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Luther v. Borden: Political Questions

Woodbury's Dissent

In his dissent from Taney’s opinion, Justice Woodbury began by agreeing that the Dorr War was a political matter best left out of the courts.

Editor’s Note

In our last number, Justice Taney spoke for a majority of the court, but a distinct and powerful minority of the country—the South’s great planters and the North’s entrenched political class. In many respects, the suffragist movement in Rhode Island was long associated with the abolition movement. Dorr himself was an abolitionist, and though he made political calculations to drop it as a significant point, he did fight hard to open black suffrage under the People’s Constitution. Others in his circle of close friends and advisors were more committed than their leader, though, and many Dorrites fully recognized the revolutionary implications of their creed. So many, in fact, that President John Tyler (a Virginia slaveholder) and his conservative cabinet believed that Dorrism was purely and simply “a tremendous abolition plot.” If the Dorrite principle were accepted, it may well be the doctrine that strikes off the last chains from the country’s last slaves. For one thing, Dorrism seemed to imply that a republican form of government had to actually represent at least fifty per cent of the population, not simply the landholding class or people of a certain age, sex, race, or anything else. If accepted in its wider interpretations, Dorrism meant a vast widening of the body politic to include more and more of the population into the citizenry. The more people included in the political process and the more impact they were given on its operations, the more republican it was. The more exclusive and restrictive, the more aristocratic and despotic the regime. Southern planters (and their well off class allies like Taney—who by this point manumitted his own few slaves) saw the threat quite clearly. If accepted throughout the country, Dorrism would mean populations spontaneously reorganizing and revolutionizing their governments whenever a majority felt like doing so—How long, then, before South Carolina or Mississippi or Louisiana or Alabama’s black majorities rose up to establish a series of Deep South black republics? For that matter, what about the teeming mobs of Irish Catholics crowding into New York City? Or the fact that women constitute half of the population almost everywhere? Where would the expansion of political participation ever stop?—Taney, like Rhode Island’s Charter Regime, decided that Dorrism must stop right then and there, dead at his own hands before turning the world upside down.

In his opinion, Taney argued that the “Rhode Island Question” was political in nature, not legal, and therefore not subject to review by the courts. Because the Dorrite legislature only sat for two days, because they controlled no territory or property to speak of, because the Congress refused to recognize their popular constitution, because the president gave his support to the Charter, and because a majority of voters already subsequently approved a compromise reform constitution that replaced the Charter, politics was clearly not in their favor. In his dissent (which we will present in three parts), Justice Woodbury agrees with the majority that this case is non-judicial, but he argues that Governor King’s declaration of martial law was itself a breach of the state’s power. Because the state was not seriously threatened, because the public peace was not truly disturbed (until after the Charter regime escalated tensions by declaring martial law), and because martial law still does not invalidate the rights of non-combatants, Woodbury believed that Borden did indeed violate Luther’s rights. “The Rhode Island Question” itself may be political in nature, but when the Charterites decided to flex their muscles and imprison their enemies, they appealed to arms over ballots. They should not be surprised, then, if some officials loyal to popular sovereignty interposed themselves to right the wrongs of powerful people.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History


WOODBURY, J., Dissenting Opinion

Mr. Justice WOODBURY, dissenting.

The writ in this case charges the defendants with breaking and entering the plaintiff’s dwelling house, on the 29th of June, 1842, and doing much damage.

The plea in justification alleges that, on June 24th, 1842, an assembly in arms had taken place in Rhode Island to overawe and make war upon the State. And therefore, in order to protect its government, the legislature, on the 25th of that month, passed an act declaring the whole State to be under martial law. That the plaintiff was assisting in traitorous designs, and had been in arms to sustain them, and the defendants were ordered by J. Child, an officer in the militia, to arrest the plaintiff, and, supposing him within the house named in the writ, to break and enter it for the purpose of fulfilling that order, and, in doing this, they caused as little damage as possible.

The replication denied all the plea, and averred that the defendants did the acts complained of in their own wrong, and without the cause alleged.

