• Last updated on November 10, 2022

United States v. Cruikshank was an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, argued in 1875 and decided the following year, to overturn the conviction of several men arrested following a massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, on April 13, 1873. After the hotly contested election of 1872, a paramilitary group of white men overpowered and killed a group of black freemen and state militia members guarding the newly elected Republican government at the Grant Parish courthouse. Several of the white men were convicted of conspiracy under a federal act designed to enforce the US Constitution's Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment guarantees of equal rights regardless of color. The defendants challenged the conviction, arguing that Congress did not have the authority to criminalize individuals' behavior and could only legislate against government discrimination. In 1874, Supreme Court associate justice Joseph P. Bradley, serving as a circuit justice in the Louisiana circuit court, heard the defendants' appeal and ruled in their favor, thus sending the case on to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed with Bradley's ruling and overturned the convictions, paving the way for paramilitary white supremacist groups to control the Southern states through violence and intimidation against black men trying to exercise their rights.

Summary Overview

United States v. Cruikshank was an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, argued in 1875 and decided the following year, to overturn the conviction of several men arrested following a massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, on April 13, 1873. After the hotly contested election of 1872, a paramilitary group of white men overpowered and killed a group of black freemen and state militia members guarding the newly elected Republican government at the Grant Parish courthouse. Several of the white men were convicted of conspiracy under a federal act designed to enforce the US Constitution's Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment guarantees of equal rights regardless of color. The defendants challenged the conviction, arguing that Congress did not have the authority to criminalize individuals' behavior and could only legislate against government discrimination. In 1874, Supreme Court associate justice Joseph P. Bradley, serving as a circuit justice in the Louisiana circuit court, heard the defendants' appeal and ruled in their favor, thus sending the case on to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed with Bradley's ruling and overturned the convictions, paving the way for paramilitary white supremacist groups to control the Southern states through violence and intimidation against black men trying to exercise their rights.

Defining Moment

Racial tension in Louisiana was extremely high following the Civil War. The federal Reconstruction Act of 1867 required all states to grant black men the right to vote. Unfortunately, this led to violence and murder against those who attempted to exercise that right, as well as widespread election fraud on the part of whites who opposed black suffrage.

Initially, Louisiana governor Henry Clay Warmoth tried to provide racial balance in his community by appointing William Ward, a black Civil War veteran of the Union Army, to be a commanding officer of a black unit of the state militia. But shortly before the 1872 election Warmoth aligned with the Liberal Republicans, who sought to disenfranchise black citizens, and formed an alliance with the Democratic Party. This alliance supported Warmoth to become Louisiana's US senator and John McEnery to become the new governor of Louisiana.

Voter fraud was rampant, and the election board was split regarding which candidate had actually won. Much of the reelected board claimed that McEnery had won the governor's seat, but a minority of the board and the federal government claimed that Republican William Pitt Kellogg had won. McEnery and his party assumed control following the election, but with federal assistance, Kellogg was eventually certified as the Louisiana governor. When the newly elected Republicans took their offices in the Grant Parish courthouse, groups of free black citizens and the black state militia unit occupied the area outside the courthouse to protect the government against overthrow by white protestors. In late March of 1873, several white men formed an alliance to retake the courthouse and reinstate their preferred government. Supported by the Ku Klux Klan and armed with a cannon, approximately three hundred white men attacked the estimated one hundred black men surrounding the courthouse. Most of the black men were killed on the spot, many after surrendering, or else were executed later that night. The courthouse was burned.

In the weeks and months that followed, several members of the paramilitary group were tracked down and charged with criminal violations under the US Enforcement Act of 1870. This act was passed by Congress to enforce the newly ratified Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments guaranteeing black citizens equal rights and protection under the law. The defendants appealed the convictions on the grounds that the Enforcement Act was unconstitutional, and the appeal was heard by the US Supreme Court.

