Site search

Site menu:

Find Out More

Subscribe to Email Updates

Archives

Categories

Contact Us

On Exhibit: Americans with Disabilities Act

Today’s post comes from Alex Nieuwsma, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC. 

Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, signed by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, forbids employers from discriminating against mentally or physically disabled employees. It also instituted accessibility requirements for buildings and public transportation, such as ramps for wheelchairs and posting signs in Braille.

The disability rights movement grew following the successes of the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s.

The movement’s first big success came with the Rehabilitation Act, signed in 1973 by President Richard Nixon. The Rehabilitation Act prohibits the discrimination of the disabled by any Federal agencies, Federal programs, or Federally contracted employers.

The private sector did not fall under the Rehabilitation Act and was still able to fire (or not hire) employees based solely on their disability. Additionally, many buildings were inaccessible to the disabled, especially those aided by wheelchairs. It soon became clear that a broader law encompassing all employers needed to be passed.

Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines “disability” as, having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities.” The law not only prohibits discrimination; it also mandates that “reasonable accommodations” be made for those with disabilities. This means that the employer must be able to afford the accommodation and also that the disabled employee must be able to maintain the acceptable quality of work as done by non-handicapped peers.

The law also requires that all newly constructed public buildings follow regulations that allow disabled persons to maneuver on their own. These regulations include the construction of ramps, elevators, and accessible bathrooms.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act, which broadened the definition of a disability and more clearly defined the term “major life activities” in an attempt to reduce confusion and more clearly determine eligibility.

The Americans with Disabilities Act will be on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from March 16, 2015, to July 30, 2015, in the Landmark Document display of the Rubenstein Gallery.

President George H. W. Bush Signs the Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (National Archives Identifier 6037489)

President George H. W. Bush Signs the Americans with Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990. (National Archives Identifier 6037489)


Inventing in Congress: Patent Law since 1790

Today’s post comes from Samantha Payne, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. 

In August 1791, two men received identical patents from the Federal Government. John Fitch and James Rumsey claimed to have invented the same technology: a steamboat.

After a two-year battle for exclusive rights to their discovery, with Fitch calling Rumsey his “most cruel hidden and ungenerous Enemy,” each was devastated by the result. Rumsey complained that in the United States, “no invention can be secured . . . for no better reason than because it can be varied into a different Shape,” and he moved to London, where he died trying to perfect his steamboat. Fitch ultimately committed suicide after his investors abandoned him.

Both inventors blamed the Patents Act of 1790 for their woes.

Patents Act, March 11, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate,  National Archives)

Patents Act, March 11, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

 

On January 22, 1790, Congress began preparing the Patents Act. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution empowers Congress to grant writers and inventors exclusive rights to their work, in order “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

The framers of the Constitution believed that patent law encouraged innovation by protecting private property. In Federalist #43, James Madison argued that creating patent law was a matter of “reason” and “public good.”

In February of 1790, a draft of the bill designed to encompass “every subject of invention and discovery” was ready. The bill proposed a board of patent commissioners to evaluate inventions for merit and originality. Additionally, it mandated a 14-year expiration date on patents and established patent filing procedures.The final version of the bill vested the power to grant patents in a three-person commission composed of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General.

On April 10, 1790, President George Washington signed the bill into law.

The Patents Act of 1790 revolutionized patent law in three ways. For the first time in history, patents constituted an inventor’s right, not a privilege bestowed from a monarch. The 1790 act also launched an unprecedented examination system that introduced standards for patentable inventions. The law further specified that a patent could not be granted if the invention were “used by . . . others than the Petitioners or those who derived their knowledge thereof from or under them.” In this way, Congress hoped to diminish the need for inventors to work secretly to protect their discoveries.

Congress passed a new Patents Act in 1793. By this point, a substantial backlog of patent applications had accumulated because the cabinet officials lacked time to devote to patent examination. Inventors also complained that the board’s decisions seemed arbitrary.

Inefficiency and inconsistency compelled Congress to dismantle the patent examination system and replace it with a clerical registration system. This system remained in place until 1836, when Congress created the United States Patent Office. The new office relied on a panel of experts in the arts and sciences to evaluate patent applications.

Testimony arguing that Dr. Morton deserves credit for the ether discovery, “more than any and all other persons in the world.” Report 114, House Committee on Ether Discovery, July 30, 1849. (Records of the U.S. House, National Archives)

Testimony arguing that Dr. Morton deserves credit for the ether discovery, “more than any and all other persons in the world.” Report 114, House Committee on Ether Discovery, July 30, 1849. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

Congress continued to intervene in patent disputes even after it created the Patent Office. For example, in November 1846, Dr. William Morton won a patent for ether, an inhalant that became the first form of surgical anesthetic. Almost immediately, Morton sent a representative to petition Congress for a monetary award. Two other doctors—including Morton’s former teacher and his former roommate—protested, claiming that they had contributed significantly to the discovery.

In 1849, Morton traveled to Washington, DC, to make his case before Congress. He claimed full credit for the discovery and even demonstrated the use of ether on a patient in front of a select committee. Congress issued a report concluding that Morton deserved the credit, but declined to offer him a financial reward.

Patent law still stirs controversy in Congress. The Senate and House of Representatives debated a patent reform bill as recently as May 2014.

Last year, the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued nearly 300,000 patents—a fairly substantial increase from the three issued by the Federal Government in 1790!

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings. 


On Exhibit: Report concerning the death of Abraham Lincoln

Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

On March 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Dr. Charles A. Leale, a doctor and army surgeon in town from New York, listened with rapt attention to the President’s remarks. He and the President crossed paths one more time, although under more somber circumstances. Leale was the first doctor to attend to Lincoln after the President was shot at Ford’s Theatre.

Leale’s report to the Surgeon General of the United States concerning the Lincoln assassination is now on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Report of Assistant Surgeon Charles A. Leale concerning the death of A. Lincoln (page 1), 1865. (Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, National Archives)

Report of Assistant Surgeon Charles A. Leale concerning the death of A. Lincoln (page 1), 1865. (Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, National Archives)

On April 14, 1865, both men attended a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. The play, Leale later noted, “progressed very pleasantly” until half past 10, when “the report of a pistol was distinctly heard” and the whole scene erupted in confusion.

Next, a man brandishing a dagger, later identified as John Wilkes Booth, jumped from the President’s box onto the stage, dislodged himself from the flags in which he had been entangled, and ran. As Booth made his escape, Lincoln slumped in his chair.

Leale fought his way up to the President’s box. He was the first doctor on the scene and examined the President while the family physician and surgeon general were called.

Leale found the President “in a state of general paralysis” and barely breathing. Moving Lincoln out of his chair and onto the floor Leale and several other men examined the President. Assuming that Lincoln had been stabbed, Leale searched in earnest for a wound, only to find a bullet hole at the base of Lincoln’s skull.

As word spread, Washingtonian’s gathered outside the nearby Peterson house, where Lincoln had been taken since he could not survive a trip to the White House. The President died on April 15, 1865, at 7:22 a.m., with Leale holding his hand.

Leale was discharged from the Union Army in 1866 as a brevet captain. He went on to a successful career as a doctor in New York, fathered six children, and played an active role in the fight against cholera. He obtained a mild amount of celebrity due to his presence at the moment of Lincoln’s assassination but spoke publicly only once on his experiences the night Lincoln died.

In recognition of the sesquicentennial of the Lincoln’s assassination, Assistant Surgeon Robert A. Leale’s report on the event will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from March 6 through April 29, 2015.

Interested in learning more about the causes and consequences of the conflict that defined Lincoln and his legacy? Check out James McPherson’s article “Out of War, a New Nation” in the Spring 2010 issue of Prologue, available here.


Unbroken, Part II

Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

On May 28, 1943, a B-24 airplane crashed into the Pacific Ocean leaving only three survivors. The survivors floated on the sea for 46 days with almost no food or fresh water. On the 47th day, they were picked up by Japanese sailors and imprisoned for the remainder of the war.

Does that story sound familiar? Chances are you heard it before.

The Army Air Force bomber, nicknamed the Green Hornet, was Louis Zamperini’s. A former Olympian, Zamperini was one of the crew who survived on the raft after their plane went down over the Pacific Ocean. His story has been featured in several books, most famously in Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book Unbroken and a major motion picture of the same name, but he was not the alone on the raft. Both pilot Lt. Russell A. Phillips and tailgunner SSgt. Francis P. McNamara survived too.

Unlike Zamperini, however, neither Phillips nor McNamara received much notoriety from the incident. Instead, they have been largely ignored by historians and the public alike, merely a footnote on Zamperini’s biographic odyssey of herculean proportions.

At the time he and his comrades bailed out over the Pacific, Phillips was a 27-year-old first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. A native of Indiana, Phillips held a forestry degree from Purdue University. When he enlisted in the Air Corps on November 7, 1941, Phillips’s education made him eligible to become an officer.

Unlike Zamperini’s or Phillips’s all-American upbringings, McNamara was an immigrant. A native of Ireland, McNamara emigrated along with his parents shortly after his birth, and by the 1930 census, when he was 10 years old, he was living in an Ohio orphanage.

Page from the 1930 Census (McNamara is on line 48), April 3, 1930. (Records of the Bureau of the Census, National Archives)

Page from the 1930 Census (McNamara is on line 48), April 3, 1930. (Records of the Bureau of the Census, National Archives)

A high-school dropout, McNamara was a tool sharpener and machinist by trade. He enlisted in the Army in May 1942 and eventually received the Air Medal for his service. He died on the 33rd day at sea; he was 23 years old.

Zamperini and Phillips, however, floated for another two weeks before being captured by a Japanese vessel.

Despite efforts to locate the plane and any survivors, Air Corps attempts at search and rescue came up empty. Eventually, all the crew members, even those who survived, were declared dead by the U.S. Government. As a result of the crewmembers’ deceased status, their families became eligible for death benefit and received their sons’ Purple Heart  medals. Zamperini’s Purple Heart certificate is currently on display in East Rotunda Gallery and was covered in a previous blog post.

The families were also eligible for a death gratuity, a form of life insurance, from which Phillips’s father received $1,650 in July 1944.

Phillips' death gratuity, July, 1944. (National Archives at St. Louis)

Phillips’ death gratuity, July, 1944. (National Archives at St. Louis)

In the meantime, Phillips and Zamperini were still prisoners of the Japanese. After a period at the Kwajalein POW camp, Phillips was separated from Zamperini and taken to the Ashio camp, where he was forced into slave  labor in a copper mine. He remained there until the end of the war.

Phillips survived the war and was repatriated to the United States in September 1945. His evacuation order from the General Headquarters, Army Forces Pacific in at the National Archives at St. Louis (below). He returned to Indiana in October 1945, much to the joy of his friends and family.

Phillips' evacuation order, September 27, 1945. (National Archives at St. Louis)

Phillips’s evacuation order, September 27, 1945. (National Archives at St. Louis)

After the war, Phillips returned to Indiana and married his sweetheart, Cecile “Cecy” Perry. He eventually became a science teacher and basketball coach for La Porte High School.

Phillips did not talk much about the war or his role in it. Many of the people who knew him only learned of his ordeal through the publications of Zamperini and others. While he never received the attention Zamperini did, Phillips began to gain some notoriety by the time of his death in 1998, thanks in part to his comrade’s writings .

Phillips is buried, along with his wife, in La Porte, Indiana.

Copies of the certificate awarding Zamperini the Purple Heart, Zamperini’s Purple Heart medal, and a condolence letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family are on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, through tomorrow (March 4, 2015).


Congress Counts: History of the U.S. Census

Today’s post comes from Samantha Payne, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. 

The Constitution requires that Congress conduct a census every 10 years to determine the representation of each state in the  House of Representatives. When the authors of the Constitution allocated seats in the House for the First Congress, they had no census data to guide them. As a result, the sizes of the first congressional districts varied dramatically. A Massachusetts congressman represented 96,550 people, while one from Georgia represented only 16,250.

To solve this problem, Congress had to determine how to conduct a census. The new nation was the first to institute a national, periodical census. The size of the United States made the task rather daunting. The Senate census committee worked for eight months before they decided to start from scratch in January of 1790.

An Act Providing for the Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, March 2, 1790, Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives

An Act Providing for the Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, March 2, 1790, Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives

Regional interests dominated the debate over the census. Northern representatives pushed for a rapid enumeration, but southerners insisted on more time, so that census-takers could canvas their large, rural states. On February 4, 1790, Congressman Theodore Sedgwick implied that Georgia’s population did not merit three representatives. A South Carolinian retorted that Sedgwick “would not be content until there were 24 members” representing Massachusetts.

Congress also struggled to decide the extent and purpose of the census. James Madison hoped the census would count the number Americans working in the “various arts and professions,” ranging from brewers to farmers to arms manufacturers. He felt data on Americans’ occupations was “necessary” for Congress to make “proper provision” for agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing. Representatives from across the country attacked Madison’s idea as too expensive and difficult, and one congressman even denounced it as unconstitutional. The Senate eventually removed Madison’s proposal from the bill.

The bill had other limitations as well. “Indians not taxed” were not counted. Senator Samuel Livermore opposed using the word “female” in the bill, and begged his colleagues to consider how a census-taker could “be so indelicate as to ask a young lady how old she was?” The final version of the bill substituted the neutral “person.”

An Act Providing for the Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, March 2, 1790, Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives

An Act Providing for the Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, March 2, 1790, Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives

On March 1, 1790, the President signed the Enumeration Act into law. The act required that the marshals, who were in charge of taking the census in each district, determine the number of free white men, women, heads of families, all other free persons, and slaves. It also mandated that the census-takers distinguish free white males over the age of 16, in order to assess the industrial and military strength of the country.

The results of the 1790 census determined the allocation of seats in the Third Congress, yet disappointed many Americans. Marshals found that 3,929,214 million people lived in the United States, a much lower number than predicted. Thomas Jefferson suspected that many Americans, hoping for lower taxes, had understated the size of their families. Later enumerations established the substantial accuracy of the first census.

Every 10 years, the House reapportioned its seats based on a new census—until 1920. This census revealed that a majority of Americans lived in urban areas. While the House generally added seats after each census, this time it would need nearly 50 new members to prevent rural states from losing seats.

A Report on the Apportionment of Representatives, January 5, 1929, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives

A Report on the Apportionment of Representatives, January 5, 1929, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives

For the first and only time, Congress failed to reapportion the House. In 1921, rural congressmen backed a bill to increase the size of the House from 435 to 483 members. When this failed, they blocked each bill that would cause their states to lose seats.

The debate over reapportionment carried on for almost 10 years. In 1928, one Missouri representative insisted that “the House would properly grow within fifty years to more than 1,000 members.” A congressman from Detroit blamed his colleagues blocking reapportionment for “trying to save their own political hides.”

The dispute was finally resolved when Congress passed the Permanent Apportionment Act on June 11, 1929. This act required that the Secretary of Commerce reapportion the House after each census. By transferring this power to the executive branch, Congress established an automatic process for reapportionment. The act also capped the number of representatives at 435, where it remains today.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.