United States v. Cruikshank (1875)


Simone Dufresne, December 2016

The aftermath of the Civil War was marked by the passage of a series of constitutional amendments and federal laws that were intended to establish and preserve the civil rights of African Americans. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, was established to provide equal protection of the law for all American citizens and prohibit the deprivation of a citizen’s “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Congress stretched these protections in 1870 by passing the first Enforcement Act, [1] which is a criminal code that was designed to protect African Americans’ rights to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection of laws. The law allowed the federal government to intervene if states failed to enforce the act. The act was targeted at the Ku Klux Klan who were murdering many African Americans because they voted, held office, or were involved with schools. [2]

In spite of the new legal protection for ex-slaves, as the Southern states were readmitted into the Union and the occupation forces were no longer present, the old ways returned in new forms. Landowners no longer owned slaves, but the practice of sharecropping effectively kept African Americans tied to the land and kept them subservient to whites. Laws separated African Americans from whites in public places through the “Jim Crow” laws, and the Ku Klux Klan devised an instrument of terror to enforce white supremacy. [3] Black women were being whipped, black churches and schools were burned, teachers were attacked, and freedpeople who refused to show proper respect to whites were beaten and killed. [4] Black liberties were slipping away.

On March 27, 1876, the Supreme Court annulled the convictions of the three men from the massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, where a mob of white men killed over 100 African Americans who were defending a local courthouse, many after the freedmen had surrendered. [5]

The Supreme Court had the power to protect the newly freed slaves, but chose to turn the case into a state issue rather than a federal one even after the state of Louisiana had done nothing and chose to do nothing to address these brutal murders. The Court pretended the case had nothing to do with race, yet race was the very issue that sparked the African Americans’ deaths.

The Supreme Court, was appointed by the Constitution as the highest judicial court in the country. This gives the Supreme Court the right to take judicial precedence over all other courts in the nation. In the US vs. Cruikshank case, the idea that the Supreme Court takes precedence over all other rulings is tested. The end result determined that the Supreme Court has no say.

On April 13, 1873, a mob of about 100 Southern people in Grant Parish, Louisiana lynched two African American men, Levi Nelson and Alexander Tillman after they had tried to vote in a local election that was against the desires of the white residents. After this, a group of African Americans stood outside the courthouse and protested. An armed militia of whites attacked and killed the group of African Americans that were defending a local courthouse. Eighty people in the mob were indicted for a violation of federal law. Only 17 were brought to trial, including a man by the name of William J Cruikshank. The U.S. attorney in charge, J.R. Beckwith, charged each of the men on trial with 16 violations of the Enforcement Act of 1870. None of the men were charged with murder, but were charged with having violated the victims of their “right and privilege peaceable to assemble together.” [6]

After an initial mistrial, a second trial convicted four of the men, but the convictions were appealed on the grounds that the murders were a Louisiana state offense, not a violation of federal law. The defendants were brought to trial in New Orleans before a judge of the US Circuit of Appeals. William B. Woods, E. John Ellis, R.H. Marr, and W.R. Whitaker represented the defendants at the trial, which took place during the Circuit Court’s 1874 April term. [7] Because the circuit court judges disagreed over the matter of guilt, the case went to the US Supreme Court.

Once Cruikshank and the others were found guilty, the defense lawyers had quickly appealed for a stay to Joseph P. Bradley, the justice assigned to the District of Louisiana. Justice Bradley granted the defense’s motion to stay the guilty verdicts, which sent Cruikshank’s case back to the Supreme Court for a final decision. Philip Phillips, Reverdy Johnson, and David Dudley joined the defense team and Attorney- General Edward Pierrepont and Solicitor-General Samuel F. Phillips assisted the prosecution. [8]

At the Court’s 1874 October Term, the prosecution argued that the Fourteenth Amendment and the 1870 act gave the government the power to try and convict offenders while the defense argued that the Fourteenth Amendment gave the federal government authority to act only against state government violations of civil rights, but not against one citizen’s violation of another’s civil rights. The defense’s argument that Congress could legislate against only “state action” would leave the federal government powerless to prosecute lynch mobs and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. African Americans would only be protected against white violence by their state courts, which for African Americans in the South, would mean no protection at all. [9]

On March 27, 1876, almost three years after the murders, the convictions of Cruikshank and the other men were reversed. Chief Justice Morrison Waite issued the majority opinion: the Fourteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to prohibit states from denying life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The Colfax murders had been the work of a private party, not the state of Louisiana. [10] The court unanimously ruled in favor of Cruikshank and his associated white accusers. It rejected the notion that it was the duty of the federal government to protect the rights of the African American group. The court claimed that there was no proof that the killings were intrinsically driven and that it was the sole obligation of the states, not the federal government, to protect the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. [11]

Chief Justice Morrison Waite invalidated the right of Congress to act to protect the rights of citizens if states refused to do so. He argued that the Fourteenth Amendment had nothing to do with private citizens’ rights, even if they had been violated. After this decision, the murderers were released. A leader of the Louisiana Bar described the local white reaction to the Supreme Court’s opinion by stating, “When the decision was reached and the prisoners released, there was utmost joy in Louisiana, and with a return of confidence which gave best hopes for the future” (quoted in Howard Meyer, The Amendment that Refused to Die, p. 87). [12]

Federal prosecution of crimes against African Americans was nearly impossible for the rest of the nineteenth century and most of the next. This paved the way for the courts to create the “lynch law.” [13] Lynch laws allowed unofficial, organized bands, or mobs of whites to charge African Americans with or suspect them of crimes and take them out of custody of the law and inflict instant punishment on them without legal trial and without warrant or authority of the law. [14]

The Cruikshank decision left the federal government powerless to protect freedmen. US attorney for the District of the Circuit Court of Louisiana and the person who had drawn the initial indictment in the Cruikshank case, James R. Beckwith, informed the US attorney general that after the Cruikshank problem, numerous White League organizations in the South had formed and grown powerful because of this decision. The states had defaulted in their duty to protect citizens, so the federal government had to step in, yet the court argued that the Reconstruction-era amendments only empowered the federal government to prohibit violations of African Americans’ rights by states. The responsibility for punishing crimes by individuals lies where it always had, with local and state authorities. Inevitably, the Cruikshank decision gave a green light to acts of terror wherever local officials could not or would not enforce the law. [15]

The right of protection was one of the reasons the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, and immediately after the Civil War, the Southern states had left the newly freed slaves unprotected from violence and other crimes or wrongs from white terrorist groups. The framers of the Fourteenth Amendment explained that the Fourteenth Amendment was necessary because states had done nothing in the face of daily “acts of cruelty, oppression, and murder.” [16]

African Americans were left to the mercy of the state government that was dominated by white supremacy. Neither the legislatures, law enforcement, nor the courts protected the freedmen. The Cruikshank ruling allowed groups such as the Ku Klux Klan to continue to suppress African Americans while the Southern legislatures continued to ignore this brutality.

Being the highest court in the country gives the Supreme Court the right to take judicial precedence over all other courts in the nation. Since the ruling in the US vs. Cruikshank case deemed states in charge of allocating the ruling of acts of private parties, the Supreme Court became powerless to helping African Americans against these private party groups.

In a case such as this one, where twisting the legal foundation of the Fourteenth Amendment produced an unjust outcome, it is easy to question the legitimacy of the Constitution and the Supreme Court. This shows that in our system the United States runs on, the Supreme Court does not necessarily have the final say. The state legislature and Congress, reacting to the public’s opinion, can choose to protect or expand rights. Ultimately Supreme Court chose to turn a blind eye to the Southern state governments supporting “private” racist groups.



United States V. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876).

1964. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://uscivilliberties.org/cases/4626-united-states-v-cruikshank-92-us-542-1876.html
[2] Corporation, Educational Broadcasting.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. Jim Crow Stories. Enforcement Acts.

2002. Accessed November 8, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_enforce.html
[3] eval.

U.S. V. Cruikshank: 1875 – Southern Racism Makes A Comeback.

2016. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://law.jrank.org/pages/2630/U-S-v-Cruikshank-1875-Southern-Racism-Makes-Comeback.html

Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction Era.

March 10, 2002. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/ku-klux-klan-reconstruction-era.

This Day in Supreme Court History: United States V. Cruikshank.

March 27, 2009. Accessed October 5, 2016.http://theusconstitution.org/text-history/580
[6] eval.

U.S. V. Cruikshank: 1875 – Southern Racism Makes A Comeback.

2016. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://law.jrank.org/pages/2630/U-S-v-Cruikshank-1875-Southern-Racism-Makes-Comeback.html
[7] Ibid
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid
[10] Written and Carol Gelderman.

KnowLA, Encyclopedia of Louisiana.

2010. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1581/
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid

Rights Matter: The Story of the Bill of Rights.

Accessed October 5, 2016. http://www.rightsmatter.org/teachers/chapter9.html#cruikshank
[14] Powered and The Law Dictionary.


Accessed November 8, 2016. http://thelawdictionary.org/lynch-law/
[15] Written and Carol Gelderman.

KnowLA, Encyclopedia of Louisiana.

2010. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1581/

This Day in Supreme Court History: United States V. Cruikshank.

March 27, 2009. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://theusconstitution.org/text-history/580

Further Reading

Pope, James Gray.

Snubbed Landmark: Why United States V. Cruikshank (1876) Belongs at the Heart of the American Constitutional Canon.

2014. Accessed October 5, 2016. http://harvardcrcl.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/385_Pope.pdf

Wilson, Harry L.

Gun Politics in America: Historical and Modern Documents in Context

[2 .. n.p.: ABC-CLIO, 2016. https://books.google.com/books?id=0xQsDAAAQBAJ&pg=PA62&lpg=PA62&dq=william+cruikshank+case&source=bl&ots=K48dBL88WZ&sig=0JQrQDhIN9vxGCpKcEDeXFGYZ8A&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwifseGx-dbQAhWHsVQKHbZjBRoQ6AEIWjAO#v=onepage&q=william%20cruikshank%20case&f=false.

Finkelman, Paul.

The Supreme Court: Controversies, Cases, and Characters from John Jay to John Roberts.

Edited by Paul Finkelman. n.p.: ABC-CLIO, 2014. https://books.google.com/books?id=JZB_AwAAQBAJ&pg=PA337&lpg=PA337&dq=william+cruikshank+case&source=bl&ots=_gVWPI0p9s&sig=4gkoi4CvkmawyN7y2Hi9fETAau4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi6gpvM-tbQAhWL0FQKHVndDNM4ChDoAQhEMAk#v=onepage&q=Cruikshank&f=false.

Worcester State University Fall 2020