U.S. v Cruikshank


United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 was a Supreme Court case that led to an allowance of violence and deprivation of rights against the newly freed slaves. Their citizenship rights, equal protections of the law, and several other Fourteenth Amendment provisions were being deprived. To try and help this issue, Congress created the Enforcement Acts in order to give the President legal authority to enforce the constitutional rights of the freedmen. However, when the acts were reviewed they were decided to be unconstitutional because the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment only apply when states are trying to take away these rights and not when it is individuals against other individuals. This decision established what is called the State Action Doctrine. The court also made the distinction of the Second Amendment that the Constitution only says Congress will not infringe on the rights of gun ownership but does not explicitly provide the right. Even though Cruikshank and the rest of his mob killed over one hundred men, trying to infringe upon their rights, they were let off on technicalities of these constitutional distinctions.

First Timeline



During the disarray of the Reconstruction Era one of the biggest concerns was protecting the rights of the newly freed slaves. Some of the provisions set out to try and ensure these constitutional rights of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were the Enforcement Acts. These acts gave the President the authority to enforce the rights set out in the Constitution as well as prosecute those who tried to deprive others of their rights.

The 1872 gubernatorial election in Louisiana between John McEnery and William Pitt Kellogg also created strife among the whites and freedmen. After the election both parties declared that they had won, took an oath of office, and set up their own legislation; creating two divided parties in Louisiana. President Grant declared that William Pitt Kellogg the winner. Consequently, chaos ensued. One of the uprisings caused by this election was the Colfax Massacre of 1873.

Democrats rigged the vote count and found a way to claim a victory. A group of Republicans, mostly African Americans, took control of a courthouse in support of their candidate, Kellogg. White McEnery supporters were enraged and showed up to drive the Republicans out of the courthouse. They set the courthouse on fire and killed over 100 men. Cruikshank was one of the militants leading this mob.  

Procedural History

In April of 1874 Cruikshank and other militants involved were brought to trial in the federal Circuit Court for the District of Louisiana on violations of the federal laws and of Congress’ Enforcement Act of 1870 and are found guilty.

Between April and October of 1874 Cruikshank’s defense lawyers appealed for a stay to the associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in charge of hearing appeals for Louisiana at the time, Joseph P. Bradley. Justice Bradley granted the motion.

Starting on March 30th of 1875 and continuing on the 31st as well as April 1st the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments against violations being brought up against Cruikshank.

On March 27, 1876 Chief Justice Morrison Waite announced the decision of the court.

The charges were found faulty and the convictions were overturned.


Does the Second Amendment protect an individual’s rights to gun ownership?

Were Congress’ Enforcement Acts a constitutional way to ensure that the freedmen were not being deprived of their Fourteenth Amendment rights?


No, the Second Amendment only specifically ensures that Congress will not infringe people of the states from their right to gun ownership but does not necessarily protect a right for the people to own guns. Charges based on this were also said to be too vague and uncertain.

No, the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment only protect individuals from the state but does not give any protection of individuals against other individuals (State Action Doctrine). It could also never be proven that Cruikshank and the others were trying to deprive anyone of their rights based on race nor does the President have the authority to charge them if they were, contrary to what the Enforcement Acts were trying to achieve.

There was a 9-0 decision with Chief Justice Waite writing the majority opinion and he was joined by Justice Hunt, Justice Strong, Justice Miller, Justice Bradley, Justice Swayne, and Justice David. Justice Clifford concurred the majority opinion. The circuit court of Louisiana wanted to charge Cruikshank and the others but the Supreme Court reversed the decision.

Majority Opinion (Waite)

Mr. Chief Justice Waite wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by Justice Hunt, Justice Strong, Justice Miller, Justice Bradley, Justice Swayne, and Justice David.

He holds that while the Fourteenth Amendment protects individuals from the State, it does not protect citizens from the rights of other citizens in “depriving life, liberty or property without due process of law.” This concept became known as the State Action Doctrine.  The Constitution permits State’s sovereignty, given all rights not explicitly granted as powers of central government are reserved to the States.  As distinct levels of government, protections under state versus federal statute vary.

As instanced, counterfeiting coins is a federal offense because it discredits the coin under Congress’ right to regulate commerce and print money, but the use and exchange of counterfeit money is a state fraud.  In the case of Cruikshank, Justices deem the counts “too vague and uncertain” because the “right of the people to assemble for lawful purposes” only guarantees that Congress will not interfere with such rights.  It does not guarantee Congress to protect the actions of individuals against individuals.

The case does not allege or prove the defendants intended to prevent the right to assemble or conspire because of race, a breach of federal statutes.  Additionally, it is not the responsibility of the United States to punish individuals for murder, but a matter of the State.  Like the example of counterfeiting, to collaborate to prevent persons from life and the right to protest on basis of race is a federal crime, but to prevent life (murder) itself rests on the States.  

Concurring Opinion (Clifford)

In concurrence with the judgement that the defendants should be arrested, Justice Clifford delivered a separate opinion that the charges in question do not interfere with federal laws and the language of the counts of the indictment are insufficient for the defense.  

