another on Nagasaki (Aug. 9)


1946   Administrative Procedure Act (Pub.L. 79-404, 60 Stat. 237)

The act specifies procedures by which federal agencies propose and establish regulations. Agencies must publish notices for rulemaking in the Federal Register to invite public comment. It thus governs agency actions, protects the public, and helps secure entitlements, and addresses agency functions of rulemakings, adjudications, and licensing. Some cases require formal rulemaking, involving a courtroom hearing. Final agency decisions are subject to judicial review.


Links:  https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/laws/administrative-procedure



National Air Museum established

Later became National Air and Space Museum (NASM)


McMahon/Atomic Energy Act

On August 1, 1946, transferred control of atomic energy from military to civilian hands, effective from January 1, 1947 (Public Law 585, 79th Congress)


1947  National Security Act

The National Security Act ordered a major reorganization of U.S. military establishments and federal offices that planned and executed foreign policy. In the aftermath of World War II, the reorganization aimed to improve efficiency and coordination of those activities in the executive branch. The act created the National Security Council (NSC). It established the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), an expansion of the earlier Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The act merged the War Department and Navy Department into a single Department of Defense, and created a Department of the Air Force, all under the direction of the Secretary of Defense. Each military branch retained a service secretary. Amendments in 1949 gave the Secretary of Defense more power over the individual services.


The Truman Doctrine

President Truman requested $400 million in aid from Congress on March 12 to combat Communism, emphasizing Greece and Turkey.


Taft-Hartley Act

 The act restricted activities of labor unions.


1948    Marshall Plan

On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a program of massive aid to help Europe rebuild after World War II. The European Recovery Act of  April 3, 1948, provided large-scale aid to rebuild Europe and protect it from communism, 1948–52.


Executive Order 9981

President Truman ordered integration of all military forces.


1949  National Archives and Records Service (NARS)

The National Archives was transferred to the General Services Administration (GSA) on June 30, 1949. The agency’s name changed to National Archives and Records Service (NARS).


National Security Act of 1947 is amended

Created the executive department of The Department of Defense to oversee the military services.


North American Treaty Organization (NATO) established


Geneva Conventions

Defined the basic rights of wartime prisoners, protected the wounded; and established protections for the civilians in and around a war zone.


1950  The first NARS federal records center opened in Brooklyn, NY


NSF Act, National Science Foundation is established


Internal Security Act



1952   Transfer of Declaration of Indepenence and Constitution to the National Archives Building

          A Marine guard transferred the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to the National Archives Building.


1952   Census Bureau Agreement with the National Archives

The Bureau of the Census agreed to transfer to the National Archives and Records Service the original schedules of each decennial population census when they are no longer required by the Bureau of the Census for active statistical use.


National Security Agency (NSA) established

Succeeded the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), created in 1949, to conduct communications intelligence (COMINT) activities for the military.


McCarran-Walter Act (immigration)

1954    Atomic Energy Act

Created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)


1955  The Presidential Libraries Act

Provided for establishment of a system of presidential libraries


1956    Bank Holding Company Act

The Federal Reserve was now the regulator of bank holding companies owning more than one bank.


1958  National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Established by Congress from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), July 29

          National Defense Education Act
The National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of September 2, 1958, was the first major legislation to assert federal involvement in public education. The law was a reaction to Sputnik and provided funding for public and private colleges and universities “to insure trained manpower” in the areas of science, mathematics, and modern foreign languages.

Federal Aviation Agency (FAA)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aviation Act on August 23, 1958.


1960  Registry of National Historic Landmarks established


FAA established its history office


1962   Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments to the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act

Required all new drugs to be proven both safe and effective prior to approval


1964    Civil Rights Act

Outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin


  Economic Opportunity Act


 Wilderness Act


Indian Reorganization Act (called Wheeler–Howard Act), June 18
The act decreased federal control, increasing Indian self-government and responsibility, stopped allotment of tribal lands to individuals, and returned surplus lands to tribes. Amended and extended in the 1960s and 1970s.


