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Historical Impacts on Political Institutions

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about how historical events and persons impact political institutions. We will identify a few examples, and we will highlight some key developments.

History & Politics

Maybe you enjoy keeping up on politics. If you wait long enough (and sometimes not long at all), what you observe in politics will be incorporated into what we consider history. It seems like it was just yesterday that the world was tuned into the contentious and historic presidential election of 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore, but that belongs to history now! There is a powerful connection between politics and history: politics becomes history with the passing of time.

Politics impacts history and history impacts politics. There is a reciprocal relationship between the two, which brings us to what we call historical causation. Historical causation is the cause-and-effect relationship observable throughout history; it is the way in which one historical event leads to another. This is important to remember as we think about the relationship between politics and history.

We need to define one more term before we can move on: political institutions. In the broadest sense, political institutions consist of all aspects of the political realm, including political movements and trends, political parties and factions, and political figures themselves and their ideologies. Now, let's look at some examples of how historical events and persons impact political institutions, or more simply put, how historical events impact politics.

The Civil Rights Movement & the 1964 Civil Rights Act

The Civil Rights Movement was a political and social movement that took place in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s aimed at securing equality for African-Americans. Its most well-known leader was Martin Luther King, Jr., who has become famous for his 'I Have A Dream' speech. Civil rights leaders organized all kinds of protests, boycotts, and other acts of civil disobedience to draw attention to their cause and pressure the government (and society) into granting their demands. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama are two examples of organized protests staged by the movement.

Civil rights leaders engaged in a protest march.
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These (and other) protests were historical events that profoundly impacted political institutions. Due to these dramatic tactics, politicians increasingly realized the need to enact laws and policies that promoted racial equality. President Kennedy was sympathetic toward the Civil Rights Movement, but his untimely death meant civil rights legislation could not be fulfilled in his lifetime. Instead, the task of major civil rights reform passed to his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. Pressured by the Civil Rights Movement, the Johnson Administration signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ended segregation and made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The Reichstag Fire & the Enabling Act of 1933

By the 1930s, Adolf Hitler was a rising political star in Germany. He held the title of Chancellor of Germany, but that alone did not mean he had unlimited power. However, in February 1933, the Reichstag building caught fire. The Reichstag was the German legislative body, basically like our U.S. Congress - just imagine what would happen if our Capitol Building caught fire! The Nazis immediately blamed the fire on the Communists, claiming it was an act of terrorism, even though there is evidence to show the Nazis may have started the fire themselves for the sole purpose of pinning the blame on the Communists.

The Reichstag Fire in 1933.
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In response to the fire, Hitler basically declared the situation an emergency and worked to have the Enabling Act of 1933 passed. This law helped abolish civil liberties, and basically turned Hitler into the legal dictator of Germany. The Reichstag Fire was a historical event that was used to manipulate people into fearing widespread Communist terrorism. Because of this perceived threat, the masses were willing to trade their freedom for security. The Enabling Act transformed the entire political structure of Germany, turning it from a democracy into a dictatorship.

The Quasi-War & the Alien and Sedition Acts

Although France had come to aid of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War, within a few years the relationship between the two nations had become strained. By the turn of the 19th century, the two countries were entangled in an undeclared naval war called the Quasi-War. This war was unpopular with many Americans, particularly those in the Anti-Federalist Party, the party of Thomas Jefferson.

The Sedition Act, part of the Alien and Sedition Acts signed into law by John Adams.
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