To repel the defense, and in vindication of the conduct of the plaintiff, much evidence was offered, the substance of which will be next stated, with some leading facts proved on the other side in connection with it

The people of Rhode Island had continued to live under their charter of 1663 from Charles the Second till 1841, with some changes in the right of suffrage by acts of the legislature, but without any new constitution, and still leaving in force a requirement of a freehold qualification for voting. By the growth of the State in commerce and manufactures, this requirement had for some time been obnoxious, as it excluded so many adult males of personal worth and possessed of intelligence and wealth, though not of land, and as it made the ancient apportionment of the number of representatives, founded on real estate, very disproportionate to the present population and personal property in different portions and towns of the State.

This led to several applications to the legislature for a change in these matters, or for provision to have a convention of the people called to correct it by a new constitution. These all failing, voluntary societies were formed in 1841, and a convention called by them of delegates, selected by the made adults who had resided one year in the State, with a view chiefly to correct the right of suffrage and the present unequal apportionment of representatives. This, though done without the formalities or recommendation of any statute of the State, or any provision in the charter, was done peacefully, and with as much care and form as were practicable without such a statute or charter provision. A constitution was formed by those delegates, a vote taken on its ratification, and an adoption of it made, as its friends supposed, and offered to prove, by a decided majority, both of the freehold voters and of the male adults in the State.

Political officers for the executive and legislative departments were then chosen under it by those in its favor, which officers assembled on the 3d of May, 1842, and took their respective oaths of office and appointed several persons to situations under the constitution, and among them the existing judges of the superior court.

After transacting some other business the next day, but the old officers in the State under the charter not acknowledging their authority nor surrendering to them the public records and public property, they adjourned till July after, and never convened again, nor performed any further official duties. Nor did they institute actions for the possession of the public records and public property, but T. Dorr, the person elected governor, at the head of an armed force, on the 25th of June, 1842, in his supposed official capacity, made some attempt to get possession of the public arsenal, but, failing in it, he dismissed the military assembled, by a written order, on the 27th of June, and left the State. He states as a reason for this “that a majority of the friends of the people’s constitution disapprove of any further forcible measures for its support.”

In the meantime, the officers under the old charter, having, as before suggested, continued in possession of the public records and property, and in the discharge of their respective functions, passed an act, on the 24th of June, placing the State under martial law. A proclamation was then issued by the governor warning the people not to support the new constitution or its officers, and another act was passed making it penal to officiate under it. An application was made to the President of the United States for assistance in quelling the disturbances apprehended, but was answered by him on the 29th of May, 1842, not complying with the request, though with expressions of willingness to do it should it, in his opinion, afterwards become necessary.

Nothing further seems to have been done by him in the premises except that, on the 29th of June, the day of the trespass complained of in this action, a proclamation was prepared under his direction, but not issued, denouncing such of the supporters of the new constitution as were in arms to be “insurgents,” and commanding them to disperse.

It was next shown by the respondents that Dorr, the governor-elect under the new constitution, was, in August, 1842, indicted for treason against the State, and, being apprehended in 1844, was then tried and convicted.

If further appears that the court, at the trial of the present cause, ruled out the evidence offered by the plaintiff in support of his conduct and admitted that which went to justify the defendants, and decided that the old charter, and not the new constitution, was in force at the time the act passed declaring martial law, and that this law was valid, and, as pleaded, justified the defendants in their behaviour.

Without entering here at more length into details concerning the unhappy controversy which agitated Rhode Island in 1842, it is manifest that it grew out of a political difficulty among her own people in respect to the formation of a new constitution. It is not probable that the active leaders, and much less the masses who were engaged on either side, had any intention to commit crimes or oppress illegally their fellow citizens. Such, says Grotius, is usually, in civil strife, the true, liberal view to be taken of the masses. Grotius on War, B. 3, ch. 11, sec. 6. And much more is it so when, in a free country, they honestly divide on great political principles, and do not wage a struggle merely for rapine or spoils. In this instance, each side appears to have sought, by means which it considered lawful and proper, to sustain the cause in which it had embarked, till peaceful discussions and peaceful action unexpectedly ripened into a resort to arms and brother became arrayed against brother in civil strife. Fortunately, no lives were destroyed, and little property injured. But the bitterness consequent on such differences did not pass off without some highly penal legislation and the extraordinary measure of the establishment of martial law over the whole State. Under these circumstances, it is too much to expect, even at this late day, that a decision on any branch of this controversy can be received without some of the leaven of former political excitement and prejudice, on the one side or the other, by those who were engaged in its stirring scenes. Public duty, however, seems to require each member of this court to speak freely his own convictions on the different questions which it may be competent for us to decide, and when one of those members, like myself, has the misfortune to differ in any respect from the rest, to explain with frankness, and undeterred by consequences, the grounds of that difference.