National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC)

Authorized by Congress to receive funds and award grants for publlication of documentary editions


1965    Voting Rights Act

Prohibits racial discrimination in voting


Immigration and Nationality Act (Pub.L. 89–236, 79 Stat. 911)

Abolished the national origins quota system that was American immigration policy since the 1920s, replacing it with a preference system that focused on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents.


1966   Department of Transportation

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Department of Transportation Act bringing 31 previously scattered federal elements under one Cabinet Department. The Federal Aviation Agency became the Federal Aviation Administration under the new DOT. The new DOT began full operations on April 1, 1967.


Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966. It indentifies the kinds of executive branch agency records that can be disclosed and describes mandatory disclosure procedures. Subsequently amended.


National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (P.L. 89-665)


Oral History Association founded


1968   Data Archives Staff established

Predecessor of the current Electronic Records Division, Office of Records Services, National Archives

1969    National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) passed

To help assess the impacts of major federal development projects on fish and wildlife


The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER)
Documents engineering work


1970    Clean Air Act


National Archives and Records Service accessioned the first electronic records

Accessioned on April 16. Archivist Robert H. Bahmer had established the Committee on the Disposition of Machine-Readable Records on December 13, 1966.


Congressional Research Service established

Renamed from the Legislative Reference Service by the Legislative Reorganization Act


Occupational Safety and Health Act


1972  The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) founded


Interagency Classification Review Committee (ICRC)

Established by Executive Order 11652, “Classification and Declassification of National Security Information and Material.” Replaced in 1978 by Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) in 1978.


1973  A fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis

On July 12, fire destroyed valuable military personnel records.


 Endangered Species Act


1974  Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act

Established rules for access, giving the government custody over the Nixon tape recordings, documents, and records


National Historical Publications Records Commission (NHPRC)

Congress redesignated the NHPC as the NHPRC on December 22 with the mission to promote the collection and preservation of state, local, and private records collections.


1975  Senate Historical Office opens

Richard A. Baker serves as the first Senate Historian


Nuclear Regulatory Commission established

Replaced the Atomic Energy Commission


1976  National Air and Space Museum (NASM)

The museum opened its main building as part of the Smithsonian Institution


Medical Devices Amendment to the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act

Made it necessary to consider a premarket approval process for medical devices similar to that enacted for new drugs after the thalidomide crisis in 1961.


1977  Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) founded


1978  Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)

“Prescribes procedures for requesting judicial authorization for electronic surveillance and physical search of persons engaged in espionage or international terrorism against the United States on behalf of a foreign power.”


Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

Established by the 1978 FISA act. Seven federal district court judges are empowered to review applications for warrants related to national security investigations.


The Presidential Records Act

Made all presidential records created after January 20, 1981, the property of the United States.


Humphrey-Hawkins Act

The Fed chairman now required to report to Congress twice annually on monetary policy goals and objectives.


Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) established

Created with Executive Order 12065, “National Security Information.” ISOO develops, coordinates, and issues implementing directives and instructions regarding Executive Order 13526 and Executive Order 12829, as amended, that are binding on executive branch agencies. Replaced the Interagency Classification Review Committee (ICRC).


1979  The Society for History in the Federal Government

Founded by federal historians and others to promote the federal history professional and historical work in federal agencies.


Links:  www.shfg.org

The Federalist newsletter: http://shfg.wildapricot.org/Federalist-Newsletter

Federal History journal:  http://shfg.wildapricot.org/page-18315


1980  Monetary Control Act

Reforms to the Fed included requirement to establish reserve requirements for all eligible financial institutions.


National Council for Public History (NCPH) founded


1983  The House of Representatives establishes the Office for the Bicentennial of the House of Representatives

Raymond W. Smock is appointed as its first official historian.


1985  National Archives independence

NARA became an independent agency through the National Archives and Records Administration Act on April 1.


1986  National Institutes of Health History Office

The office was created and combined with the DeWitt Stetten, Jr., Museum of Medical Research.


1988  Veterans Administration elevated to Cabinet-level department

Renamed as the Department of Veterans Affairs


1989  The House of Representatives Office of the Historian

Established as a permanent replacement of the Office for the Bicentennial (1983)


1990  Nutrition Labeling and Education Act

Required packaged food products to bear nutrition labeling in a standardized format labeled “Nutrition Facts.”


