In 1849, the US Supreme Court decided that might makes right–The only legitimate institutions are those with enough power to defend themselves.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In June 1842, Rhode Island suffragist Martin Luther was in a self‐imposed exile in Swansea, Massachusetts. He had recently left his home for fear that state militia troops, acting under orders from Governor King, would seize and imprison him. One night during his exile, a corps of soldiers led by Luther M. Borden did indeed storm into Martin Luther’s house. There they found his elderly mother, Rachel, whom they proceeded to harass while disrupting or destroying many of Luther’s personal effects. Borden’s orders were the result of a long string of rather bizarre and complicated circumstances which produced two state governments each in competition for legitimacy and power. In 1841, Rhode Islanders grew weary enough of their almost two‐hundred year old, royally‐chartered government, and decided that their only way to a more liberal system (with wider voting rights) was spontaneous revolution. With the models of Revolutionary Era constitutional conventions in mind, the suffragists (called “Dorrites” after their leader, Thomas Dorr) organized their own convention, drafted a new state constitution, submitted it to a popular vote, and won by a wide majority even among Landholders qualified by the old Charter. The new government was set to take office during the Spring of 1842, but the old Charter government refused to recognize the irregular process underway. Everywhere across the state, people like Martin Luther—a shoemaker in Warren, Rhode Island—gave speeches favoring the People’s Constitution and received their votes in return. By late April, the Charter Governor King declared martial law, and between the Dorrites’ military failures at Providence and Chepachet a month later, the Charter regime began mopping up and imprisoning anyone who had any position among the rebels. Luther never took office in the People’s Government, but he did participate in the May 18 attack on the Providence arsenal. Rachel Luther was one of many people harassed by militiamen during the period of martial law, but she and her son made sure theirs would be the case pushed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, a testing ground for the principles of Dorrism.
As early as October, 1842, Martin Luther was busy about it. He filed charges against Borden for trespassing illegally and claimed $5,000 in damages. In the course of his circuit duties, Chief Justice Taney issued the writ to arrest Borden and his men. The case was delayed for a year but the Circuit Court decided in Borden’s favor. Luther appealed to the Supreme Court, which rendered an opinion in 1849. In both cases, the question at hand was whether the People’s or the Landholder’s government was the legitimate one. If the people of Rhode Island did indeed possess the sovereign right to amend their governments at will, then they had clearly done so in the December 1841 vote of the Constitution and the April 1842 vote for officers to the new government. If indeed the state was sovereign, then the people could not bypass existing legislatures to establish new ones, and Governor King’s declaration of martial law stood. If the Dorr government was legitimate, then Luther should have remained secure in his persons and property. If the Charter was legitimate, then Borden’s activity was well within the accepted scope of martial law.
The Supreme Court upheld the Circuit Court’s decision, five justices to one. Justices McLean, Wayne, Nelson, and Grier joined Chief Justice Taney in his majority opinion (presented below), and because Justices Catron, McKinley, and Daniel withdrew themselves from the proceedings, Levi Woodbury was the bench’s sole dissenter. In our current series, we will first explore Taney’s decision and then Woodbury’s (much, much longer) dissent. In the process, perhaps, we will find that since the Dorr War, American republicanism has been more myth than reality, more prideful boasting than daily practice, and more of a lie to help us sleep than a truth capable of changing the world.
TANEY, C.J., Opinion of the Court
Mr. Chief Justice TANEY delivered the opinion of the court.
This case has arisen out of the unfortunate political differences which agitated the people of Rhode Island in 1841 and 1842.
It is an action of trespass brought by Martin Luther, the plaintiff in error, against Luther M. Borden and others, the defendants, in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Rhode Island, for breaking and entering the plaintiff’s house. The defendants justify upon the ground that large numbers of men were assembled in different parts of the State for the purpose of overthrowing the government by military force, and were actually levying war upon the State; that, in order to defend itself from this insurrection, the State was declared by competent authority to be under martial law; that the plaintiff was engaged in the insurrection; and that the defendants, being in the military service of the State, by command of their superior officer, broke and entered the house and searched the rooms for the plaintiff, who was supposed to be there concealed, in order to arrest him, doing as little damage as possible. The plaintiff replied that the trespass was committed by the defendants of their own proper wrong, and without any such cause; and upon the issue joined on this replication, the parties proceeded to trial.
