Document Type


Publication Title

Northern Kentucky Law Review



Publication Date



Salmon P. Chase, Supreme Court, Slaughter-House Cases, Constitutional History, Federal Courts, Civil War, Judicial Activism, Congress, Reconstruction, Civil Rights Act of 1866


Three weeks before he died in May 1873, the frail and ailing Salmon P. Chase joined three of his brethren in dissent in one of the most important cases ever decided by the United States Supreme Court, the Slaughter-House Cases.1 This decision was a watershed in United States constitutional history for several reasons. Doctrinally, it represented a rejection of the virtually unanimous decisions of the lower federal courts upholding the constitutionality of revolutionary federal civil rights laws enacted in the aftermath of the Civil War. Institutionally, it was an example of extraordinary judicial activism in overriding the legislative will of Congress. Politically, it abolished the constitutional theory on which the Justice Department depended in its enforcement of the fundamental rights of Americans in the South during Reconstruction. The Court thus provided legal sanction for the Grant administration's retreat in 1873 from its civil rights enforcement efforts. The Court's decision annulled a revolution in American constitutionalism. I would like to tell you why I think these generalizations about Slaughter-House are accurate. I will briefly discuss the legislative background of the case, focusing on the history of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 for what it tells us about the framers' understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment. I will then discuss the valiant efforts of federal lawyers and judges to enforce the fundamental rights of Americans under these and other statutory and constitutional provisions up to 1873. I will then discuss the Chase Court's decisions. This will provide the context for, and, hopefully, make more clear the significance of the Slaughter-House Cases.