This difference, however, between me and my brethren extends only to the points in issue concerning martial law. But that being a very important one in a free government, and this controversy having arisen in the circuit to which I belong, and where the deepest interest is felt in its decision, I hope to be excused for considering that point fully and for assigning also some additional and different reasons why I concur with the rest of the court in the opinion, that the other leading question, the validity of the old charter at that time, is not within our constitutional jurisdiction. These two inquiries seem to cover the whole debatable ground, and I refrain to give an opinion on the last question, which is merely political, under a conviction that, as a judge, I possess no right to do it, and not to avoid or conceal any views entertained by me concerning them, as mine, before sitting on this bench and as a citizen, were frequently and publicly avowed.

It must be very obvious on a little reflection that the last is a mere political question. Indeed, large portions of the points subordinate to it on this record, which have been so ably discussed at the bar, are of a like character, rather than being judicial in their nature and cognizance. For they extend to the power of the people, independent of the legislature, to make constitutions, to the right of suffrage among different classes of them in doing this, to the authority of naked majorities, and other kindred questions of such high political interest as during a few years to have agitated much of the Union, no less than Rhode Island.

But, fortunately for our freedom from political excitements in judicial duties, this court can never with propriety be called on officially to be the umpire in questions merely political. The adjustment of these questions belongs to the people and their political representatives, either in the State or general government. These questions relate to matters not to be settled on strict legal principles. They are adjusted rather by inclination, or prejudice or compromise, often. Some of them succeed or are defeated even by public policy alone, or mere naked power, rather than intrinsic right. There being so different tastes as well as opinions in politics, and especially in forming constitutions, some people prefer foreign models, some domestic, and some neither, while judges, on the contrary, for their guides, have fixed constitutions and laws, given to them by others and not provided by themselves. And those others are no more Locke than an Abbe Sieyes, but the people. Judges, for constitutions, must go to the people of their own country, and must merely enforce such as the people themselves, whose judicial servants they are, have been pleased to put into operation.

Another evil, alarming and little foreseen, involved in regarding these as questions for the final arbitrament of judges would be that, in such an event, all political privileges and rights would, in a dispute among the people, depend on our decision finally. We would possess the power to decide against, as well as for, them, and, under a prejudiced or arbitrary judiciary, the public liberties and popular privileges might thus be much perverted, if not entirely prostrated. But, allowing the people to make constitutions and unmake them, allowing their representatives to make laws and unmake them, and without our interference as to their principles or policy in doing it, yet, when constitutions and laws are made and put in force by others, then the courts, as empowered by the State or the Union, commence their functions and may decide on the rights which conflicting parties can legally set up under them, rather than about their formation itself. Our power begins after theirs ends. Constitutions and laws precede the judiciary, and we act only under and after them, and as to disputed rights beneath them, rather than disputed points in making them. We speak what is the law, jus dicere, we speak or construe what is the constitution, after both are made, but we make, or revise, or control neither. The disputed rights beneath constitutions already made are to be governed by precedents, by sound legal principles, by positive legislation, clear contracts, moral duties, and fixed rules; they are per se questions of law, and are well suited to the education and habits of the bench. But the other disputed points in making constitutions, depending often, as before shown, on policy, inclination, popular resolves and popular will and arising not in respect to private rights, not what is meum and tuum, but in relation to politics, they belong to politics, and they are settled by political tribunals, and are too dear to a people bred in the school of Sydney and Russel for them ever to intrust their final decision, when disputed, to a class of men who are so far removed from them as the judiciary, a class also who might decide them erroneously, as well as right, and if in the former way, the consequences might not be able to be averted except by a revolution, while a wrong decision by a political forum can often be peacefully corrected by new elections or instructions in a single month; and if the people, in the distribution of powers under the constitution, should ever think of making judges supreme arbiters in political controversies when not selected by nor, frequently, amenable to them nor at liberty to follow such various considerations in their judgments as belong to mere political questions, they will dethrone themselves and lose one of their own invaluable birthrights; building up in this way — slowly, but surely — a new sovereign power in the republic, in most respects irresponsible and unchangeable for life, and one more dangerous, in theory at least, than the worst elective oligarchy in the worst of times. Again, instead of controlling the people in political affairs, the judiciary in our system was designed rather to control individuals, on the one hand, when encroaching, or to defend them, on the other, under the Constitution and the laws, when they are encroached upon. And if the judiciary at times seems to fill the important station of a check in the government, it is rather a check on the legislature, who may attempt to pass laws contrary to the Constitution, or on the executive, who may violate both the laws and Constitution, than on the people themselves in their primary capacity as makers and amenders of constitutions.