The evidence offered by the plaintiff and the defendants is stated at large in the record, and the questions decided by the Circuit Court, and brought up by the writ of error, are not such as commonly arise in an action of trespass. The existence and authority of the government under which the defendants acted was called in question, and the plaintiff insists that, before the acts complained of were committed, that government had been displaced and annulled by the people of Rhode Island, and that the plaintiff was engaged in supporting the lawful authority of the State, and the defendants themselves were in arms against it.
This is a new question in this court, and certainly a very grave one, and, at the time when the trespass is alleged to have been committed, it had produced a general and painful excitement in the State, and threatened to end in bloodshed and civil war.
The evidence shows that the defendants, in breaking into the plaintiff’s house and endeavouring to arrest him, as stated in the pleadings, acted under the authority of the government which was established in Rhode Island at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and which is usually called the charter government. For when the separation from England took place, Rhode Island did not, like the other States, adopt a new constitution, but continued the form of government established by the charter of Charles the Second in 1663, making only such alterations, by acts of the legislature, as were necessary to adapt it to their condition and rights as an independent State. It was under this form of government that Rhode Island united with the other States in the Declaration of Independence, and afterwards ratified the Constitution of the United States and became a member of this Union, and it continued to be the established and unquestioned government of the State until the difficulties took place which have given rise to this action.
In this form of government, no mode of proceeding was pointed out by which amendments might be made. It authorized the legislature to prescribe the qualification of voters, and, in the exercise of this power, the right of suffrage was confined to freeholders until the adoption of the constitution of 1843.
For some years previous to the disturbances of which we are now speaking, many of the citizens became dissatisfied with the charter government, and particularly with the restriction upon the right of suffrage. Memorials were addressed to the legislature upon this subject urging the justice and necessity of a more liberal and extended rule. But they failed to produce the desired effect. And thereupon, meetings were held and associations formed by those who were in favor of a more extended right of suffrage, which finally resulted in the election of a convention to form a new constitution to be submitted to the people for their adoption or rejection. This convention was not authorized by any law of the existing government. It was elected at voluntary meetings, and by those citizens only who favored this plan of reform, those who were opposed to it, or opposed to the manner in which it was proposed to be accomplished taking no part in the proceedings. The persons chosen as above mentioned came together and framed a constitution by which the right of suffrage was extended to every male citizen of twenty‐one years of age who had resided in the State for one year, and in the town in which the offered to vote for six months next preceding the election. The convention also prescribed the manner in which this constitution should be submitted to the decision of the people, permitting everyone to vote on that question who was an American citizen, twenty‐one years old, and who had a permanent residence or home in the State, and directing the votes to be returned to the convention.
Upon the return of the votes, the convention declared that the constitution was adopted and ratified by a majority of the people of the State, and was the paramount law and constitution of Rhode Island. And it communicated this decision to the governor under the charter government for the purpose of being laid before the legislature, and directed elections to be held for a governor, members of the legislature, and other officers under the new constitution. These elections accordingly took place, and the governor, lieutenant‐governor, secretary of state, and senators and representatives thus appointed assembled at the city of Providence on May 3d, 1842, and immediately proceeded to organize the new government by appointing the officers and passing the laws necessary for that purpose.
The charter government did not, however, admit the validity of these proceedings nor acquiesce in them. On the contrary, in January, 1842, when this new constitution was communicated to the governor, and by him laid before the legislature, it passed resolutions declaring all acts done for the purpose of imposing that constitution upon the State to be an assumption of the powers of government in violation of the rights of the existing government and of the people at large, and that it would maintain its authority and defend the legal and constitutional rights of the people.
In adopting this measure as well as in all others taken by the charter government to assert its authority, it was supported by a large number of the citizens of the State, claiming to be a majority, who regarded the proceedings of the adverse party as unlawful and disorganizing, and maintained that, as the existing government had been established by the people of the State, no convention to frame a new constitution could be called without its sanction, and that the times and places of taking the votes, and the officers to receive them, and the qualification of the voters, must be previously regulated and appointed by law.
But notwithstanding the determination of the charter government and of those who adhered to it to maintain its authority, Thomas W. Dorr, who had been elected governor under the new constitution, prepared to assert the authority of that government by force, and many citizens assembled in arms to support him. The charter government thereupon passed an act declaring the State under martial law, and at the same time proceeded to call out the militia to repel the threatened attack and to subdue those who were engaged in it. In this state of the contest, the house of the plaintiff, who was engaged in supporting the authority of the new government, was broken and entered in order to arrest him. The defendants were, at the time, in the military service of the old government, and in arms to support its authority.
