BLS 384: Great Trials in American History

This course uses specific trials throughout American history, from the colonial period up to the twentieth century, as a way of illustrating changes in American culture, society, and legal customs. Students will be exposed to trials that came about for a variety of reasons such as religion vs. science, slave rights, and educational policy.

The law is the foundation of society, so by studying documented trials throughout history, we may hope to attain a greater understanding of our ancestors’ ways of life, how individuals from the past perceived justice, and the pertinent political, religious, and social issues of their time. Although we no longer burn individuals suspected of witchcraft, we do need to understand how the Salem witch trials have affected religion’s role in our present legal system. And while it has been decades since the court ruled on the Scopes trial and Brown v. Board of Education, we are still struggling with the practice of teaching evolution in public schools and the issue of desegregation. Therefore, through our study of these trials, we will trace the evolution of the major legal issues in our country’s history.


  • Martin, Waldo, ed. Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998. ISBN 9780312111526
  • Moran, Jeffrey, ed. The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. ISBN 9780312249199
  • Purdue, Theda and Michael Green, eds. The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents, 2nd ed. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. ISBN 9780312415990