Justice Breyer and “The Yale Lectures”

Available here, drawing from his book Making Democracy Work.

Here is an excerpt:

After the decision [in Worcester], Justice Joseph Story wrote to his wife: “Thanks be to God, the Court can wash their hands clean of the iniquity of oppressing the Indians and disregarding their rights.” A few days later, he wrote to another
correspondent: “The Court has done its duty. Let the Nation now do theirs.” Story added: “Georgia is full of anger and violence. . . . Probably she will resist . . . , and if she does, I do not believe the President will interfere . . . .”

And that is just what happened. Georgia said it would resist the decision as a “usurpation” of power. And this is the case about which President Andrew Jackson supposedly said, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
The President considered he had as good a right as the Court to decide what the Constitution meant and how it should be enforced. Worcester stayed in jail. John Marshall wrote to Story: “I yield slowly and reluctantly to the conviction that our Constitution cannot last.”

What was wrong with Jackson’s position? The President soon found out. South Carolina, noticing what Georgia could do, decided it would follow suit— but in respect to federal taxes. It passed a law prohibiting the payment of federal customs duties. And Jackson then began to realize the threat to the Union inherent in the principle. He quickly obtained a “force bill” from Congress, authorizing him to send troops to South Carolina. And South Carolina withdrew its law. The press began to write about Georgia and the Cherokees: how did Georgia and Worcester differ from South Carolina and taxes? And Georgia began to back down. It reached an agreement with Worcester, releasing him from jail. And so the Court’s order was ultimately enforced. Or was it?

There is no happy ending here. Jackson sent troops to Georgia, but not to enforce the Court’s decision or to secure the Indians their lands. To the contrary, he sent federal troops to evict the Indians. He found a handful of Cherokees willing to sign a treaty requiring departure; he ignored 17,000 other Cherokees who protested that they would die rather than agree to go; and he forced the tribe to move to Oklahoma, walking there along the Trail of Tears, so-called because so many Cherokees died along the way. Their descendants live in Oklahoma to this day.

This episode suggests a negative answer to Hotspur’s question. The Court may follow the law—even in an unpopular matter. But that does not matter very much. Force, not law, will prevail. The summoned “spirits” will not come.

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1 Response to Justice Breyer and “The Yale Lectures”

  1. U.S. history teacher says:

    Justice Breyer demonstrates a somewhat faulty knowledge of history and chronology here. While Jackson did push the fraudulent Treaty of New Echota through the Senate and ignored the legitimate representatives of the Cherokee who protested the treaty and its ratification, the Trail of Tears actually occurred under Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, in 1838.

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