Author Biography

Joseph P. Bradley was born on March 14, 1813, in Berne, New York. At age twenty, he relocated to New Jersey to study divinity at Rutgers University, but eventually he decided to pursue law instead. He became a member of the New Jersey bar in 1839 and established a reputable and lucrative practice in the fields of patent and railroad law in the city of Newark. He earned a solid reputation for his trial work within the federal court system, and when the Judiciary Act of 1869 created a vacancy on the US Supreme Court, he secured a nomination from President Ulysses S. Grant. Justice Bradley took his oath of office and assumed his seat on March 21, 1870.

From April 4, 1870, to January 9, 1881, Justice Bradley served as the circuit justice for the US Circuit Court for the Fifth Circuit. While there, he wrote the opinion for the District of Louisiana case United States v. Cruikshank et al., which narrowly construed Congress's authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and sent the case on to the Supreme Court for judgment. The Supreme Court's decision ultimately paved the way for white supremacist groups to control the post–Civil War South. Bradley also became infamous for his concurring opinion in Bradwell v. Illinois, a Supreme Court case that held that the right of a woman to practice law was not constitutionally protected under the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In writing separate from the majority, who had relied upon states' rights grounds to justify the decision, Bradley declared that “the paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”

Justice Bradley also served in the Sixth Circuit, which covered Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, from May 2 until May 17, 1881, and the Third Circuit, covering New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, from January 10, 1881, until early 1892. His service in both the Supreme Court and the Third Circuit ended with his death in Washington, DC, on January 22, 1892, most likely of tuberculosis. Bradley was buried at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey.

Document Analysis

The massacre at the Grant Parish courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana, took place on April 13, 1873. In the weeks and months that followed, several members of the white paramilitary group that organized the attack were tracked down and tried for murder and conspiracy to deprive black individuals of their constitutionally guaranteed equal protection under the law. Their conviction was based on legislation signed into law on May 31, 1870, entitled “An act to enforce the Rights of Citizens of the United States to vote in the several States of this Union, and for other Purposes,” commonly referred to as the Enforcement Act of 1870. The purpose of this legislation was to enforce upon the states the newly established Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which states that US citizens cannot be denied the right to vote on the basis of their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Enforcement Act consists of twenty-three sections, the first three of which are directly related to the rights granted by the Fifteenth Amendment. Section 1 provides that all US citizens must be allowed to vote in any election regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude and regardless of any state or local law enacted to the contrary. Section 2 provides that if there are any prerequisites to being allowed to vote, such as owning property or completing registration papers, all citizens must have an equal opportunity to meet those prerequisites without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 3 extends this protection to situations where an individual offers or attempts to complete those prerequisites but is prevented from doing so; this means that a state cannot, for example, refuse to accept an individual's properly completed voting paperwork because of his color.

The next three sections address the behavior of private individuals rather than government actions. Section 4 makes it a criminal offense for any individual to use force, bribery, or threats to prevent any citizen from performing an act prerequisite to being able to vote. Section 5 further makes it a criminal offense to prevent or attempt to prevent a person from exercising his right to vote by threatening his job or home or by threatening violence against his family. Section 6 establishes a felony offense for involvement in a conspiracy to violate any of the provisions of the act or deprive a person of any of his constitutional rights by using threats, intimidation, or violence.

The defendants in United States v. Cruikshank were convicted under the sixth section of the Enforcement Act. They were not acting officially on behalf of the government to prevent the black freemen and militia members from exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights, but instead had formed a paramilitary group to accomplish this privately. They were charged with both violating the rights of the black citizens occupying the courthouse and forming a conspiracy to deprive them of those rights. To appeal their convictions, the defendants challenged the constitutionality of this section of the Enforcement Act. They did not contest Congress's authority to prevent states and municipalities from disenfranchising black voters, as those provisions are permissible under the necessary and proper clause of the US Constitution (article 1, section 8), which grants Congress the authority to pass any law deemed “necessary and proper” to carry out its constitutional mandates. This would include passing laws to enforce the rights guaranteed by the newly ratified Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. However, the defendants argued that Congress lacked the authority to regulate the behavior of individuals acting in a nonofficial capacity, and therefore their convictions should be overturned because this portion of the law is invalid.

