Worcester v. Georgia 1832

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Worcester v. Georgia 1832

Appellant: Samuel A. Worcester

Appellee: State of Georgia

Appellant's Claim: That the state of Georgia had no legal authority to pass laws regulating activities within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation, a nation recognized through treaties with the United States.

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

Justices Dissenting: Henry Baldwin

Date of Decision: March 3, 1832

Decision: Ruled in favor of Worcester overturning his lower court conviction for living on Cherokee Nation lands without a state of Georgia permit.

Significance: This ruling was the third key decision by Chief Justice John Marshall since 1823 establishing the political standing of Indian tribes within the United States. The ruling recognized the sovereign (politically independent) status of tribes. States did not have jurisdiction to pass laws regulating activities on Indian lands located within their state boundaries. This reaffirmation of tribal sovereignty became the basis for many Court decisions over the next 160 years and eventually helped lead to dramatic Indian economic recovery by the late twentieth century. Despite winning in Court, the Cherokee were still forced from their homeland by the federal government and resettled in Oklahoma.

After the United States gained independence from Great Britain in the late eighteenth century, landownership issues became an even greater concern. Indian nations, still many and strong, held military supremacy over the new fledgling and economically broke United States. The young nation did inherit from Great Britain several international principles guiding Indian relations. First, tribes have sovereignty, meaning they are politically independent of other nations and free to govern their own internal affairs by their own laws and customs. Secondly, tribes held a pre-existing right to the land they occupied which they could give to others. Third, land could only be exchanged between national governments. Neither private citizens nor state governments could acquire land from tribes.

Congress, Georgia, and the Cherokee

Following the basic international principles of Indian relations, the U.S. Constitution granted exclusive authority to deal with tribes to Congress, not the states. The authority was primarily included in Article 1 of the Constitution which gave Congress sole power to "regulate commerce with . . . the Indian Tribes." Article VI of the Constitution also recognized Indian treaties along with acts of Congress as the "supreme law of the land." Like federal laws, Indian treaties would carry greater weight than state laws. To exercise its authority to regulate activities on Indian lands and to affirm internationally recognized tribal sovereignty, the first U.S. Congress passed the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act in 1790. The act and its basic principles were further affirmed by the Supreme Court ruling in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823). Consequently, the Indians were considered free and independent nations within their own traditional territories. Although free of U.S. common law, they were subject to congressional oversight.

The state of Georgia during the nation's early years took a hard position on states' rights. Georgia vigorously opposed federal government oversight of state activities. The state equally disliked the Indian presence within its boundaries. Following gold discoveries on Cherokee Nation lands in 1828, a series of laws were passed to antagonize the Cherokee and gain control over them and their lands. One law was titled, "An Act to prevent the exercise of assumed and arbitrary power by all persons, under pretext [claim] of authority from the Cherokee Indians." The act stated that all white persons wishing to live on Cherokee Nation lands must first obtain a license or permit from the state of Georgia and take a state oath. Minimum sentence for violators was four years of hard labor.

Samuel A. Worcester

Samuel Worcester, a Vermont citizen and missionary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, traveled to the Cherokee Nation in the early nineteenth century to pursue his missionary calling. However, soon he and six other white persons were arrested by Georgia officials and physically removed from tribal lands. Worcester was charged "for residing on the 15th of July, 1831, in that part of the Cherokee Nation attached by the laws of the State of Georgia, without license or permit, and without having taken the oath to support and defend the constitution and laws of the state of Georgia." Worcester, in his defense, argued he was preaching the gospel under authority of the President of the United States and with permission of the Cherokee Nation. He also contended that Georgia had no jurisdiction since the United States recognized the Cherokee as a sovereign nation through several treaties. Consequently, he stressed that the Georgia laws regulating activities on Cherokee lands violated the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act and were invalid.

The superior court, disagreeing with Worcester's arguments, found him and the others guilty and sentenced them to four years of hard labor in a prison camp. Worcester appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Independent Nation

Chief Justice John Marshall delivered the Court's 6-1 decision. Marshall believed the case raised two important questions. First, legislatures normally have very limited legal powers that extend beyond their established geographic area of jurisdiction. Usually, that power is limited to the actions of their own citizens. Therefore, Georgia's actions amounted to application of jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation which they did not have. Cherokee lands were not within state jurisdiction and Worcester was not a Georgia citizen.

