Barron v. Baltimore 1833

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Barron v. Baltimore 1833

Appellant: John Barron

Appellee: The Mayor and city council of Baltimore, Maryland

Appellant's Claim: That Baltimore's city improvements severely damaged his harbor business constituting a taking of property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Charles Mayer

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Roger Brooke Taney

Justices for the Court: Gabriel Duvall, William Johnson, Chief Justice John Marshall, John McLean, Joseph Story, Smith Thompson

Justices Dissenting: None (Henry Baldwin did not participate)

Date of Decision: February 16, 1833

Decision: Ruled in favor of Baltimore by finding that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction in the case because the Fifth Amendment only applies to federal government actions and not state disputes.

Significance: The ruling legally established the principle that the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, apply to and restrain the federal government's powers but do not apply to state governments. This legal doctrine was not reversed until the twentieth century when the Supreme Court gradually included the Bill of Rights into the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees.

"B eware! Beware!—you are forging chains for yourselves and your children—your liberties are at stake." Words spoken by Elbridge Gerry, Massachuset's delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Gerry was one of a handful of delegates refusing to sign the newly crafted Constitution. As did many citizens of the newly forming nation, he feared a domineering central government. Memories of British rule were fresh. The British army had forced owners of private homes to house soldiers, they assessed unfair taxes, and customs officials invaded homes to search for smuggled goods. The Constitution as written did not contain a bill of rights, a summary of the basic rights and liberties of the people. The lack of a bill of rights, which many believed would guard against a strong-arm central government, was the most serious obstacle to ratification by the states. Only after the federalists, who favored a strong central, or federal, government and believed a bill of rights was unnecessary, compromised and agreed to draft a list of basic rights to be added later to the Constitution was the tide turned toward ratification. Thus, one of the first acts of the new Congress in 1789 was to pass the first ten amendments (changes or additions) to the Constitution that came to be known as the Bill of Rights. Moreover, it was common knowledge of the day that the Bill of Rights was added because people feared the federal government and not because they dreaded abuses of power by their state governments.

Approximately forty years later in Barron v. Baltimore (1833) the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide if an amendment in the Bill of Rights applied to state governments as well as the federal government. Their decision started an argument that lasted well into the twentieth century.

Barron's Business, Baltimore's Needs

John Barron and John Craig were owners of a large and highly profitable wharf on the east side of the harbor in Baltimore, Maryland. Located in the deepest water of the harbor, the wharf was a popular docking place for ships to unload cargoes into nearby warehouses. Renting their wharf to ship owners, Barron and Craig collected large sums of money.

As Baltimore grew two city issues arose. First, the city needed new streets. Secondly, with the larger population the older sections of Baltimore's harbor became filled with stagnant water, garbage, and debris. Responding to the need for new streets and in an attempt to end the health hazard in the harbor, the city carried out an extensive public works program between 1815 and 1821. The program involved regrading and paving streets, building embankments, and diverting the natural course of streams. The stream diversions happened to lead right toward Barron's and Craig's wharf.

During storms those diverted streams carried large amounts of sand and soil which ended up at the front of Barron and Craig's wharf. Through time the water steadily grew shallower until large ships could no longer use the wharf. His profitable business ruined, Barron sued the city in the Baltimore County Court for money to compensate (pay him back) for his financial loses. His partner, John Craig, had died, so Barron represented Craig as well.

The Bill of Rights and State Governments

In the Baltimore County Court, Barron argued the city had violated his property rights but the city denied his claim. The city attorneys justified their projects by stating that the Maryland legislature had granted the city power to pave streets and regulate the flow of water. The silting up of the harbor was an unfortunate "nuisance" affecting all of Baltimore's residents but not directed specifically at Barron. The County Court found in favor of Barron and awarded him $4,500 in damages. The city appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals which reversed the lower court decision and ruled against Barron. Barron took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before the Court, one of the arguments presented on Barron's behalf dealt with the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Remember, the first ten amendments make up the Bill of Rights. After hearing arguments, the Court decided the case should focus only on the Fifth Amendment argument.

