Supreme Court, 1816–1900

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SUPREME COURT, 1816–1900

As one of the three branches of our federal government, the Supreme Court played a significant role in events before, during, and after the Civil War. Several rulings from the 1850s to the 1890s had a profound impact on this nation. The Dred Scott decision heightened passions over slavery in the volatile decade leading up to the outbreak of war. The Court took an active part during the Civil War by adjudicating issues of civil rights. In the years that followed the war, the Court's rulings relating to the meaning of citizenship and the protection of civil liberties, especially in the Slaughterhouse cases and Plessy v. Ferguson, influenced the nation's stance on race and citizenship for decades to come.

Early in its history, the United States Supreme Court was preoccupied with establishing its legitimacy as a national institution and its power of judicial review. Following the War of 1812, however, with its status and popular support established, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall began to play an important role in shaping the new nation. In a series of decisions such as McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), the Court set a pattern of favoring a strong central government and expansion of the nation westward by endorsing the federal government's efforts to regulate banking and commerce. These efforts reflected a strong popular culture of nationalism and protection of property rights that temporarily offset assertions of states' rights.

In 1835, Roger B. Taney became the Chief Justice of the Court, a change that gave the Supreme Court a key and controversial role in events leading up to the Civil War. Taney was a Jacksonian Democrat who favored states' rights. The growing crisis over slavery, with its strong basis in the states' rights issue, led Taney to attempt to settle the matter by authoring the most infamous decision in Supreme Court history, the Dred Scott decision. In this 1857 case, formally known as Scott v. Sandford, Taney and five fellow justices ruled that African Americans were not citizens of the United States but property protected by the Constitution. The justices further ruled that freed slaves could be enslaved again if they were found in a slave state. The public in the North reacted furiously to this decision. Many people thought that there was no longer any possibility of compromising on the issue of slavery, and the Court lost credibility as an institution, unable to exercise leadership as the nation surged to war.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the resignation of Southerners from the Court caused a change in its philosophy. Predictably, the Court moved from sympathy toward states' rights to sympathy with the cause of national unity. With this change came a tendency to be deferential to the president when he was perceived to be defending the nation against an external threat, a tendency that continues today. In the 1862 Prize Cases, the Court said that the president need not wait for a congressional declaration of war before repelling a sudden attack on the United States.

At the same time, the Court attempted to confront President Abraham Lincoln on civil liberties issues. In Ex Parte Merryman, when confronted with the issue of whether the president or Congress had the power under the Constitution to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, the Court ruled that Congress held the power. The detention of civilians by the military was unconstitutional. President Lincoln essentially ignored the ruling, and the Court was powerless to enforce it. In Ex Parte Milligan, however, the Court did not back off, holding that military courts could not try civilians when civilian courts were open and operating. Many Americans viewed these cases as a key to protecting civil liberties if a wartime president attempted to override them in the name of national security; the cases remain important today.

At the end of the Civil War, Congress, led by the Republican Party, overturned the prewar Dred Scott decision, abolishing slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and declaring in the Fourteenth Amendment that all persons born in the United States were citizens. Along with the Fifteenth Amendment, these constitutional changes were clearly meant to ensure that black Americans would have the same civil and political rights as whites. The Supreme Court, however, stalled that vision for decades.

In the 1873 Slaughterhouse Cases, the Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment's Privileges and Immunities Clause for the first time since the ratification of the amendment in 1870. The Privileges and Immunities Clause states that no state can enforce "any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States." At issue in the Slaughterhouse Cases, which involved restrictions affecting butchers, was whether states could infringe on the right to labor—in other words, to pursue a lawful trade. In a 5–4 vote, however, the Court narrowed the scope of this clause considerably, ruling that it did not protect the right to labor. Many people criticized this decision on the grounds that it undercut the federal government's ability to protect the newly-freed slaves from discriminatory treatment by the states.

This trend continued further in 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, where the Supreme Court held that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment allowed segregation under the "separate but equal" principle. The State of Louisiana had a number of "Jim Crow" laws that sought to keep black Americans in an inferior social state. Among these was a law mandating that blacks and whites travel in different train cars. Black Americans sued to test this law and lost before the Supreme Court. The Court said that the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but not all distinctions based on race, and that the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause did not demand that the races be mixed. The Court stated that law could not alter longstanding customs of society, of which racial segregation was one.


Hall, Kermit L. et al., editors. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

McCloskey, Robert G. The American Supreme Court. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Margaret D. Stock

See also:Civil Liberties, Civil War; Constitutional Amendments and Changes; Reconstruction; Segregation, Racial, 1816–1900.

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Supreme Court, 1816–1900

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