It appears, also that the charter government. at its session of January, 1842, took measures to call a convention to revise the existing form of government, and, after various proceedings, which it is not material to state, a new constitution was formed by a convention elected under the authority of the charter government, and afterwards adopted and ratified by the people, the times and places at which the votes were to be given, the persons who were to receive and return them, and the qualification of the voters, having all been previously authorized and provided for by law passed by the charter government. This new government went into operation in May, 1843, at which time the old government formally surrendered all its powers, and this constitution has continued ever since to be the admitted and established government of Rhode Island.
The difficulties with the government of which Mr. Dorr was the head were soon over. They had ceased before the constitution was framed by the convention elected by the authority of the charter government. For after an unsuccessful attempt made by Mr. Dorr in May, 1842, at the head of a military force, to get possession of the State arsenal at Providence, in which he was repulsed, and an assemblage of some hundreds of armed men under his command at Chepatchet in the June following, which dispersed upon the approach of the troops of the old government, no further effort was made to establish it, and, until the constitution of 1843 went into operation, the charter government continued to assert its authority and exercise its powers and to enforce obedience throughout the State, arresting and imprisoning and punishing in its judicial tribunals those who had appeared in arms against it.
We do not understand from the argument that the constitution under which the plaintiff acted is supposed to have been in force after the constitution of May, 1843, went into operation. T he contest is confined to the year preceding. The plaintiff contends that the charter government was displaced, and ceased to have any lawful power, after the organization, in May, 1842, of the government which he supported, and although that government never was able to exercise any authority in the State nor to command obedience to its laws or to its officers, yet he insists that it was the lawful and established government upon the ground that it was ratified by a large majority of the male people of the State of the age of twenty‐one and upwards, and also by a majority of those who were entitled to vote for general officers under the then existing laws of the State. The fact that it was so ratified was not admitted, and, at the trial in the Circuit Court, he offered to prove it by the production of the original ballots and the original registers of the persons voting, verified by the oaths of the several moderators and clerks of the meetings, and by the testimony of all the persons so voting, and by the said constitution, and also offered in evidence for the same purpose that part of the census of the United States for the year 1840 which applies to Rhode Island and a certificate of the secretary of state of the charter government showing the number of votes polled by the freemen of the State for the ten years then last past.
The Circuit Court rejected this evidence, and instructed the jury that the charter government and laws under which the defendants acted were, at the time the trespass is alleged to have been committed, in full force and effect as the form of government and paramount law of the State, and constituted a justification of the acts of the defendants as set forth in their pleas.
It is this opinion of the Circuit Court that we are now called upon to review.…
Certainly the question which the plaintiff proposed to raise by the testimony he offered has not heretofore been recognized as a judicial one in any of the State courts. In forming the constitutions of the different States after the Declaration of Independence, and in the various changes and alterations which have since been made, the political department has always determined whether the proposed constitution or amendment was ratified or not by the people of the State, and the judicial power has followed its decision. In Rhode Island, the question has been directly decided. Prosecutions were there instituted against some of the persons who had been active in the forcible opposition to the old government. And in more than one of the cases, evidence was offered on the part of the defence similar to the testimony offered in the Circuit Court, and for the same purpose — that is, for the purpose of showing that the proposed constitution had been adopted by the people of Rhode Island, and had therefore become the established government, and consequently that the parties accused were doing nothing more than their duty in endeavouring to support it.
But the courts uniformly held that the inquiry proposed to be made belonged to the political power, and not to the judicial; that it rested with the political power to decide whether the charter government had been displaced or not; and when that decision was made, the judicial department would be bound to take notice of it as the paramount law of the State, without the aid of oral evidence or the examination of witnesses; that, according to the laws and institutions of Rhode Island, no such change had been recognized by the political power; and that the charter government was the lawful and established government of the State during the period in contest, and that those who were in arms against it were insurgents, and liable to punishment. This doctrine is clearly and forcibly stated in the opinion of the Supreme Court of the State in the trial of Thomas W. Dorr, who was the governor elected under the opposing constitution, and headed the armed force which endeavoured to maintain its authority.…
Upon what ground could the Circuit Court of the United States which tried this case have departed from this rule, and disregarded and overruled the decisions of the courts of Rhode Island? Undoubtedly the courts of the United States have certain powers under the Constitution and laws of the United States which do not belong to the State courts. But the power of determining that a State government has been lawfully established, which the courts of the State disown and repudiate, is not one of them. Upon such a question, the courts of the United States are bound to follow the decisions of the State tribunals, and must therefore regard the charter government as the lawful established government during the time of this contest.