Hence, the judiciary power is not regarded by elementary writers on politics and jurisprudence as a power coordinate or commensurate with that of the people themselves, but rather coordinate with that of the legislature. Kendall v. United States, 12 Peters 526. Hence, too, the following view was urged when the adoption of the Constitution was under consideration:

It is the more rational to suppose that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority.

Federalist, No. 77, by Hamilton.

Nor does the conclusion by any means suppose a superiority of the judicial to the legislative power. It only supposes that the power of the people is superior to both,

&c., &c.

But how would this superiority be as to this court if we could decide finally on all the political claims and acts of the people and overrule or sustain them according only to our own views? So the judiciary, by its mode of appointment, long duration in office, and slight accountability, is rather fitted to check legislative power than political, and enforce what the political authorities have manifestly ordained. These last authorities are, by their pursuits and interests, better suited to make rules, we to expound and enforce them after made.

The subordinate questions which also arise here in connection with the others, such as whether all shall vote in forming or amending those constitutions who are capable and accustomed to transact business in social and civil life, and none others, and whether, in great exigencies of oppression by the legislature itself and refusal by it to give relief, the people may not take the subject into their own hands, independent of the legislature, and whether a simple plurality in number on such an occasion, or a majority of all, or a larger proportion, like two-thirds or three-fourths, shall be deemed necessary and proper for a change, and whether, if peacefully completed, violence can afterwards be legally used against them by the old government, if that is still in possession of the public property and public records, whether what are published and acted on as the laws and constitution of a State were made by persons duly chosen or not, were enrolled and read according to certain parliamentary rules or not, were in truth voted for by a majority or two thirds — these and several other questions equally debatable and difficult in their solution are in some aspects a shade less political. But they are still political. They are too near all the great fundamental principles in government, and are too momentous ever to have been intrusted by our jealous fathers to a body of men like judges, holding office for life, independent in salary, and not elected by the people themselves.

Non nostrum tantas componere lites. Where, then, does our power, as a general rule, begin? In what place runs the true boundary line? It is here. Let the political authorities admit as valid a constitution made with or without previous provision by the legislature, as in the last situation Tennessee and Michigan were introduced into the Union. See Federalist, No. 40, and 2 Ell.Deb. 57; 13 Regis by Y. 95, 1164, and Cong. Globe, App., 78, 137, 147. Let the collected will of the people as to changes be so strong, and so strongly evinced, as to call down no bills of pains and penalties to resist it and no arming of the militia or successful appeals to the general government to suppress it by force, as none were in some cases abroad as well as in America, and one recently in New York, which might be cited beside those above. See A.D. 1846, and opinion of their judges. In short, let a constitution or law, however originating, be clearly acknowledged by the existing political tribunals, and be put and kept in successful operation. The judiciary can then act in conformity to and under them. Kemper v. Hawkins, 1 Virg.Cas., 74, App. Then, when the claims of individuals come in conflict under them, it is the true province of the judiciary to decide what they rightfully are under such constitutions and laws, rather than to decide whether those constitutions and laws themselves have been rightfully or wisely made.

Again, the Constitution of the United States enumerates specially the cases over which its judiciary is to have cognizance, but nowhere includes controversies between the people of a State as to the formation or change of their constitutions. See Article 3, sec. 2. Though at first the federal judiciary was empowered to entertain jurisdiction where a State was a party in a suit, it has since been deprived even of that power by a jealous country except in cases of disputed boundary. Article 3, sec. 2; Amendment 11th; Massachusetts v. Rhode Island, 12 Peters 755.

