United States Supreme Court decision in United States v. Cruikshank (1876)

By Charlotte Markstein

In January, I traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark, New Jersey to examine the papers of Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite and Justice Joseph P. Bradley for my senior thesis. I was interested in writing about the United States Supreme Court decision in United States v. Cruikshank (1876), which weakened the federal government’s ability to implement the Enforcement Act, a Reconstruction era statute. However, I was unsure what aspect of the decision, such as the crime, trial, or legal and historical ramifications, on which I wanted to focus. I planned to use the Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Fellowship, awarded by the History Department, to discover if either Justice Waite who wrote the majority opinion for Cruikshank or Justice Bradley who wrote the opinion on motion to arrest judgment for the Circuit Court of Louisiana could provide some insight.

In examining the papers of Justice Bradley, I was interested in his legal files and correspondence that mentioned Cruikshank as well as his views on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and civil rights. I found a book with its own table of contents written in Bradley’s careful script that contained everything for which I was searching. There was a document titled “Civil Rights,” in which Bradley contemplated the scope of the Civil Rights Bill of 1875, concluding that “the antipathy of race cannot be crushed and annihilated by” the Reconstruction amendments.[1] The book also included two letters to his colleague on the Circuit Court of Louisiana, Judge Woods, only one of which he sent. While the letter sent to Woods reflected a degree of uncertainty as to the federal government’s role in protecting civil rights under the Civil Rights Bill, a more extensive and critical examination on the legality of the bill was never sent. These three primary sources helped explain Bradley’s thinking from his opinion in United States v. Cruikshank in 1876 to his culminating decision on federal power in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 in which, echoing the letter he did not send to Woods, he opined that blacks must cease “to be the special favorite of the laws.”[2]

Furthermore, in Bradley’s correspondence, I found a letter to Judge Woods from 1871 in which he declared a seemingly identical case to Cruikshank, tried under Section 6 of the Enforcement Act, “within the law.”[3] It is clear, however, three years later, Bradley changed his mind, releasing prisoners tried for similar crimes on account of an invalid indictment. In Chief Justice Waite’s papers, I came across Bradley’s dissenting opinion in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 and his circuit court opinion in Cruikshank. These two documents would become indispensable to building the argument of my thesis. A comparative analysis of these two entirely different opinions helped demonstrate how in the span of fourteen months Bradley changed his mind on the extent to which the federal government is empowered to protect civil rights, adopting a stricter interpretation of the Reconstruction amendments.

My research kept drawing me to the fascinating career of Justice Bradley. Concealed beneath his private law notes and correspondence, Bradley personifies the shift in Northern white Republican attitudes toward federal power and racial equality during Reconstruction. From the justice’s comments advocating an expansive reading of the Reconstruction amendments’ guarantees in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 to his restrictive interpretation expounded in Cruikshank, then finally to his later remarks on the Civil Rights Bill of 1875, Bradley, in a similar exercise to members of his political party and other citizens around the country, changed his mind.

Bradley himself was aware of his dramatic shift in perspective. In what would become both the title and linchpin of my thesis, the justice included a loose sheet of paper alongside the 1871 letter to Judge Woods that read: “[The views expressed in the foregoing letters were much modified by subsequent reflections, so far as relates to the power of Congress to pass laws for enforcing racial equality between the races.]”[4] I would like to thank the History Department and the Clark Fellowship Committee for providing me with the opportunity to conduct archival research as an undergraduate and discover these insightful primary sources into Justice Bradley’s life and career.

[1] Joseph P. Bradley, “Civil Rights,” Folder 1, Box 8, Joseph P. Bradley Papers, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey.

[2] Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883).

[3] Joseph P. Bradley to William B. Woods, March 12, 1871, Folder 2, Box 18, Joseph P. Bradley Papers, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey.

[4] Joseph P. Bradley, Folder 2, Box 18, Joseph P. Bradley Papers, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey.