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This Day in History: Abolition

Today is a very important day in American history, the anniversary of when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress, that which formally abolished slavery in the U.S. in 1865. The Thirteenth provides that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It was ratified later that year on December 6. In honor of this anniversary, we offer an excerpt from The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, which provides an overview of the Civil Rights Cases.

Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883), submitted on the briefs 7 November 1882, argued 29 March 1883, decided 15 October 1883 by vote of 8 to 1; Bradley for the Court, Harlan in dissent.

Few decisions better illustrate the Supreme Court’s early inclination to interpret narrowly the Civil War Amendments than the Civil Rights Cases. There the Court declared unconstitutional provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that prohibited racial discrimination in inns, public conveyances, and places of public amusement. The decision curtailed federal efforts to protect African-Americans from private discrimination and cast constitutional doubts on Congress’s ability to legislate in the area of civil rights, doubts that were not completely resolved until enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Civil Rights Cases presented two conflicting views of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The conservative view saw the amendments in narrow terms: the Thirteenth Amendment simply abolished slavery; the Fourteenth granted the freed people citizenship and a measure of relief from state discrimination. The more radical view believed the amendments helped secure to the freed people and others all rights of free people in Anglo-American legal culture. Moreover, the amendments gave the national government authority to protect citizens against both state and private deprivations of rights.

Justice Joseph P. Bradley’s majority opinion rejected the more radical interpretation of the new amendments. He held that the Fourteenth Amendment only prohibited state abridgement of individual rights. In Bradley’s view the 1875 Civil Rights Act was an impermissible attempt by Congress to create a municipal code regulating the private conduct of individuals in the area of racial discrimination. He asserted in dicta that even private interference with such rights as voting, jury service, or appearing as witnesses in state court were not within the province of Congress to control. An individual faced with such interference had to look to state government for relief. Bradley also rejected the contention that the Thirteenth Amendment allowed Congress to pass the 1875 legislation, declaring that denial of access to public accommodations did not constitute a badge or incident of slavery. In his view such a broad construction of the Thirteenth Amendment would make the freed person “the special favorite of the laws.”

In his dissent, Southerner and former slaveholder Justice John Marshall Harlan rejected the majority’s narrow construction of the Civil War Amendments. Asserting that the decision rested on grounds that were “narrow and artificial,” Harlan argued that the Thirteenth Amendment gave Congress broad powers to legislate to insure the rights of freed people. He contended that the freedom conferred by the Thirteenth Amendment went beyond the simple absence of bondage. It encompassed freedom from the incidents of slavery, including all “badges of slavery”.

Along with the decision in the Slaughter-house Cases (1873), which effectively stripped the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause of significant meaning, and U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876), which upheld congressional efforts to protect blacks and others against private deprivations of constitutional rights, the Civil Rights Cases fashioned a Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence considerably less protective of individual rights than many of its framers had envisioned. The extent to which the Court’s narrow reading of Fourteenth Amendment protections helped usher in and foster the era of extensive segregation in southern and other states is open to debate. But the Supreme Court’s decision in the Civil Rights Cases largely mandated the withdrawal of the federal government from civil rights enforcement. That withdrawal would not be reversed until after World War II.

In 1964 Congress again passed legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations. Ironically, the Bradley opinion, which expressly did not rule on whether or not the Constitution’s Commerce Clause provided a basis for congressional legislation in this area, played a role in the drafting of the 1964 statute. The 1964 act’s public accommodations provision was based on the Commerce Clause.

How to cite this entry: Robert J. Cottrol “Civil Rights Cases” The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. Kermit L. Hall. Oxford University Press, 2009. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Oxford Online OUP-USA. 28 January 2011

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