The Fifth Amendment states that "private property" shall not "be taken for public use without just compensation." Barron claimed the city of Baltimore had violated his constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment by destroying his profitable business without compensating him. Barron contended that the Fifth Amendment "declares principles which regulate the legislation of the states, for the protection of the people in each and all the states . . . " The question before the Court was: Did the Fifth Amendment, or any part of the Bill of Rights, apply to and "regulate" the powers of state government as well as applying to the federal government or did the Bill of Rights only restrict actions of the federal government?

"Of Great Importance" But Not Difficult

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion of the unanimous Court. This was Marshall's last major constitutional decision and, unlike many of his previous opinions, it restricted rather than expanded federal authority over the states. Marshall began, "The question thus presented is of great importance, but not of much difficulty." Marshall concluded that the Bill of Rights was designed to regulate the activities of and avoid possible abuses of power by the federal government and was "not . . . applicable to the states." Conveying his reasoning for the decision, Marshall wrote that the people of each state had enacted their own constitutions to control their state and local governments. He also pointed out that, unlike certain parts of the Constitution, no language appeared in the Bill of Rights saying the amendments applied to the states. He believed if the authors had intended the Bill of Rights to apply to the states they would have specifically said so. Finally, Marshall reviewed "the history of the day," finding the Framers of the first ten amendments intended them to guard against abuse of power by "the general [federal] government—not against those of the local governments." Thus, the Fifth Amendment could not be used by Barron to require "just compensation" from Baltimore for making his wharf useless. The Fifth Amendment could only apply to cases involving the federal government.

Finding the Supreme Court could not apply the Fifth Amendment to Baltimore or Maryland, Marshall dismissed the case.

Enormous Significance

As Marshall had written, Barron was of enormous significance. Courts in future cases expanded the decision to include all amendments in the Bill of Rights. As a result, the courts prevented the federal government from interfering when a state violated an individual's basic liberties and rights. Not until 1868 with passage of the Fourteenth Amendment did Congress try to limit the powers of state governments and protect the rights of individuals. Yet, the Supreme Court did not begin using the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee to all persons of equal protection of the laws and due process or fairness in application of those laws until well into the twentieth century. However, by the year 2000 the Court had ruled that almost every right and liberty contained in the Bill of Rights must be protected by state governments, like the federal government, under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.


R ealizing the nation would need to make changes to the Constitution, the Framers provided a way to amend it or make formal changes. A constitutional amendment can be proposed by a two-thirds vote of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Also, two-thirds of the state legislatures can call together a national convention to propose an amendment, but this method has never been used. Once Congress proposes an amendment, three-fourths of the state legislatures must ratify or approve it. A second path to ratification is by approval of three-fourths of the states meeting in special conventions, but this method has only been used once.

The first ten amendments were ratified in 1791 shortly after adoption of the U.S. Constitution. They are known as the Bill of Rights.

Approximately 9,000 resolutions for amending the Constitution have been proposed in Congress. However, only thirty-three have gone to the states for ratification. Only twenty-six amendments have been passed and made part of the Constitution. Amendments generally fill a need the Framers of the Constitution did not address. Examples are the Civil Rights Amendments (the Thirteen to Fifteen amendments), need for an income tax (the Sixteenth Amendment), the right to vote for women (the Nineteenth Amendment), and limits on presidential terms (the Twenty-second Amendment). The latest amendment, the Twenty-sixth, was ratified in 1971 and gave citizens eighteen to twenty years of age the right to vote.

Suggestions for further reading

Levy, Leonard W. Origins of the Bill of Rights. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

Nardo, Don, editor. The Bill of Rights (Opposing Viewpoints Digests). Greenhaven Press, 1998.

Quiri, Patricia R. The Bill of Rights. New York: Children's Press, 1999.

Veit, Helen E., Kenneth R. Bowling, Charlene B. Bickford, and Charles B. Bickford, editors. Creating the Bill of Rights: The Documentary Record from the First Federal Congress. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991.

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Barron v. Baltimore 1833

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