If it be asked what redress have the people, if wronged in these matters, unless by resorting to the judiciary, the answer is, they have the same as in all other political matters. In those, they go to the ballot boxes, to the legislature or executive, for the redress of such grievances as are within the jurisdiction of each, and, for such as are not, to conventions and amendments of constitutions. And when the former fail, and these last are forbidden by statutes, all that is left in extreme cases, where the suffering is intolerable and the prospect is good of relief by action of the people without the forms of law, is to do as did Hampden and Washington, and venture action without those forms, and abide the consequences. Should strong majorities favor the change, it generally is completed without much violence. In most states, where representation is not unequal, or the right of suffrage is not greatly restricted, the popular will can be felt and triumph through the popular vote and the delegates of the people in the legislature, and will thus lead soon, and peacefully, to legislative measures ending in reform, pursuant to legislative countenance and without the necessity of any stronger collateral course. But when the representation is of a character which defeats this, the action of the people, even then, if by large majorities, will seldom be prosecuted with harsh pains and penalties, or resisted with arms.

Changes, thus demanded and thus supported, will usually be allowed to go into peaceful consummation. But when not so allowed, or when they are attempted by small or doubtful majorities, it must be conceded that it will be at their peril, as they will usually be resisted by those in power by means of prosecutions, and sometimes by violence, and, unless crowned by success, and thus subsequently ratified, they will often be punished as rebellious or treasonable.

If the majorities, however, in favor of changes happen to be large, and still those in power refuse to yield to them, as in the English revolution of 1688, or in our own of 1776, the popular movement will generally succeed, though it be only by a union of physical with moral strength; and when triumphant, it will, as on those occasions, confirm by subsequent forms of law what may have begun without them.

There are several other questions, also, which may arise under our form of government that are not properly of judicial cognizance. They originate in political matters, extend to political objects, and do not involve any pecuniary claims or consequences between individuals so as to become grounds for judicial inquiry. These questions are decided sometimes by legislatures, or heads of departments, or by public political bodies, and sometimes by officers, executive or military, so as not to be revisable here. See Decatur v. Paulding, 14 Peters 497.

Looking to all these considerations, it appears to me that we cannot rightfully settle those grave political questions which, in this case, have been discussed in connection with the new constitution; and, as judges, our duty is to take for a guide the decision made on them by the proper political powers, and, whether right or wrong according to our private opinions, enforce it till duly altered. But it is not necessary to rest this conclusion on reasoning alone. Several precedents in this court, as well as in England, show the propriety of it….

These conclusions are strengthened by the circumstance that the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, organized since under the second new constitution, has adopted this principle. In numerous instances, this court has considered itself bound to follow the decision of the State tribunals on their own constitutions and laws. See cases in Smith v. Babcock, 2 Woodb. & Min.; 5 Howard 139; Elmendorf v. Taylor, 10 Wheat. 159; Bank of United States v. Daniel et al., 12 Peters 32. This, of course, relates to their validity when not overruling any defence set up under the authority of the United States. None such was set up in the trial of Dorr, and yet, after full hearing, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island decided that the old charter and its legislature were the political powers which they were bound to respect, and the only ones legally in force at the time of this transaction, and accordingly convicted and punished the governor chosen under the new constitution for treason, as being technically committed, however pure may have been his political designs or private character. Report of Dorr’s Trial, 1844, pp. 130, 131. The reasons for this uniform compliance by us with State decisions made before ours on their own laws and constitutions, and not appealed from, are given by Chief Justice Marshall with much clearness. It is only necessary to refer to his language in Elmendorf v. Taylor, 10 Wheat. 159.

Starting, then, as we are forced to here, with several political questions arising on this record, and those settled by political tribunals in the State and general government, and whose decisions on them we possess no constitutional authority to revise, all which, apparently, is left for us to decide is the other point, whether the statute establishing martial law over the whole State, and under which the acts done by the defendants are sought to be justified, can be deemed constitutional.

To decide a point like this last is clearly within judicial cognizance, it being a matter of private personal authority and right, set up by the defendants under constitutions and laws, and not of political power, to act in relation to the making of the former.

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