Documents: Age of Jackson

Passed by Congress and signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830, the Indian Removal Act gave the President the power to negotiate treaties with Native American tribes east of the Mississippi River for the purpose of moving the Native Americans west, thus opening land in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to white settlement.

The Indian Removal Act and the subsequent forced removal of several thousand Native Americans from their native lands to Oklahoma Territory eventually resulted in the death of many Native Americans in what is known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Supreme Court Cases

In 1830, at the urging of President Andrew Jackson, the U. S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act which authorized the President to grant the Indians unsettled land west of the Mississippi river in exchange for Indian land within existing state borders. The U. S Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall first addressed the Indian lands question in an 1831 case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. That case developed out of Georgia’s attempt to assert its jurisdiction over Cherokee land within the state of Georgia that was protected by federal treaty. The Supreme Court in that case ruled that it had no jurisdiction to hear the Cherokee request to prevent Georgia’s attempt. Marshall and the Court determined that the Cherokees were “a domestic, dependent nation (a ward of the United States), rather than “a sovereign nation.” By refusing to hear the case, the Court left the Cherokees at the mercy of the land-hungry state of Georgia. The Georgia legislature meanwhile passed a law requiring anyone other than Cherokees who lived on Indian territory to obtain a license from the state. Samuel Worcester and some other non-Cherokee missionaries settled and established a mission on Cherokee land at the request of the Cherokees but without a license from the state. The state then charged them with violation of the Georgia law. They were tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years of hard labor. Worcester and the other missionaries then appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court.

Speaking through Chief Justice John Marshall in Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Worcester and the Cherokees. Marshall wrote that citizens of Georgia had no right to enter Cherokee land “but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties, and with the acts of Congress. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation, is, by our Constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.” Therefore, Marshall concluded, “the acts of Georgia are repugnant to the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States.”

The Indians thus achieved a significant legal victory. However, this significant legal victory became an unfortunate chapter in American history. When President Andrew Jackson heard of the Supreme Court’s decision, he supposedly remarked, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” In one of the dark pages in American history, the Indians were compelled to leave their native land and move west to Oklahoma Territory. In what is referred to as “the Trail of Tears,” many did not survive the move. 

In the process of making improvements to the city’s streets, the city of Baltimore essentially destroyed access by large ships to a deep-water wharf owned by Barron. Barron believed his private property had thus been “taken for a public purpose” and that, as a result, he was entitled to just compensation under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment which provides that “nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” Barron won in a lower state court, but the decision was reversed by the Maryland Supreme Court. Barron then appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court. Speaking through Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction because the Fifth Amendment’s “takings clause” did not apply to state governments. Marshall explained that because the Bill of Rights only applied to the national government “[T]he provision in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution declaring that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation is intended solely as a limitation on the exercise of power by the Government of the United States, and is not applicable to the legislation of the States.”

In the late 1890s the Supreme Court overturned its decision in Barron v Baltimore and ruled that the Fifth Amendment’s “takings clause” does apply to the states. Decades later, a majority of the Supreme Court in a series of cases used the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and a doctrine called “incorporation” to hold that most of the specific rights of the Bill of Rights are now also limitations on the states.