Americans with Disabilities Act


1991  Air Force Historical Research Agency

Air Historical Office redesignated as Headquarters, Air Force Historical Research Agency.


          Collapse of the Soviet Union

Readings:  Hal Brands, Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (Cornell University Press, 2016)


The Foreign Relations Statute (Public Law 102-138 [105 Stat. 647]


Congress passed the “FRUS statute” as part of the Department of State’s Basic Authorities Act. The Department’s Historian’s Office (HO), responsible for publication of the Foreign Relations series, faced strong criticism from the historical community for incomplete coverage in FRUS volumes, particularly on Latin America and Iran (little information on covert operations), and for a lag in publication of volumes. State historians lacked access to many classified documents and could not provide copies of “excised” items to reviewers in its Historical Advisory committee (HAC). Senator Claiborne Pell and others responded to the crisis seeking legislation that would promote “a full and honest account of American foreign policy.” The new law allowed HO historians access to all documents over 26 years old from national security and foreign policymaking agencies. The HAC gained authority to inspect documents “not cleared for publication in FRUS.” The law enabled progress in production of volumes that were more “thorough, accurate, and reliable” on a 30-year schedule, but it could not resolve all issues related to declassification.


Link:  https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus-history

Reading:  William B. McAllister, Joshua Botts, Peter Cozzens, Aaron W. Marrs, Toward “Thorough, Accurate, and Reliable”: A History of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series. Washington, DC, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, March 2015. (https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus-history)


1993  Executive Order 12829

Establishes a National Industrial Security Program to safeguard federal government classified information that is released to contractors, licensees, and grantees of the United States Government.


U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)

Opened April 26 in Washington, DC


Family and Medical Leave Act


1994  The National Archives at College Park, Maryland

Opened in May


National Science Foundation

Joins the Department of Defense and NASA in funding new technologies for digital libraries, making more information available over the Internet.


1998  Establishment of the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group (IWG)

The IWG declassified over 8 million pages of documents, including 1.2 million pages of OSS records; 74,000 pages of CIA name and subject files; more than 350,000 pages of FBI subject files; and nearly 300,000 pages of Army intelligence files. The records shed light on the Holocaust, war crimes, and World War II and postwar activities of U.S. and Allied intelligence agencies.


Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act (P.L. 105-246)


1999   Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act

Replaced the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 allowing banks to offer financial services, including investment banking and insurance.


2000  Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) established

The PIDB was established by the Public Interest Declassification Act of 2000 (Title VII of P.L. 106-567, 114 Stat. 2856). It reports to the President of the United States on issues concerning national classification and declassification policy.


Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS)

Permanently established to document historic landscapes


Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act (P.L. 106-567)

The act included opening of operational files of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) totaling 1.2 million pages, and 114,200 pages of CIA material. The documents revealed information on the Holocaust and other war crimes, as well as the U.S. Government’s involvement with war criminals during the Cold War.


2001   9/11 attack

Terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, September 11. A third highjacked plane was downed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.


          USA Patriot Act

Increased the number of judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 7 to 11. Also established a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review to review, at the government’s request, the decisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.


2002  E-Government Act of 2002

The act promotes use of the Internet and new technologies for improved efficiencies across the government and greater public access to federal government information and services.


          Homeland Security Act


2003  U.S. Customs and Border Patrol established, March 1


2004   First electronic State Department telegrams to the National Archives and Records Administration

The State Department sends its 1973 and 1974 cables to NARA.


           National Museum of the American Indian Opens

NMAI opened in Washington, DC. Other facilities in New York City and Suitland, Maryland.


2005  Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) opens

John Negroponte serves as first Director of National Intelligence (DNI)


2009  Executive Order 13526 issued by President Barack Obama

Prescribes a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information, including information relating to defense against transnational terrorism.


2010  National Declassification Center established

The Center was established by Executive Order 13526 to coordinate declassification practices across agencies having “equities” in documents and to review records in NARA custody for declassification.


Compilers: Ethan Foster, Benjamin Guterman


Comments and suggestions:  federalhistory@gmail.com

Last updated April 5, 2023