United States vs. Cruikshank


American citizens have gone through a history of cases in their struggle for equal rights for everyone. Some of these cases have been hailed for their role in ensuring that the United States is a safe place for everyone, but others have killed the very efforts that strove to bring about equality. One of these cases is the 1876 US vs. Cruikshank case. It was the first Second Amendment case to be handled by US Supreme Court. The court unanimously ruled in favor of Cruikshank and the other defendants. The Supreme Court turned down the decision on the grounds of a lower court overstepping its mandate

It asserted that there was no sufficient proof to show that the white supremacists had been radically motivated. It strongly argued that it was the sole duty of the states and not the federal government to protect the people’s rights provided by the bill of rights. Caldwell argued that “the fourteenth amendment had no right to protect the rights of private citizens from violation” (Caldwell 1). This decision saw the defendants freed.

In essence, this decision downplayed all the efforts that had been done during reconstruction, it made all federal laws ineffective in terms of protecting the rights of the Black Americans and paved the way for states to enforce their laws in the manner they deemed right regardless of whether they went against the rights of some of its citizens, it was therefore not the best decision to be made especially when Americans were just from in their final stages of reconstruction (Volokh 1).

Colfax Massacre

On 1873 April 13th, there was an attack on some black men. The white gang brutally murdered the Black freedmen an event that altered the course of United States history. This event came to be widely known as the Colfax massacre because it occurred at a courthouse in the Grant Parish that was located in Colfax town named after one of the US Vice Presidents. This event was and is still regarded as the bloodiest event during the whole of the reconstruction era (Caldwell 1).

Laws had been passed to protect Freedmen from violations of their rights. Among these laws were the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the 1868 fourteenth Amendment to the constitution. However, these did not suffice and in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed. These laws did not stop the widespread acts of terrorism in the South carried out by white supremacists against blacks. The Enforcements Acts were used to prosecute some of the violators, but questions remained whether such measures will be taken to be constitutional or not by the Supreme Court. These often led to appeals against court rulings.

It was under these circumstances that the defendants in the Cruikshank case appealed against the circuit court ruling, and sure enough, the worry that had lingered in many peoples minds was confirmed, the Supreme Court ruled that the measures taken were not constitutional or other words were not under the mandate of the Federal government. The defendants were set free (Caldwell 1).

The Trial

The trial began on 24th February in 1874 whereby the court charged the defendants with preventing the two American citizens, Alexander Tillman and Levi Nelson, of African descent from a peaceful assembly. This violated the First Amendment that provides individuals with the right to peaceful assembly. They also violated the Second Amendment to the constitution that protects the right of citizens to carry arms if they are for a lawful purpose (Halbrook 164). Three of the defendants were found guilty after the court ascertained that they had gone against the spirit of section six of the 1970 Enforcement Act that prohibits anyone from conspiring to curtail the enjoyment of rights by people as provided by the constitution. The defense filed an appeal claiming that the ruling was flawed.

The Lower Courts thoughts

While delivering these rulings, the lower court judges seemed to have divided opinions. Some felt that the defendants were guilty of conspiracy under section six of the Enforcement Act. The presiding judge felt that the counts did not have any legal weight to be counted on. The defense counsel seized this division in opinions to call for an arrest of judgment (United States v. Cruikshank et al. 1).

The Supreme Court

After the judges failed to agree and the circuit justice ruled in favor of the motion to arrest judgment, the case was moved to the Supreme Court. Judge Bradley read out all the 16 counts, the first eight and the second eight, which were just but replicas of the first eight counts. The first eight counts had a general charge of banding and the next eight counts had a charge of conspiring, to “injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate United States citizens with the intent of hindering and preventing them from exercising their rights and privileges protected by the laws and constitution of the United States.

In his argument, Justice Waite alleged that the rights and privileges referred to were not granted or secured by the constitution or laws of America, that the federal government was only constituted for national purposes. He argued that the state was accountable for what the federal did not address. He did not realize that giving the states the absolute mandate to decide how it will protect its citizens at a time when many of the judicial institutions were pro-white would be the same as sentencing the Blacks to a life of doom (Halbrook 173).

Having said this, he proceeded to look at all the counts. According to him, the count of intending to hinder private the lawful exercise and enjoyment of the victims’ right to peaceably assemble for a lawful purpose is vague because this right exists in every civilization and can not be alleged to be a right to the people granted by the constitution. Furthermore, Congress has no direct power over it meaning that it is subject to the jurisdiction of the states.

He also argued that the prohibitions given out by the first amendment to congress do not in any way limit state powers in respect to their citizens. He went ahead to say that the people are, therefore, supposed to look to their states for their protection. He argued that it would have been an offense if it had been proved that the defendants conspired to prevent an assembly for a lawful purpose, but it was clearly stated that the Freedmen assembled to present their grievances to the authorities, which means that the assembly was for a lawful purpose. No more proof is needed to show that the white gang violated the Fourteenth Amendment rights of the victims.

On the issue of arms, it was argued that the right to have arms was independent of the constitution. It was further argued that “the second amendment only says “it shall not be infringed”, which, according to interpretation means that it shall not be infringed by congress” (Halbrook 173). This again leaves it under the jurisdiction of the state. He seemed to appreciate the fact that, “the fourteenth amendment prohibits a State from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; but this adds nothing to the rights of one citizen as against another” (Halbrook 173). In essence, the court recognized the fact that some rights of the victims were violated but denied the charges on grounds that the said rights are not granted or secured by the constitution. The court, therefore, termed all the counts as defective and that no judgment was to be made upon them. The justice ordered the defendants to be released.

