November 25, 1986 – President Reagan Acknowledges Sending Arms to Iran

On this day in history, the “Iran-Contra Scandal” erupted after President Reagan Reagan revealed that profits from secret arms sales to Iran had been diverted to fund Nicaraguan rebels–the Contras–who were fighting a guerrilla war against the democratically elected leftist government of Nicaragua.

President Ronald Reagan shortly after the Iran-contra scandal engulfed his administration in November 1986. (Credit: AP/Dennis Cook)

President Ronald Reagan shortly after the Iran-contra scandal engulfed his administration in November 1986. (Credit: AP/Dennis Cook)

The report caused outrage in Congress, which in 1982 had passed The Boland Amendment (attached to the House Appropriations Bill of 1982 and again attached as a rider to the Defense Appropriations Act of 1983), outlawing U.S. assistance to the Contras for the purpose of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government, while allowing assistance for other purposes.

Nevertheless, Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter, USN, and his deputy, Lt. Colonel Oliver North, USMC, diverted to the Nicaraguan contras millions of dollars in funds received from a secret deal involving the sales of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Iran (in spite of Reagan’s public pledge not to deal with terrorists).

The Administration was not beset by a fit of conscience; rather, a Lebanese magazine, Ash Shiraa, reported on November 3 that the United States had been secretly selling arms to Iran in an effort to secure the release of seven American hostages held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.

Lt. Colonel Oliver North

Lt. Colonel Oliver North

In 1988, acting on a recommendation made by the Congressional Iran-Contra [investigative] Committee, the Senate approved bipartisan legislation that would have required that the President notify the congressional intelligence committees within 48 hours of the implementation of a covert action if prior notice had not been provided. The House did not vote on the measure.

Then in 1990, Congress tried again to tighten its oversight of covert action. The Senate Intelligence Committee approved a new set of statutory reporting requirements, citing the ambiguous, confusing and incomplete congressional mandate governing covert actions under the then-current law. After the bill was modified in conference, Congress approved the changes, but President George H.W. Bush killed it with a pocket veto.

In 1991, after adding new language pursuant to the objections of President Bush, Congress once again proposed an oversight law. Congress approved and the President signed into law the new measure, now codified as 50 U.S.C. 413b. You can read the provisions here.

November 22, 2013 – U.S. Senate Alters Its Filibuster Rules

On this date the U.S. Senate approved, on a 52 to 48 vote, a fundamental alteration of its rules, ending the ability of the minority party to filibuster most presidential nominees, allowing a simple majority vote to be determinative. The change meant that the filibuster would no longer applies to judicial or executive-branch nominees but still apply to bills and Supreme Court nominations.

The Democrats contended they were trying to resolve the gridlock that had been plaguing Congress, but Republicans said the Senate’s move represented an outrageous repudiation of the minority party’s right to influence policy.

However, as Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political scientist who researches the filibuster, said:

Over the last 50 years, we have added a new veto point in American politics. It used to be the House, the Senate and the president, and now it’s the House, the president, the Senate majority and the Senate minority. Now you need to get past four veto points to pass legislation. That’s a huge change of constitutional priorities. But it’s been done, almost unintentionally, through procedural strategies of party leaders.”


November 20, 1789 – New Jersey Is The First State to Ratify The Bill of Rights

On this day in history, New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights had been introduced by James Madison on June 8, 1789.

Originally, seventeen articles were proposed; These were subsequently reduced to the twelve amendments passed by Congress and sent to the states on September 25, 1789. New Jersey approved eleven. The first, relating to how federal representation would be determined based on population, was ratified by New Jersey but not by the required number of states. The second, relating to the salaries of members of Congress, was rejected by New Jersey, but then approved in 1992 as the 27th Amendment. Articles 3 through 12 became the 1st through 10th Amendments.

You can read the twelve articles, as proposed, here. You can also enlarge these Library of Congress images to read all seventeen articles.

A copy of the proposed amendments to the Constitution submitted to the state legislatures from the appendix to the Senate Journal, First Congress, First Session.

A copy of the proposed amendments to the Constitution submitted to the state legislatures from the appendix to the Senate Journal, First Congress, First Session.

November 18, 2003 – Massachusetts Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Gay Marriage

On this day in history, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (798 N.E.2d 941, Mass. 2003) that the state constitution guaranteed gay couples the right to marry. Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote:

The question before us is whether, consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth may deny the protections, benefits and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry. We conclude that it may not. The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals.   It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.   In reaching our conclusion we have given full deference to the arguments made by the Commonwealth.   But it has failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples.”

Same-sex marriage in Massachusetts thus began on May 17, 2004, as a result of that Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling. Massachusetts became the sixth jurisdiction in the world (after the Netherlands, Belgium, Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec) to legalize same-sex marriage. It was the first U.S. state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Justice Margaret Marshall is sworn in as the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1999.

