Timeline of Federal History
Dates important to the history of the federal government and for historical work in federal offices.
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1775–1791 First U.S. Currency issued
Paper money, known as “continentals,” was issued by the Continental Congress.
1776 Declaration of Independence
July 4, 1776
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.
1787 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 Northwest Ordinance
Established how the Northwest Territory was to be organized and eventually organized into states.
1789 U.S. Constitution approved
It replaced the Articles of Confederation establishing a stronger, central federal government
1789 Judiciary Act
Established the U.S. district courts to serve as the federal trial courts for admiralty and maritime cases, as well as for some minor criminal cases and minor civil suits brought by the United States.
1789 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.
1789 The Fifth Act of Congress
On July 31, Congress established the United States Customs Service.
1789 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.
1789 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.
1789 The Department of War was established, August 7.
1790 First decennial federal census
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.
1791 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.
1791 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.”
1796 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
1800 Library of Congress moved to Washington
1802 Marbury v. Madison
Established the principle of judicial review.
1803 Louisiana Purchase Treaty
The Louisiana Territory was purchased from France, doubling the size of the United States
1820 Missouri Compromise
1823 Monroe Doctrine
President James Monroe warned European nation against furthur 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
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.
1846 Smithsonian Institution established
1848 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, and secession of the Southern States
1861 Ex Parte Merriman
1861 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.”
1861 Department of State’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series
1862 Homestead Act
Citizens could acquire 160 acres of land by farming it for five years
1862 Department of Agriculture established
1862 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.”
1862 Morrill Act
The federal government allotted land to township for public schools in the first case of public aid to education.
1862 Army Medal of Honor established
1863 Habeas Corpus Suspension Act
1863 Emancipation Proclamation
Lincoln’s announcement of the freedom of slaves in areas still in rebellion.
1863 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 13th Amendment
Adopted on December 18, it abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.
1865 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.
1867 Purchase of the Alaska Territory
1868 Impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson
1868 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.
1870 Department of Justice established
Expanded the duties of the Attorney General, to head the department
1871 U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries created
1870 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.”
1874 Official Records of the Rebellion
Compilation started by historians under the Secretary of War
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
1887 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
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
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.
1902 Reclamation Act passed—United States Reclamation Service established
Established within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In 1923, renamed Bureau of Reclamation
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
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.
1906 Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization established (32 Stat. 596)
Naturalization papers become standardized and contain more detail about aliens. Any court having common law jurisdiction could naturalize aliens.
1906 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
In 1965 renamed the Organization of American History
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.
1911 The Judicial Code of 1911
Abolished the U.S. circuit courts, transferring their jurisdiction, pending cases, and records to the U.S. district courts, now the sole trial courts of general jurisdiction in the federal judiciary.
1913 Sixteenth Amendment
The first constitutionally mandated income tax.
1913 The Federal Reserve System is established
President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act
1913 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.
1914 Legislative Reference Service established
To assist Congress with reference information
1915 National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), established
Created through the Naval Appropriations Act of April 12
1915 Federal Trade Commission established
Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson to protect consumers and promote competition.
1916 National Park Service created
1919 Treaty of Versailles
Ended World War I and included the League of Nations Covenant
1919 Historical Section of the Army War College
Begins preparation of history of U.S. participation in World War I
1919 Volstead Act
1920 Nineteenth Amendment
Gave women the right to vote
1921 First consolidation of federal veterans programs, 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. Veterans’ Bureau was renamed as the “United States Veterans Bureau” by a joint resolution of Congress On April 24, 1921.
1921 Quota Act of 1921 (42 Stat. 5)
Act passed May 19, 1921. Established annual immigrant admissions per country using a formula based on the 1910 federal population census
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.
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 to restore economic health.
1933 Society for Military History founded
1933 The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)
Conceived by Charles E. Peterson, National Park Service
1934 National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) established
On June 19, President Franklin Roosevelt signed “An Act to Establish a National Archives of the United States Government, and for other purposes,” which also established the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC).
1934 Original Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act passed
1934 R.D.W. Conner became the first Archivist of the United States
1935 Banking Act
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.
1935 The Federal Register Act
Passed July 26, it established the publication of government documents within the National Archives
1935 Social Security Act
1935 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 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
1938 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.