The dissenting opinion

In dissenting, Judge Clifford stated that the Fourteenth Amendment gives the Federal government the power to legislate on the actions of those who infringe on the rights of others. However, he felt that the indictment was based on vague and indefinite allegations that did not give sufficient information to the defendants concerning the nature and cause of the charges. He argued that reasonable certainty is needed in any criminal pleading to clearly show that the allegation failed to adhere to the said requirement. According to him, this was never considered by the lower court judges. He claimed that the lower court judges made vague, uncertain, and generalizing allegations.

He, therefore, concluded that an indictment based on such allegations did not comply with the rules of pleading used in framing an indictment. According to him, the indictment was not sufficient enough and therefore, an arrest of judgment was in order. The defendants were, therefore, let free at the expense of justice that the victims deserved (Halbrook 175).

What the case meant to the people

It is not enough to deny people the course of justice just because according to you, the violated rights are not granted or secured by the constitution. The Supreme Court ruling on this case simply meant that the US citizens should turn to their state governments and state courts for the protection of their rights. This had a big impact on the lives of Americans especially African Americans living in the South for many years that followed. These people were left under the protection of unfriendly state governments that were biased in their protection (Cleve 1). These states later enacted laws that made the lives of blacks hard because they knew that the federal government can not intervene. Such laws touched on issues such as the voting rights that denied blacks their right to vote (Rights matter 1).

These states used the paramilitary to make sure that blacks did not vote. Those who held political positions or served on juries had to be voters, this made sure that blacks did not occupy such positions. This case also paved way for political parties to employ the services of the paramilitary in wooing voters to their side. In essence, this case paralyzed any effort from the federal government aimed at securing the rights of all American citizens, especially black Americans. By making a ruling that favored the defendants, the court did not just violate the constitutional right of the blacks but also blocked any government effort at enforcing civil rights for almost 100 years. Within this time, the Cruikshank case had been cited in many other court cases by those who supported restrictive state laws (Kaczorowski 160).

Future Cases

One of the cases in which this case was overturned was “McDonald vs. Chicago, where the US Supreme Court in its ruling interpreted the Second Amendment differently from the interpretation made in the Cruikshank vs. the United States case” (Shmoop 12). It ruled that the Second Amendment applied to the States and not just to the federal government (Shmoop 12). This meant that “a person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home, and State, and for hunting and recreational use” (Shmoop 12).

On ruling on this case, the Seventh circuit termed the rationale used in the Cruikshank vs. the United States as defunct and that the case did not bother to find out whether the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the Second Amendment right to bear arms. The court held that the right to keep and bear arms falls among the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” (Gans 1), and therefore, the ruling in Cruikshank vs. the United States was based on a narrow interpretation of the Clause and that it was time for it to be rejected.

It was also argued that the Fourteenth Amendment states that the State may not violate “the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” or deprive “any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” (McDonald vs. Chicago, Illinois 6). Distinctions between the rights of federal and state citizens were made with the court based on two arguments. First, it should be noted that “that the privileges or immunities clause, in the fourteenth amendment, referred to the privileges or immunities of the US citizens, the second argument was that reading this clause contrary to its meaning would severe the relations of the State and the federal government” (McDonald vs. Chicago, Illinois 8).

The court also found out that there was no constitutional protection of any state intrusion on the privileges and immunities of the people. It, therefore, ruled that Federal legislation also applies to the States (McDonald vs. Chicago, Illinois 8).


The Cruikshank case failed the people of the time by denying them their constitutional privileges and immunities. It was a bad choice to be made at a time when the United States was grappling with the issue of discrimination. Whatever the constitutional basis that the judges used, the case did not the rights of black people to assemble and bear arms for the protection of the assembly and their life. It condemned blacks to oppressions and unfair prosecutions for violation of the bill or rights under the Enforcement Act and brought about the end of the reconstruction. It failed to consider whether the right to assemble and bear arms is protected from state infringement by the Fourteenth Amendment. It was a bad choice to be made especially during reconstruction.

Works Cited

Caldwell, Robert. Mass Murder at Colfax, the Bloody Death of Reconstruction. Solidarity, n.d. Web.

Cleve, Alastair. Self-Defense and the Role of Government: Standing up for the Second Amendment. CounterPoint, n.d. Web.

Gans David. Heller, Originalism, and the Revival of the Privileges or Immunities Clause. Text & History, 2008. Web.

Halbrook, Sam. Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the right to bear arms. New York, NY: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998. Print.

Kaczorowski Robert. The politics of judicial interpretation: the federal courts, department of justice, and civil rights. New York, NY: Fordham Univ Press, 2005.

McDonald vs. Chicago, Illinois et.al. Supreme Court of The United States. Supreme Court, 2008. Web.

Rights matter. The Supreme Court and the Failure of Reconstruction. Rights Matter, 2006. Web.

Shmoop. Right to Bear Arms: Shmoop Civics Guide. Shmoop: Shmoop University Inc, n.d. Print.

United States v. Cruikshank et.al. UNITED STATES v. CRUIKSHANK. Constitution, n.d. Web.

Volokh, Eugene. Sources on the Second Amendment and Rights to Keep and Bear Arms in State Constitutions. UCLA, n.d. Web.

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