Besides, if the Circuit Court had entered upon this inquiry, by what rule could it have determined the qualification of voters upon the adoption or rejection of the proposed constitution unless there was some previous law of the State to guide it? It is the province of a court to expound the law, not to make it. And certainly it is no part of the judicial functions of any court of the United States to prescribe the qualification of voters in a State, giving the right to those to whom it is denied by the written and established constitution and laws of the State, or taking it away from those to whom it is given; nor has it the right to determine what political privileges the citizens of a State are entitled to, unless there is an established constitution or law to govern its decision.
And if the then existing law of Rhode Island which confined the right of suffrage to freeholders is to govern, and this question is to be tried by that rule, how could the majority have been ascertained by legal evidence such as a court of justice might lawfully receive? The written returns of the moderators and clerks of mere voluntary meetings, verified by affidavit, certainly would not be admissible, nor their opinions who judgments as to the freehold qualification of the persons who voted. The law requires actual knowledge in the witness of the fact to which he testifies in a court of justice. How, then, could the majority of freeholders have been determined in a judicial proceeding?
…In the nature of things, the Circuit Court could not know the name and residence of every citizen, and bring him before the court to be examined. And if this were attempted, where would such an inquiry have terminated? And how long must the people of Rhode Island have waited to learn from this court under what form of government they were living during the year in controversy?
But this is not all. The question as to the majority is a question of fact. It depends upon the testimony of witnesses, and if the testimony offered by the plaintiff had been received, the defendants had the right to offer evidence to rebut it, and there might, and probably would, have been conflicting testimony as to the number of voters in the State, and as to the legal qualifications of many of the individuals who had voted. The decision would, therefore, have depended upon the relative credibility of witnesses and the weight of testimony, and, as the case before the Circuit Court was an action at common law, the question of fact, according to the seventh amendment to the Constitution of the United States, must have been tried by the jury. In one case, a jury might find that the constitution which the plaintiff supported was adopted by a majority of the citizens of the State, or of the voters entitled to vote by the existing law. Another jury in another case might find otherwise. And as a verdict is not evidence in a suit between different parties, if the courts of the United States have the jurisdiction contended for by the plaintiff, the question whether the acts done under the charter government during the period in contest are valid or not must always remain unsettled and open to dispute. The authority and security of the State governments do not rest on such unstable foundations.
Moreover, the Constitution of the United States, as far as it has provided for an emergency of this kind and authorized the general government to interfere in the domestic concerns of a State, has treated the subject as political in its nature, and placed the power in the hands of that department.
The fourth section of the fourth article of the Constitution of the United States provides that the United States shall guarantee to every State in the Union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion, and on the application of the legislature or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened) against domestic violence.
Under this article of the Constitution, it rests with Congress to decide what government is the established one in a State. For as the United States guarantee to each State a republican government, Congress must necessarily decide what government is established in the State before it can determine whether it is republican or not. And when the senators and representatives of a State are admitted into the councils of the Union, the authority of the government under which they are appointed, as well as its republican character, is recognized by the proper constitutional authority. And its decision is binding on every other department of the government, and could not be questioned in a judicial tribunal. It is true that the contest in this case did not last long enough to bring the matter to this issue, and, as no senators or representatives were elected under the authority of the government of which Mr. Dorr was the head, Congress was not called upon to decide the controversy. Yet the right to decide is placed there, and not in the courts.
So, too, as relates to the clause in the above‐mentioned article of the Constitution, providing for cases of domestic violence. It rested with Congress, too, to determine upon the means proper to be adopted to fulfil this guarantee. They might, if they had deemed it most advisable to do so, have placed it in the power of a court to decide when the contingency had happened which required the federal government to interfere. But Congress thought otherwise, and no doubt wisely, and, by the act of February 28, 1795, provided that,
in case of an insurrection in any State against the government thereof, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, on application of the legislature of such State or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened), to call forth such number of the militia of any other State or States, as may be applied for, as he may judge sufficient to sufficient to suppress such insurrection.
By this act, the power of deciding whether the exigency had arisen upon which the government of the United States is bound to interfere is given to the President. He is to act upon the application of the legislature or of the executive, and consequently he must determine what body of men constitute the legislature, and who is the governor, before he can act. The fact that both parties claim the right to the government cannot alter the case, for both cannot be entitled to it. If there is an armed conflict like the one of which we are speaking, it is a case of domestic violence, and one of the parties must be in insurrection against the lawful government. And the President must, of necessity, decide which is the government and which party is unlawfully arrayed against it before he can perform the duty imposed upon him by the act of Congress.
After the President has acted and called out the militia, is a Circuit Court of the United States authorized to inquire whether his decision was right? Could the court, while the parties were actually contending in arms for the possession of the government, call witnesses before it and inquire which party represented a majority of the people? If it could, then it would become the duty of the court (provided it came to the conclusion that the President had decided incorrectly) to discharge those who were arrested or detained by the troops in the service of the United States or the government which the President was endeavouring to maintain. If the judicial power extends so far, the guarantee contained in the Constitution of the United States is a guarantee of anarchy, and not of order. Yet if this right does not reside in the courts when the conflict is raging, if the judicial power is at that time bound to follow the decision of the political, it must be equally bound when the contest is over. It cannot, when peace is restored, punish as offences and crimes the acts which it before recognized, and was bound to recognize, as lawful.
It is true that, in this case, the militia were not called out by the President. But, upon the application of the governor under the charter government, the President recognized him as the executive power of the State, and took measures to call out the militia to support his authority if it should be found necessary for the general government to interfere, and it is admitted in the argument that it was the knowledge of this decision that put an end to the armed opposition to the charter government and prevented any further efforts to establish by force the proposed constitution. The interference of the President, therefore, by announcing his determination was as effectual as if the militia had been assembled under his orders. And it should be equally authoritative. For certainly no court of the United States, with a knowledge of this decision, would have been justified in recognizing the opposing party as the lawful government or in treating as wrongdoers or insurgents the officers of the government which the President had recognized, and was prepared to support by an armed force. In the case of foreign nations, the government acknowledged by the President is always recognized in the courts of justice. And this principle has been applied by the act of Congress to the sovereign States of the Union.
It is said that this power in the President is dangerous to liberty, and may be abused. All power may be abused if placed in unworthy hands. But it would be difficult, we think, to point out any other hands in which this power would be more safe, and at the same time equally effectual. When citizens of the same State are in arms against each other, and the constituted authorities unable to execute the laws, the interposition of the United States must be prompt or it is of little value. The ordinary course of proceedings in courts of justice would be utterly unfit for the crisis. And the elevated office of the President, chosen as he is by the people of the United States, and the high responsibility he could not fail to feel when acting in a case of so much moment, appear to furnish as strong safeguards against a wilful abuse of power as human prudence and foresight could well provide. At all events, it is conferred upon him by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must therefore be respected and enforced in its judicial tribunals.…
The remaining question is whether the defendants, acting under military orders issued under the authority of the government, were justified in breaking and entering the plaintiff’s house. In relation to the act of the legislature declaring martial law, it is not necessary in the case before us to inquire to what extent, nor under what circumstances, that power may be exercised by a State. Unquestionably a military government, established as the permanent government of the State, would not be a republican government, and it would be the duty of Congress to overthrow it. But the law of Rhode Island evidently contemplated no such government. It was intended merely for the crisis, and to meet the peril in which the existing government was placed by the armed resistance to its authority. It was so understood and construed by the State authorities. And unquestionably a State may use its military power to put down an armed insurrection too strong to be controlled by the civil authority. The power is essential to the existence of every government, essential to the preservation of order and free institutions, and is as necessary to the States of this Union as to any other government. The State itself must determine what degree of force the crisis demands. And if the government of Rhode Island deemed the armed opposition so formidable and so ramified throughout the State as to require the use of its military force and the declaration of martial law, we see no ground upon which this court can question its authority. It was a state of war, and the established government resorted to the rights and usages of war to maintain itself, and to overcome the unlawful opposition. And in that state of things, the officers engaged in its military service might lawfully arrest anyone who, from the information before them, they had reasonable grounds to believe was engaged in the insurrection, and might order a house to be forcibly entered and searched when there were reasonable grounds for supposing he might be there concealed. Without the power to do this, martial law and the military array of the government would be mere parade, and rather encourage attack than repel it. No more force, however, can be used than is necessary to accomplish the object. And if the power is exercised for the purposes of oppression, or any injury wilfully done to person or property, the party by whom, or by whose order, it is committed would undoubtedly be answerable.…
Upon the whole, we see no reason for disturbing the judgment of the Circuit Court.
Much of the argument on the part of the plaintiff turned upon political rights and political questions, upon which the court has been urged to express an opinion. We decline doing so…No one, we believe, has ever doubted the proposition that, according to the institutions of this country, the sovereignty in every State resides in the people of the State, and that they may alter and change their form of government at their own pleasure. But whether they have changed it or not by abolishing an old government and establishing a new one in its place is a question to be settled by the political power. And when that power has decided, the courts are bound to take notice of its decision, and to follow it.
The judgment of the Circuit Court must therefore be affirmed.