Justice Margaret Marshall is sworn in as the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1999.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney responded by calling for an amendment of the Massachusetts constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. President George W. Bush called for a similar amendment to the U.S. Constitution in his 2004 State of the Union address, saying, “Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.”

In 1996, Congress enacted The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (Pub.L. 104–199, 110 Stat. 2419) allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states. DOMA, in conjunction with other statutes, had barred same-sex married couples from being recognized as “spouses” for purposes of federal laws, effectively barring them from receiving federal marriage benefits. DOMA’s passage did not prevent individual states from recognizing same-sex marriage, but it imposed constraints on the benefits received by all legally married same-sex couples.

In July 2009, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government to seek federal marriage benefits for some 16,000 gay and lesbian couples who had wed since the state became the nation’s first to legalize same-sex marriage. She called on the Supreme Court to review the Defense of Marriage Act, contending DOMA was unconstitutional by interfering with a state’s right to regulate marriage under the Tenth Amendment.

Additionally, she contended that DOMA exceeded Congress’ authority under the Spending Clause because the law impacts joint state-federal programs, such as Medicaid and operation of veterans’ cemeteries.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor (133 S.Ct. 2675, 2013) by a vote of five to four in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, that Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act was “unconstitutional as deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.” (DOMa section 3 required federal laws and agency rulings, regulations and interpretations to define the words marriage and spouse as referring only to marriages between a man and a woman.)

However, individual states may still ban same-sex marriages. Because the circuit courts are now split on their support of these bans, the Supreme Court may have to take up the issue, in spite of its announcement in October of 2014 that it would not hear same-sex marriage cases.

November 12, 1816 – Thomas Jefferson Expresses Favor For Crushing Monied Corporations

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to Tom Logan conveying his fears about the rise of aristocracy in the U.S.:

I hope we shall … crush in [its] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805

This was not a new theme of Jefferson’s, but it usually was couched in attacks on Alexander Hamilton. Most recently, this quote was cited by Justice John Paul Stevens in concurring in part and dissenting in part in the Opinion of the Court for Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n (No. 08-205, decided January 21, 2010). Justice Stevens (who retired on June 29, 2010) employed entertaining sarcasm in noting:

The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare. Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind. While individuals might join together to exercise their speech rights, business corporations, at least, were plainly not seen as facilitating such associational or expressive ends.”

Justice John Paul Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens

November 9, 1933 – President Franklin Roosevelt Unveils the Civil Works Administration

On this day in history, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the creation of the Civil Works Administration (CWA). The CWA was established to create temporary jobs for millions who had became unemployed during The Great Depression, in order to help carry them through the winter of 1933-34. Harry L. Hopkins was put in charge of the organization.

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The CWA was established by Executive Order 6420B, according to which $400 million would be allocated.

The CWA was to hire workers – both men and women – to assist in the creation of public projects. The CWA’s projects focused on the repair or construction of public buildings, roadways, and parks. The CWA remained in operation until March 1934, when the federal government terminated the program due to its tremendous costs – up to $200 million a month.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, replaced the short-term CWA.

During the short five-month time the CWA was in operation, four million workers laid 12 million feet of sewer pipe and built or improved 255,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, 3,700 playgrounds, nearly 1,000 airports, and some 250,000 outhouses still badly needed in rural America.

CWA Road Improvement Project in San Francisco

CWA Road Improvement Project in San Francisco

November 6, 1917 – Women in New York Win the Right To Vote

On this day in history, the men of New York approved a constitutional amendment to allow women the right to vote. The achievement of state voting rights for women came three years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the vote in national elections.

Suffragists parading down Fifth Avenue, October 1917, The New York Times Photo Archives

Suffragists parading down Fifth Avenue, October 1917, The New York Times Photo Archives

The day before the vote, the New York Times published a final appeal by Carrie Chapman Catt. She exhorted readers to reflect upon the fact that “our country is fighting for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government. Vote for woman suffrage, because it is part of the great struggle toward democracy.” She added:

Remember that more than 1,000,000 of your mothers, wives, sisters, and sweethearts want you to vote for it, and have said so over their signatures.”


The amendment passed the next day in spite of a New York Times editorial on the day of the vote calling the amendment “an impertinence, a distraction, a division, when the country should be united on the cardinal and sole purpose of winning the war.”

New York, the editorial continued, “has troubles enough without admitting a lot of new voters,” especially because suffragists tend to be “pacifists and enemies of preparedness.” The men are doing the fighting, it said, so therefore the men should be doing the voting.

The editorial concluded: “Be sure to vote No.” But in the end, the measure carried by more than 100,000 votes statewide.



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