In his opinion for the US Circuit Court for the District of Louisiana, Justice Bradley writes that when a citizen has rights that are secured by the Constitution “only by a declaration that the state or the United States shall not violate or abridge them,” then these rights are “not created or conferred by the constitution”; instead, it is only guaranteed that those rights “shall not be impaired by the state, or the United States.” And since section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment states that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” Congress only has the power to ensure that neither the state nor federal government prevents such individuals from voting, as it is “not a guaranty against the commission of individual offenses.” Any regulation of individuals' actions must fall to the state governments, which are responsible for establishing appropriate legislation. Bradley further notes that the privileges and immunities clause of the Constitution, which states that “the Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States,” also does not authorize Congress to pass a general system of laws within each individual state, only to regulate the states themselves.

Bradley contrasts the Enforcement Act, which is at the heart of United States v. Cruikshank, with the Civil Rights Act, which was passed on April 9, 1866, and established, as he says, “that all persons born in the United States … should be citizens of the United States; and that such citizens, of every race and color, without any regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude,” should have the same rights in all US states and territories. This law was passed in response to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” and it establishes criminal penalties for individuals who violate the provisions of the law. Bradley states that because this is an affirmative prohibition of the condition of slavery, the Civil Rights Act is an appropriate exercise of Congress's power to enforce this amendment.

By contrast, the Fifteenth Amendment states that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Bradley holds that the difference in language between these two amendments means that in the case of the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress only has the authority to prevent the states from denying its citizens of color the right to vote; it cannot exercise any power over the actions of private individuals. Additionally, he emphasizes that federal jurisdiction over violations of the Civil Rights Act only exists if the deprivation of rights is racially motivated. In other words, if a person is murdered because he is black, then federal laws would apply, but if a person is murdered and it is merely a coincidence that he is black, state laws would govern.

Bradley notes that the Fifteenth Amendment is in some ways an extension of the Civil Rights Act and “is to be interpreted on the same general principles.” However, he elaborates that “the right conferred and guarantied is not an absolute, but a relative one.” In particular, the Fifteenth Amendment “does not confer the right to vote” but rather grants “a right not to be excluded from voting.” As such, that is “all the right that congress can enforce.” According to Bradley, it is the “prerogative of the state laws” to confer the right to vote, and the Fifteenth Amendment can only prevent states from interfering with that right.

The decision in United States v. Cruikshank was not unexpected in light of a number of other Supreme Court decisions around the same time. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court upheld the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated the return of any fugitive slave found in a free state, when the act was challenged by a Pennsylvania law providing protection to escaped slaves who had taken up residence in the state. Additionally, in a group of cases known collectively as the Slaughter-House Cases, the Supreme Court held that regulation of slaughterhouses was a state matter, not a federal one, even if there was an alleged violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law. The Supreme Court's decision in these cases established that the federal government would accept only limited involvement in enforcing the rights enshrined in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. By later affirming the circuit court's decision in United States v. Cruikshank, the Supreme Court made it clear that it would likewise selectively determine when it would step in to enforce these rights and when it would leave that enforcement to the states.

Finally, in a section not reproduced above, Bradley addresses the specific counts of the defendants' convictions. The first count alleges that the defendants formed a conspiracy to interfere with the right of the black freemen and militia to peaceably assemble at the courthouse, in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Bradley notes that the language of the First Amendment merely prevents Congress from making laws that interfere with this right but says nothing about Congress's authority to prevent private individuals from interfering with the rights of other individuals.

The second count contains a similar allegation of conspiracy to interfere with the right to bear arms. Bradley holds that this count suffers from the same problem as the first; namely, that the Second Amendment prohibits the government from interfering with an individual's right to bear arms but does not authorize Congress to prevent a private individual from doing the same to another individual.

The third count charges the defendants with forming a conspiracy to deprive a group of black citizens of their constitutionally guaranteed right to life and liberty without due process of the law. Bradley dismisses this count by reasoning that every murderer deprives his victim of the right to life, but this alone does not give the federal government the authority to make and enforce a law criminalizing murder in every state.

