The Significance of Worcester v. Georgia

In the early 1830s the Supreme Court decided two monumental cases involving the Cherokee Nation. The true significance of the second case, Worcester v. Georgia, lies in the aftermath of the Court’s ruling and what it led to for the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee Nation was included among the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” located east of the Mississippi River. These Native American nations largely assimilated into American culture taking up farming, creating formal governments, converting to Christianity and even holding African slaves.

The Cherokee in particular were especially westernized. By 1828 they had established their own written form of language and began circulation of the newspaper publication Cherokee Phoenix.

Despite their attempts at assimilation, the federal government continually failed to uphold the numerous treaties signed with the Cherokee. White settlers increasingly encroached upon Cherokee lands in violation of the treaties.

The state of Georgia in particular did not recognize the rights of the Cherokee living within the state and the federal government largely turned a blind eye to their plights.

The Cherokee faced an increasingly hostile environment following the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 and pursued their legal options in federal courts. Two Supreme Court cases in 1831 and 1832 resulted in mixed outcomes.

While the first decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia spelled doom for the Cherokee cause, the second in Worcester v. Georgia provided an outcome of great significance and hope for the Cherokee.

Background of Cherokee Nation & Georgia

In early 1830 two key events occurred between the state of Georgia and the Cherokee Nation.

Between 1828-1830 the state of Georgia passed a series of laws designed to strip the rights of Cherokee natives and open their lands for settlement. This coincided with the discovery of gold on Cherokee lands that sent a flood of settlers into the region.

An 1830 Georgia law specifically required white men living on Cherokee lands to obtain a license from the state and for the men to take an “oath” to support all laws of Georgia.

New England missionary and Cherokee Phoenix contributor Samuel Worcester took issue with the law believing that by obtaining the license it would prevent him from effectively serving his mission. He believed the Cherokee simply would not listen to or follow a man who would so easily trample upon their rights.1

Worcester intentionally did not obtain a license and was subsequently arrested with eleven others in July 1831. Nine of the eleven accepted pardons in exchange for taking the oath, but Worcester and Elizur Butler refused and were sentenced to four years hard labor.2

Just four months earlier the Cherokee Nation had been dealt a blow by the Supreme Court decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. The Cherokee were hoping the court would intervene to protect their rights against the onslaught of unconstitutional Georgia laws.

William Wirt

Chief Justice John Marshall led the majority and did not hear the case on its merits. The Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee were a domestic dependent nation, not a foreign state, and thus the court did not have original jurisdiction to hear the case.

Following the blow prominent attorney William Wirt saw a new opportunity in Worcester’s situation. On behalf of Worcester, Wirt filed an appeal to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the Georgia law was unconstitutional.

Summary of Worcester v Georgia

After three days of hearing arguments the Supreme Court came to a decision in the Worcester v. Georgia case. On March 3, 1832 Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the majority opinion which can be summarized as follows:

  1. The Georgia law requiring white men to obtain a license to live on Cherokee lands was unconstitutional as individual states’ laws have no force on Native American land.
  2. The Cherokee Nation was a distinct community occupying its own territory. Only the federal government had the power to negotiate with the Native Americans via treaty or conquest.
  3. Therefore, Worcester was declared innocent of all criminal charges as he should never have been prosecuted given the unconstitutional law.

In his opinion Justice Marshall gave a history of the relations between Europeans and Native Americans. All parties (Europeans and United States) had treated natives as nations capable of maintaining their own relations and signing treaties. It was therefore the duty of the United States to fulfill promises from prior treaties and keep American citizens off native lands.1

The federal judiciary had made its decision. Justice Joseph Story wrote to his wife saying, “The Court has done its duty. Let the Nation now do theirs.”

The Supreme Court, however, opted not to order federal marshals to enforce the decision. The move had political ramifications, as President Andrew Jackson likely used it as an excuse to refuse to force Georgia to adhere to the ruling.2

John Marshall Worcester v. Georgia

Georgia indeed did not abide by the Supreme Court’s decision. It even went so far as to declare that any individual that came to enforce the ruling would be hanged.

Georgians firmly believed the Supreme Court was meddling in business it did not have the right to. However, the landmark case Cohens v. Virginia did give the Supreme Court the authority to review state Supreme Court criminal cases where constitutional rights were claimed to have been violated.1

Worcester’s case fit firmly within those bounds, though the state of Georgia believed its own laws reigned supreme and it could “nullify” federal laws and court rulings as it saw fit. This nullification doctrine would soon be put to the test.

Who won the Worcester v. Georgia Supreme Court Case?

