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

The aftermath of the American Civil War was marked by the passage of a series of constitutional amendments and federal laws designed to establish and preserve the civil rights of African Americans. Most significantly, the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, provided for equal protection of the law for all American citizens and prohibited the deprivation of a citizen’s ‘‘life, liberty, or property without due process of law.’’ Congress extended these protections in 1870 by passing the first Enforcement Act, which forbade two or more private citizens from depriving another citizen of his or her civil rights, making such conduct a felony under federal law.

These federal measures helped to stymie efforts to preserve the system of white supremacy that survived in the former Confederate states after the abolition of slavery. In reaction to these measures, white supremacists sought to preserve the southern racial caste system through state and local ‘‘Jim Crow’’ laws enforcing racial segregation and through the extralegal activities of paramilitary terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Lynchings, or the enforcement of mob justice through public beatings and executions, became commonplace in many areas of the American South, in direct violation of the Enforcement Act.

Among the first persons charged with violating the Act was William J. Cruikshank, who along with approximately eighty co-conspirators was indicted for the lynching of two African-American men on April 13, 1873, for trying to vote in a local election. United States Attorney J. R. Beckwith had sought indictment of the co-conspirators on Federal charges, because the murder of an African American by a white person was not a crime under existing Louisiana law. The Federal Circuit Court for Louisiana convicted Cruikshank and the other defendants; after which the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on appeal during the fall term of 1874. The prosecution, assisted by U.S. Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont and Solicitor General Samuel F. Phillips, argued that the Fourteenth Amendment provided a basis for the 1870 Enforcement Act by giving the federal government the authority to prosecute violators of citizens’ civil rights. The defense team, headed by David Dudley Field, countered that the Fourteenth Amendment only protected citizens against government violations of civil rights, not against the oppressive acts of private citizens. In October of 1875, the Court ruled unanimously that prosecution of the defendants under federal law was unconstitutional, because state law was primarily responsible for protecting citizens from each other.

As a result of the Court’s decision, victims of civil rights abuses were left to seek protection from state courts, which were often uninterested in safeguarding the civil rights of southern blacks. The decision led to a variety of civil rights abuses, including a proliferation of state and local segregation laws, poll taxes and literacy tests designed to deny the vote to African Americans, and a continuation of racial intimidation and violence. Not until the passage of the federal civil rights legislation of the 1960s would African Americans receive full protection of their civil rights under federal law.

MICHAEL H. BURCHETT

References and Further Reading

  • Foner, Eric. ‘‘The New View of Reconstruction.’’ American Heritage 34 (October–November 1983): 6: 10–16.
  • Neely, Mark E. The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Nieman, Donald G. Promises to Keep: African Americans and the Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Tomlins, Christopher, ed. The United States Supreme Court: The Pursuit of Justice. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Fourteenth Amendment to U.S. Constitution, USCA Cons. Amend. 14s 1
  • Enforcement Act, Act of May 31, 1870, c. 6,16 Stat. 141

See also Civil Rights Act of 1964; Federalization of Criminal Law; Freedom of Association; Thirteenth Amendment