Today in 1958: Law Day is established

May 1, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryMay 1 is Law Day.  Unsurprisingly, there’s a law that says that May 1 is Law Day.  And the law even spells out Law Day’s purpose:

The holiday is “a special day of celebration by the people of the United States…”

(1) in appreciation of their liberties and the reaffirmation of their loyalty to the United States and of their rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law in their relations with each other and with other countries; and

(2) for the cultivation of the respect for law that is so vital to the democratic way of life.

As warm of a sentiment that is, it may be difficult to believe that popular demand for the establishment of a holiday celebrating the people’s “cultivation of the respect for the law” was such that the federal government had no choice but to create it.  And it’s difficult to believe because Law Day didn’t originate that way.

To understand Law Day’s origins, we have to look at another major holiday celebrated on the same day around the world: May Day.

May Day, also known as “Labour Day” or “International Workers Day,” celebrates the achievements of workers and the labor movement.  May 1 is associated with the 1886 Haymarket affair, a labor demonstration in support of the eight-hour workday that turned violent.

In memory of the event the Second International (later the International Working Union of Socialist Parties) declared May 1 “International Workers’ Day,” and it became a day for labor rallies all over the world (see this post for more details).

Because of its heavy connotations with the Haymarket affair (and the harsh reaction to the demonstration by federal authorities), President Grover Cleveland had the date of Labor Day in the U.S. set to the first Monday in September.

Nevertheless, despite this official observance of Labor Day in September, activists in the workers movement continued to observe May Day on May 1 well into the 20th Century.  This only became politically problematic during the Cold War, when May Day was more heavily associated with the Soviet Union, where the holiday was widely celebrated.

As such, efforts were made within the U.S. to dissociate May 1 from May Day.  After other less successful attempts (such as “Americanization Day” and “Loyalty Day”), President Dwight Eisenhower established the first Law Day in 1958 – at the urging of American Bar Association President Charles S. Rhyne, who was also Eisenhower’s former legal counsel.

Congress codified the holiday in 1961, and the date has been observed ever since.

Ironically, although Law Day was intended to displace any possible acts of government disobedience by demonstrating workers with respect and reverence for the rule of law, Law Day has evolved into a sort of event for social justice activism.

For example, this year’s Law Day theme from the ABA is “American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters,” and focuses on the importance of voting rights.  2013’s was “Realizing the Dream: Equality for All,” while 2012’s related to maintaining or increasing court accessibility through appropriate funding of the judicial system.

So, although Law Day may have originated as part of an effort to cut May Day out of the American public’s memory, we can now see that the respect for the laws of a democracy that is called for by Law Day is actually not that unlike some of the very same sentiments of the labor movement celebrated on May Day.

In a way, the holiday has come full circle, revitalizing its focus on the rights of the people.