Secondly, Marshall stressed that the relationship between the federal government and the American Indian nations was inherited from Great Britain following independence by the United States. The several treaties between the United States and the Cherokees affirmed the Cherokee Nation's sovereignty and right to self-government. As a result, the United States and the Cherokee considered the Indian nation to be under the protection of the United States only. The Cherokee was a "distinct community occupying its own territory." Because the treaties were recognized in the U.S. Constitution as the supreme law of the land, like acts of Congress, they had greater authority than state laws when they came in conflict. Marshall concluded that Georgia had no legal right to exert control over Cherokee internal affairs and the state law under which Worcester had been prosecuted was void.

Marshall concluded that "Indian nations are distinct political communities, having territorial boundaries, within which their authority is exclusive [total], and having a right to all the lands within those boundaries, which is not only acknowledged, but guaranteed by the United States."

Marshall added that the forcible seizure of Worcester, without the Cherokee's permission or approval of the President of the United States, while he was residing in Cherokee territory violated the U.S. Constitution as well.

Indian Sovereignty

The Worcester decision represented the third decision presented by Chief Justice Marshall between 1823 and 1832 establishing the foundation for U.S. Indian law. Known as the Marshall Trilogy, the rulings would influence U.S.-Indian relations for over a century. The cases of Johnson v. McIntosh, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, and Worcester resolved the Indian right of possession to lands they occupied within the European concept of discovery, established the political nature of tribal nations as "domestic dependent nations," and reaffirmed tribal sovereignty to rule its own internal affairs free of state jurisdiction. Tribal regulation of its own activities was limited only by treaties and acts of Congress. The Court recognized Congress' plenary (total) power over tribal rights and activities.

Despite winning their case in court, the Cherokee lost in real life. The federal government pressed to remove the Cherokee which they finally did six years later in one of the more tragic stories in U.S. history.

Through the following 160 years relations between the United States and Indian tribes was to progress through many dramatically different phases. Indian social and economic recovery from disastrous federal policies would not gain momentum until the 1970s with the increased emphasis on tribal self-determination. The self-determination policies gave tribes increasing authority and responsibility to manage


J ohn Ross (1790–1866), though seven-eighths non-Indian by birth and that mostly Scottish, became a long-standing political leader of the Cherokee Nation. Ross was born in present-day Alabama in 1790 and grew up outside native traditions. As a young man, he became a merchant in the present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee area and northwestern Georgia where the Cherokee Nation was centered. In the 1810s Ross became involved in Cherokee political affairs as they established a European form of parliamentary government. By 1828 he was elected principal chief of the Cherokee. The year 1828 is also when gold was discovered in Cherokee country and the state of Georgia stepped up its efforts to remove the Cherokee. The Cherokees became split on how to respond to the mounting pressures for removal. Ross favored resistance. But a Cherokee leader of a smaller group, Major Ridge, signed the 1835 Treaty of New Echota with President Andrew Jackson (1829–1837). The highly unpopular treaty sold all Cherokee lands for $5 million to the United States and agreed to move to lands west of the Mississippi River. Ross tried to cancel the treaty, but without success. In 1838 the Cherokee began their forced, one thousand mile journey under harsh winter conditions. Later known as the Trail of Tears, almost one fourth of the tribe's members died.

Ross continued his prominent role as a Cherokee leader after resettling in Oklahoma. The tribe experienced difficult times adjusting to the new home and loss of many tribal members. Finally, peace within the tribe came in the 1850s only to end with the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861–1865). For still unknown reasons, Ross supported the Confederacy. Following the war, Ross took part in negotiations with the United States leading to an 1866 treaty preserving the Cherokee Nation.

their own internal affairs free from federal oversight. This late twentieth century policy was largely based on Worcester and other Marshall decisions almost a century and a half earlier. Numerous Court decisions throughout the twentieth century would further define the highly unique political status that American Indians hold. The Marshall Trilogy provided the foundation for many of those decisions.

Suggestions for further reading

Bruchoc, Joseph. The Trail of Tears. New York: Random House, 1999.

Ehle, John. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

King, Duane H. ed. The Cherokee Indian Nation: A Troubled History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979.

Moulton, Gary E. John Ross, Cherokee Chief. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.

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