Libertatem Magazine

Case Analysis – Worcester v. The State of Georgia (1832)

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Coram for Worcester v. Georgia

Chief Justice John Marshall, Justice William Johnson, Justice Gabriel Duvall, Justice Joseph Story, Justice Smith Thompson, Justice John McLean (concurrence), and Justice Henry Baldwin (dissenting).

Facts of the case of Worcester v. Georgia

During the 1820s and 1830s, the State of Georgia relentlessly pursued the removal of the Cherokees – an indigenous group of people belonging to the Southeastern Woodlands of the United States, who held territory within the borders of modern Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. Sometime in 1827, the Cherokees established a constitutional government declaring to the American public that they were a sovereign nation that could not be expelled without their consent. Subsequently, the Georgia legislature responded by purporting to extend its jurisdiction over the Cherokees living in the State’s declared boundaries. The State of Georgia also annexed the Cherokee territories, abolished their governments, courts, and laws; and established a process for seizing their territory and distributing it to the State’s white citizens. Later in 1830, representatives from Georgia and other southern states proposed the Indian Removal Act to Congress. Later in 1832, U.S. President Andrew Jackson used the legislation to negotiate removal treaties with the Native American tribes.

These events led to an action being filed with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Georgia legislation. The Cherokees reasoned that the legislation violated their sovereign rights as a nation and went against the treaty relationship established with the United States. That action was resolved by the United States Supreme Court in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), where the court held that it did not have jurisdiction to strike down the aforementioned legislation. In the obiter dicta, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the Cherokees constituted a “domestic, dependent nation”, which existed under the guardianship of the United States.

In the subsequent time, another case was lodged before the Supreme Court of the United States, on similar grounds. This case, namely, Worcester v. Georgia (1832), involved the defendant, Samuel Worcester, a white preacher who was found living and preaching the gospel with some other missionaries on the land of the Cherokee Nation in the State of Georgia (the plaintiffs). Under the Georgia law at the time, all white nationals, who were living on Cherokee territory were required to obtain a permit or license from the State of Georgia, and also to take an oath of allegiance to Georgia. Anyone who violated this requirement were subject to arrest, and were consequently brought before the court.

Worcester failed to obtain these permit/permission as well as swear to the oath of allegiance from the State of Georgia. Consequently, Worcester was charged and convicted with four years of hard labour. