White v. Hart

The citation for this case is 80 US [13 Wall] 646. This case originated in Georgia [35 GA Reports 270] From the facts of the case, on February 9, 1859 John R. Hart and W. D. Davis [Davis signing as security] signed a promissory note to William White Sr. for $1250 in payment for purchase of an enslaved person, payable on March 1, 1860. The defendants failed to pay and White brought suit. The defendants contended, ” ‘the consideration of the note was a slave,’ and that ‘by the present Constitution of Georgia, made and adopted since the last pleadings in this case, the court is prohibited to take and exercise jurisdiction or render judgment therein.’ ” [80 US 646, 647]. The Georgia Constitution of 1868 said, “Provided that no court or officer shall have, nor shall the General Assembly give, jurisdiction to try or give judgment on or enforce any debt the consideration of which was a slave or the hire thereof.” [80 US 646, 648] The original court ruled for the defendants, and this was upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court.

To adjudicate this case, the Supreme Court had to contend with these propositions:

“(1) That when the Constitution of 1868 was adopted, Georgia was not a state of the Union, that she had sundered her connection as such, and was a conquered territory wholly at the mercy of the conqueror, and that hence the inhibition of the states by the Constitution of the United States to pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts had no application to her.

“(2) That her constitution does not affect the contract, but only denies jurisdiction to her courts to enforce it.

“(3) That her constitution was adopted under the dictation and coercion of Congress, and is the act of Congress, rather than of the state, and that though a state cannot pass a law impairing the validity of contracts, Congress can, and that for this reason also the inhibition in the Constitution of the United States has no effect in this case.” [80 US 646, 649]

Justice Noah Swayne delivered the opinion of the Court. He wrote, “The third of these propositions is clearly unsound, and requires only a few remarks. Congress authorized the state to frame a new constitution, and she elected to proceed within the scope of the authority conferred. The result was submitted to Congress as a voluntary and valid offering, and was so received and so recognized in the subsequent action of that body. The state is estopped to assail it upon such an assumption. Upon the same grounds she might deny the validity of her ratification of the constitutional amendments. The action of Congress upon the subject cannot be inquired into. The case is clearly one in which the judicial is bound to follow the action of the political department of the government, and is concluded by it. We may add that if Congress had expressly dictated and expressly approved the proviso in question, such dictation and approval would be without effect. Congress has no power to supersede the National Constitution.” [80 US 646, 649]

In considering the first proposition, Justice Swayne wrote, “The national Constitution was, as its preamble recites, ordained and established by the people of the United States. It created not a confederacy of states, but a government of individuals. It assumed that the government and the Union which it created, and the states which were incorporated into the Union, would be indestructible and perpetual, and as far as human means could accomplish such a work, it intended to make them so. The government of the nation and the government of the states are each alike absolute and independent of each other in their respective spheres of action, but the former is as much a part of the government of the people of each state, and as much entitled to their allegiance and obedience as their own local state governments — ‘the Constitution of the United States and the laws made in pursuance thereof,’ being in all cases where they apply, the supreme law of the land. For all the purposes of the national government, the people of the United States are an integral, and not a composite mass, and their unity and identity, in this view of the subject, are not affected by their segregation by state lines for the purposes of state government and local administration. Considered in this connection, the states are organisms for the performance of their appropriate functions in the vital system of the larger polity, of which, in this aspect of the subject, they form a part, and which would perish if they were all stricken from existence or ceased to perform their allotted work. The doctrine of secession is a doctrine of treason, and practical secession is practical treason, seeking to give itself triumph by revolutionary violence. The late rebellion was without any element of right or sanction of law. The duration and magnitude of the war did not change its character. In some respects it was not unlike the insurrection of a county or other municipal subdivision of territory against the state to which it belongs. In such cases, the state has inherently the right to use all the means necessary to put down the resistance to its authority and restore peace, order and obedience to law. If need be, it has the right also to call on the government of the Union for the requisite aid to that end. Whatever precautionary or penal measures the state may take when the insurrection is suppressed, the proposition would be a strange one to maintain that while it lasted, the county was not a part of the state, and hence was absolved from the duties, liabilities, and restrictions which would have been incumbent upon it if it had remained in its normal condition and relations. The power exercised in putting down the late rebellion is given expressly by the Constitution to Congress. That body made the laws, and the President executed them. The granted power carried with it not only the right to use the requisite means, but it reached further and carried with it also authority to guard against the renewal of the conflict and to remedy the evils arising from it insofar as that could be effected by appropriate legislation. At no time were the rebellious states out of the pale of the Union. Their rights under the Constitution were suspended, but not destroyed. Their constitutional duties and obligations were unaffected, and remained the same. A citizen is still a citizen, though guilty of crime and visited with punishment. His political rights may be put in abeyance or forfeited. The result depends upon the rule, as defined in the law, of the sovereign against whom he has offended. If he lose his rights, he escapes none of his disabilities and liabilities which before subsisted. Certainly he can have no new rights or immunities arising from his crime. These analogies of the county and the citizen are not inapplicable, by way of illustration, to the condition of the rebel states during their rebellion. The legislation of Congress shows that these were the views entertained by that department of the government.” [80 US 646, 650-651]

Justice Swayne also deftly demonstrated Congress considered the confederate states to still be members of the Union. “In the several acts admitting new states, the same formula substantially is used in all cases. It is that the state named ‘shall be and is hereby declared to be one of the United States of America, and is hereby admitted into the Union, upon an equal footing with the original states, in all respects whatsoever.’ In the several Reconstruction Acts, the language used in this connection is that the state in question ‘shall be declared entitled to representation in Congress, and senators and representatives shall be admitted therefrom, shall be entitled and admitted to representation in Congress as a state of the Union, when,’ &c. And lastly, in the final act as to Georgia — ‘It is hereby declared that the State of Georgia is entitled to representation in the Congress of the United States.’ The different language employed in the two classes of cases evinces clearly that in the judgment of Congress, the reconstructed states had not been out of the Union, and that to bring them back into full communion with the loyal states, nothing was necessary but to permit them to restore their representation in Congress. Without reference to this element of the case, we should have come to the same conclusion. But the fact is one of great weight in the consideration of the subject. And we think it is conclusive upon the judicial department of the government. Georgia, after her rebellion and before her representation was restored, has no more power to grant a title of nobility, to pass a bill of attainder, an ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, or to do anything else prohibited to her by the Constitution of the United States, than she had before her rebellion began or after her restoration to her normal position in the Union. It is well settled by the adjudications of this Court that a state can no more impair the obligation of a contract by adopting a constitution than by passing a law. In the eye of the constitutional inhibition, they are substantially the same thing.” [80 US 646, 651-652]

The second proposition doesn’t relate to our interests, so I won’t go into it in detail except to say Justice Swayne denied it also. As a result of the denial of all the propositions, the Court reversed the decision and remanded the case back to the Georgia Supreme Court.

This case is important because it’s a major Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled unilateral secession was an unconstitutional, and therefore illegal, act.


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