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A scene from the meat-packing industry from the turn of the 20th century.
The Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 originated with a lawsuit brought by butchers excluded from a state-created monopoly, the Crescent City Livestock Landing & Slaughterhouse Company of New Orleans. Above, a scene from the meat-packing industry at the turn of the 20th century.
Slaughterhouse Cases (1873)

Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was one of three "Civil War" amendments enacted following the close of the war. While the other two -- the Thirteenth and the Fifteenth -- abolished slavery and extended the right to vote to all races, respectively, the Fourteenth provided an expanded definition of national citizenship. The amendment extended citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" and decreed that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The amendment, enacted in response to the proliferation of "Black Codes" limiting the rights of blacks throughout the South, appeared to guarantee that states could not restrict the rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens under the Constitution; it also voided the ruling of the Supreme Court in the 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sandford: that blacks, whether slave or free, neither were nor could ever become citizens of the United States. Ironically, however, the first case dealing with the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment to reach the Supreme Court -- the so-called Slaughterhouse Cases -- had nothing to do with the rights of the newly freed slaves, but rather involved a lawsuit brought by a group of white businessmen.

At stake in the case was the constitutionality of an 1869 Louisiana statute that had incorporated the Crescent City Livestock Landing & Slaughterhouse Company and granted it the exclusive right to deal in and butcher livestock within the city of New Orleans. Although the ostensible purpose of the law was to protect the public health by reducing citywide pollution and health risks created by the slaughter of animals, state legislators had been bribed outright by the men to whom they awarded the right to operate -- and profit handsomely from -- the corporation. The Butchers Benevolent Association, a group of butchers who had been left out of the corporation, filed suit in federal court. The butchers, represented by former Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell (who had resigned from the Court after his state seceded from the Union), claimed that by denying them the "property" right to practice their livelihood without state interference and by creating a monopoly that favored some citizens at the cost of others, Louisiana had violated their rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The case -- a consolidation of several suits known as the Slaughterhouse Cases -- reached the Supreme Court in 1873. A narrow 5-4 majority rejected the butchers' claims and ruled in favor of the state of Louisiana. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Miller interpreted the five-year-old Fourteenth Amendment narrowly, declining to read the amendment's "privileges and immunities" clause as a prohibition against any state acting to restrict the rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens under the Constitution. Instead, following Justice Roger Taney's reasoning in the Dred Scott decision, he held that "the distinction between citizenship of the United States and citizenship of a state is clearly recognized and established" -- and that because the "privileges and immunities" clause applied only to the rights associated with "national citizenship" and not those of state citizenship, it did not preclude the state of Louisiana from creating the monopoly.

Four justices dissented, all for differing reasons, but each of them joined the dissenting opinion written by Justice Stephen J. Field. He argued for a much broader interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which he saw as eradicating the distinction between state and national citizenship. "A citizen of a state is now only a citizen of the United States residing in that state," he wrote, and therefore his right to the "privileges and immunities" granted by his national citizenship "are not dependent upon his citizenship of any state." Although Field stopped short of listing all the rights that were properly protected from state abridgement by the Fourteenth Amendment, he did single out the right of protection from "grants of excessive privileges" to corporate monopolies.

In his dissent, Field -- a Lincoln appointee who was nonetheless a Democrat and a staunch opponent of Radical Reconstruction -- was not arguing for a stronger federal role in the enforcement of civil rights for blacks, but rather strenuously opposing the ability of states to maintain broad economic regulatory powers, which he feared would allow them to abridge individual property rights. Although the Court's decision in the Slaughterhouse Cases has never been explicitly overturned, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries an ideologically conservative Court would adopt Field's judicial views, interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment as a protection not of civil rights but of economic liberties.

Toni Konkoly is a production assistant at Thirteen/WNET.

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