1940 Microfilm publication program
Started at the National Archives as a method of preserving records and promoting access
1940 Fish and Wildlife Service is created
The combination of the Bureau of Fisheries and the Bureau of Biological Survey within the Department of Interior
1941 The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
Dedicated on June 30 as the first presidential library.
1941 U.S. Army Air Forces was established.
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.”
1942 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) organization created
5o nations at United Nations Conference, San Francisco, June 26
1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japanese surrender
The United States dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and another on Nagasaki (Aug. 9)
1946 National Air Museum established
Later became National Air and Space Museum (NASM)
1946 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.
1947 The Truman Doctrine
President Truman requested $400 million in aid from Congress on March 12 to combat Communism, emphasizing Greece and Turkey.
1947 The Marshall Plan
June 5, Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed a program of massive aid to help Europe rebuild after World War II. Known as the European Recovery Program, 1948–52.
1948 Marshall Plan
Or the European Recovery Act, April 3, 1948. Provided large-scale aid to rebuild Europe and protect it from communism.
1948 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).
1949 National Security Act of 1947 is amended
Creates the executive department of The Department of Defense to oversee the military services.
1949 North American Treaty Organization (NATO) established
1949 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
1950 National Science Foundation is established
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.
1952 National Security Agency (NSA) established
Succeeded the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), created in 1949, to conduct communications intelligence (COMINT) activities for the military.
1955 The Presidential Libraries Act
Provided for establishment of a system of presidential libraries
1954 Atomic Energy Act
Created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)
1956 Bank Holding Company Act
The Fed 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 , July 29
1958 Federal Aviation Agency (FAA)
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aviation Act on August 23, 1958
1960 Registry of National Historic Landmarks established
1960 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 testing.
1964 Civil Rights Act
Outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
1964 Wilderness Act
1964 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 1960s and 1970s
1964 National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC)
Authorized by Congress to receive funds and award grants for documentary editions
1965 Voting Rights Act
Prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
1965 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.
1966 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.
1966 National Preservation Act of 1966 (P.L. 89-665)
1966 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
1969 The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER)
Documents engineering work
1970 Clean Air Act
1970 National Archives and Records Service accessioned 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.
1970 Congressional Research Service established
Renamed from the Legislative Reference Service by the Legislative Reorganization Act
1972 The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) founded
1972 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.
Army’s National Cemetery System transferred to Veterans Administration
1973 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
1974 National Historical Publications Records Commission (NHPRC)
Congress redesignated the NHPC as the NHPRC on December 22 with the mission to promote collection and preservation of State, local, and private records collections.
1975 Senate Historical Office opens under Richard A. Baker
1975 Nuclear Regulatory Commission established
Atomic Energy Commission dissolved
1976 National Air and Space Museum (NASM)
Opened its main building, part of the Smithsonian Institution
1976 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.”
1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court
Established by the 1978 FISA act. Seven federal district court judges to review applications for warrants related to national security investigations.
1978 The Presidential Records Act
Made all presidential records created after January 20, 1981, the property of the United States
1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Act
The Fed chairman now required to report to Congress twice annually on monetary policy goals and objectives.
1978 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 history professional and historical work in federal agencies.
1980 Monetary Control Act
Reforms to the Fed included requirement to establish reserve requirements for all eligible financial institutions.
1980 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
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.”
1991 Air Force Historical Research Agency
Air Historical Office redesignated as Headquarters, Air Force Historical Research Agency.
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.
1993 U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)
Opened April 26 in Washington, DC
1994 The National Archives at College Park, Maryland
Opened in May
1994 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.
1998 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.
2000 Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS)
Permanently established to document historic landscapes
2000 Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act (P.L. 106-567)
Included opening of operational files of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) totaling 1.2 million pages, and 114,200 pages of CIA material. Revealing information on the Holocaust and other war crimes, as well as the U.S. Government’s involvement with war criminals during the Cold War.
Terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, September 11. A third highjacked plane downed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
2001 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
To promote use of the Internet and new technologies for improved efficiencies across the government and greater public access to federal government information and services.
2002 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
1973 and 1974 State Department cables
2004 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 with across agencies having “equities” in documents and review records in NARA custody for declassification.
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Timeline will be updated regularly.
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Last updated February 13, 2017