The Supreme Court case in Worcester v. Georgia had two winners and two clear losers. Samuel Worcester was the obvious winner and the state of Georgia the clear loser in the most literal sense.

In terms of the broader implications of the ruling and the aftermath of the case, the Supreme Court emerged as a huge winner while the Cherokee Nation was the undisputed loser.3

It was a hollow victory for Worcester, however. As Georgia proceeded with its nullification doctrine and ignored the Supreme Court ruling, Worcester was not freed from prison. The Supreme Court could not help him there.

President Andrew Jackson opted against fulfilling the constitutional duties of the executive branch by refusing to force Georgia to abide by the decision. The Supreme Court was too weak politically to coerce Jackson to act.

Chief Justice Marshall feared that there could be substantial institutional damage to the court if their order for federal marshals to enforce the decision was left unenforced.2

Worcester v. Georgia Supreme Court decision chart

While the Supreme Court appeared extremely weak in the aftermath of Worcester v. Georgia, its fortunes soon turned. In the 1832 Nullification Crisis, the state of South Carolina chose to amplify Georgia’s nullification precedent and apply it towards the hated Tariff of Abominations.

The Nullification Crisis was a deeply troubling event for the Jackson administration. Jackson did everything he could isolate South Carolina from the rest of the nation, even though in practice Georgia had also nullified federal rulings.

Jackson’s show of force against South Carolina had the potential to drag Georgia in the conflict, should the latter state feel threatened enough. Vice President Martin Van Buren worked furiously in the background to make the lingering Worcester case “go away.”3

Finally Georgia repealed the law at the heart of the Supreme Court, case effectively making the issue disappear. After nearly a year and with the potential of Civil War on his mind, Worcester accepted a pardon from the Georgia Governor in January 1833 and was freed from prison. 

The Significance of Worcester v. Georgia

The Supreme Court case of Worcester v. Georgia holds great historical significance for its ruling on native sovereignty and also its failure to help the Cherokee Nation retain its lands.

While the decision should have been a massive victory for the Cherokee, it proved a hollow one. In the aftermath the federal government doubled its efforts in attempt to coerce the Cherokee Nation to cede all its lands east of the Mississippi.

This effort culminated in the cession of all Cherokee lands in the fraudulent Treaty of New Echota where a minority faction of the Cherokee signed away all Cherokee lands against the will of the people.

Even though the Cherokee had influential allies in Congress like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, the treaty was ratified by one vote. The Cherokee Nation’s fate was sealed and the subsequent forced removal led to the deadly Trail of Tears where over 4,000 Cherokee died in the process.

Samuel Worcester v. Georgia

Congressman Davy Crockett, remembered for his later role at the Battle of the Alamo, resigned in shame after the ratification. He stated, “I would sooner be honestly and politically damned, than hypocritically immortalized.”2

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court narrowly avoided its own crisis in the direct aftermath of its ruling in Worcester v. Georgia. Court historian Charles Warren remarked that the Supreme Court went from its weakest moment in history in late 1832, to nearly its strongest moment in early 1833.1

The Nullification Crisis was the turning point. South Carolina’s bold attempt to nullify the federal tariff laws caused Andrew Jackson to realize the folly in allowing individual states to supersede federal laws and court rulings.

The subsequent Force Bill of 1833 gave the federal judiciary more power than it had ever had before. Jackson also made it blatantly clear in his Nullification Proclamation that he would enforce any mandate the Supreme Court issued in cases where a state attempted to nullify a constitutional power of the federal government.4

Although the Supreme Court’s credibility was eventually saved, the true significance of the Worcester v. Georgia ruling lies in the devastation wrought upon the Cherokee Nation.

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.

Sources

1) Breyer, Stephen. “The Cherokee Indians and the Supreme Court.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 87, no. 3/4, Georgia Historical Society, 2003, pp. 408–26, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40584687.

2) Sundquist, Matthew L. “WORCESTER V. GEORGIA: A BREAKDOWN IN THE SEPARATION OF POWERS.” American Indian Law Review, vol. 35, no. 1, University of Oklahoma College of Law, 2010, pp. 239–55, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41148666.

3) Miles, Edwin A. “After John Marshall’s Decision: Worcester v. Georgia and the Nullification Crisis.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 39, no. 4, Southern Historical Association, 1973, pp. 519–44, https://doi.org/10.2307/2205966.

4) Swindler, William F. “Politics as Law: The Cherokee Cases.” American Indian Law Review, vol. 3, no. 1, University of Oklahoma College of Law, 1975, pp. 7–20, https://doi.org/10.2307/20067867.

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