Bradley also dismisses the fourth, fifth, and eighth counts–which allege further deprivation of constitutional rights–by stating that such deprivation perpetrated by a private individual is only a federal offense if it is racially motivated, but the complaint does not explicitly allege racial motivation. He admits that the defendants' actions probably were racially motivated, and even describes the fourth count as alleging that defendants deprived “certain colored citizens of African descent, of the free exercise and enjoyment of the right and privilege to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property which is enjoyed by the white citizens.” However, he dismisses the count anyway, stating that the prosecution should have been more explicit in claiming racial motivation for the defendants' actions.

The sixth and seventh counts specifically reference deprivation of the right to vote guaranteed under the Fifteenth Amendment. Bradley dismisses these on the grounds that only the states, and not Congress, have the authority to make these actions a crime, as described earlier in the opinion. The final eight counts are dismissed by stating that they “are literal copies, respectively, of the first eight, so far as relates to the language on which their validity depends.”

Ultimately, Cruikshank has been criticized for its seemingly inconsistent treatment of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Bradley puts forth several arguments as to why the law under which Cruikshank and his fellow defendants were charged should be declared unconstitutional and attempts to justify this reasoning by citing prior precedents. However, those arguments often seem contradictory. The opinion specifically states that “the war of race … is subject to the jurisdiction of the government of the United States” regardless of who commits the crime and that “this fundamental principle … applies to both the 13th and 15th Amendment.” Yet when dismissing the actual charges against the defendants, Bradley ignores the clear racial motivation behind the defendants' actions and declares that there is no federal jurisdiction because “Congress surely is not vested with power to legislate for the suppression and punishment of all murders, robberies, and assaults committed within the states.” While both may be true statements, the conclusion only makes sense if one ignores the racial motivation for the underlying crime.

Essential Themes

The circuit court's decision in United States v. Cruikshank ultimately hinges on the notion that the right to vote is not granted by the US Constitution itself but is instead provided by the states. According to Bradley's interpretation, the federal government only has the authority to prevent the states from disenfranchising its black citizens; it is powerless to act against private individuals who seek to accomplish the same end. Bradley's attempts to explain why Congress was allowed to criminalize private behavior in the Civil Rights Act but not in the Enforcement Act were met with skepticism and continue to be debated many years later.

This case, and others like it, highlighted the growing racial tension in the United States as the Civil War ended and the Reconstruction efforts began. The Northern states of the Union refused to help rebuild the Confederate states if those states would not ratify the equal protection amendments to the US Constitution. But the establishment in the Southern states strongly resented the forced change to their way of life, and their citizens found other ways to disenfranchise black voters, including murder, violence, and intimidation.

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold Bradley's ruling in United States v. Cruikshank was heavily criticized for its failure to protect the rights the government had supposedly granted to newly freed black citizens in the Southern states. The Enforcement Act of 1870 prohibited states from taking any official actions to prevent black citizens from voting, but United States v. Cruikshank left it in the hands of the states themselves to protect black voters from aggression perpetrated by private individuals. The Southern states had no desire to pass or enforce laws protecting black voters, and the so-called right to vote enshrined in the Fifteenth Amendment was one that could not be exercised without fearing for one's life and safety.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court's decision had the effect of encouraging the growth of paramilitary white supremacy groups in the South. Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan knew that the states themselves would never charge them for violating a black man's rights and, in the wake of United States v. Cruikshank, they also knew that the federal government would not intervene on behalf of the states' black citizens. The Supreme Court reversed some parts of the decision in later years, but the impact on the Reconstruction efforts was enormous, and the status of black citizens in the Southern states was severely harmed by the federal government's refusal to intervene in racially motivated deprivations of rights.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Curtis, Michael Kent. No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Durham: Duke UP, 1986. Print.
  • Goldstone, Lawrence. Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865–1903. New York: Walker, 2011. Print.
  • Hoffer, Williamjames Hull. Plessy v. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2012. Print
  • Keith, LeeAnna. The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  • Lane, Charles. The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction. New York: Holt, 2008. Print.
  • Stuntz, William J. The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 2012. Print.
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