In other words, the defendants are unable to devise an effective argument in their defense due to the vague and inaccurate wording of the indictments.  Additionally, common law does not hold in federal courts and the accusations defined by an act of Congress (i.e. the Enforcement Act) must follow the words of the statute. The pleader also failed to specify the rights the defendants invaded.

Justice Clifford goes on to express that the allegations do not offer reasonable certainty and the fourteenth count does not accurately describe the purpose of the election or the details of its location or time.  Consequently, the count is unable to connect the defendants to an attempt to infringe on voting rights.  Similarly, the thirteenth and sixteenth count unsuccessfully allege that there was any blatant scheme to infringe on the rights or privileges of persons of color.  Overall, the counts failed to comply with the rules of framing a charge. 

Full Text of Opinions


Majority Opinion (Waite)

Concurring Opinion (Clifford)

Significance / Impact

U.S. v. Cruikshank was significant in two main areas. The first was its impact on establishing the State Action Doctrine which means that the Fourteenth Amendment applies only to state and local government, but private parties do not have to comply with its requirements. The court upheld this idea when they did not convict Cruikshank for taking part in the Colfax massacre on the grounds that they said he was not violating anyone’s Fourteenth Amendment rights as he is a private party. The second main impact is that this was the first critical reading of the Second Amendment. After this case, it was established that the Second Amendment only protects an individual’s rights to bear arms but does not create this right, individuals must look to their states to create and secure this right.  

Second Timeline


Constitutional Provisions

  • The Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1 and Section 5
  • The Second Amendment

Government Law or Action Under Review

  • The Enforcement Acts

Important Precedents

  • Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)
  • Barron v. Baltimore (1833)
  • Lessee of Livingston v. Moore (1833)
  • Fox v. Ohio (1847)
  • Smith v. Maryland (1979)

Important Subsequent Cases

  • United States v. Harris (1883)
  • Civil Rights Cases (1883)
  • Presser v. Illinois (1886)
  • Miller v. Texas (1894)
  • United States v. Morrison (2000)
  • District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)
  • McDonald v. Chicago (2010)

Web Resources

“Common Sense Americanism – United States v. Cruikshank.” Common Sense Americanism – United States v. Cruikshank. Accessed November 11, 2016. http://csamerican.com/ SC.asp?r=92 U.S. 542.

“FindLaw’s United States Supreme Court Case and Opinions.” Findlaw. Accessed November 11, 2016. http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/92/542.html.

Gans, David H. “This Day in Supreme Court History: United States v. Cruikshank | Constitutional Accountability Center.” This Day in Supreme Court History: United States v. Cruikshank | Constitutional Accountability Center. March 27, 2009. Accessed November 11, 2016. http://theusconstitution.org/text-history/580.

“Morrison Remick Waite.” Accessed November 11, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/biography/ Morrison-Remick-Waite#ref207194.

Rubenstein, David M. “Records of Rights.” The Enforcement Acts, 1870. Accessed November 11, 2016. http://recordsofrights.org/events/123/the-enforcement-acts.

Shmoop Editorial Team. “United States v. Cruikshank.” Shmoop University, Inc. Last modified November 11, 2008. Accessed November 11, 2016. http://www.shmoop.com/right-to- bear-arms/united-states-v-cruikshank.html.

Tokarev, Sergey. “United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876).” US Civil Liberties. December 19, 2012. Accessed November 11, 2016.

“United States v. Cruikshank 92 U.S. 542 (1875).” Justia Law. Accessed November 11, 2016.                                                    https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/92/542/case.html.

United States v. Cruikshank. Accessed November 11, 2016. http://www.conservapedia.com/ index.php?title=United_States_v._Cruikshank&mobileaction=toggle_view_desktop.

US V. CRUIKSHANK. Directed by Song Swan. 2014. Accessed 2016. https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=trVcK2MZWoE.

Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews

Christianson, Steven G. “U.S. v. Cruikshank: 1875.” Great American Trials, 2003, 175. Accessed November 11, 2016.

Huhn, Wilson R. “THE LEGACY OF SLAUGHTERHOUSE, BRADWELL, AND CRUIKSHANK IN CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION.” Akron Law Review 42 (January 01, 2009): 1051. Accessed November 11, 2016.

Pope, James Gray. “Snubbed Landmark: Why United States v . Cruikshank (1876) Belongs at the Heart of the American Constitutional Canon. *.” Harvard Civil Rights Law Review 49, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 387-447. Accessed November 11, 2016. http://harvardcrcl.org/wp- content/uploads/2011/09/385_Pope.pdf.

Quigley, David. “Constitutional Revision and the City: The Enforcement Acts and Urban America, 1870–1894.” Journal of Policy History 20, no. 01 (2008): 64. Accessed November 11, 2016. doi:10.1353/jph.0.0001.


Fall 2016: [Emma Nelson, Lynesia Denson, Aveenet Pal, Kelechi Ohanu, Sameer Anand]

Tasks for Future Contributors

In order to further the research into this case, finding more specific dates for the procedural history would help to better lay out the times of the trials as well as make the timelines more specific.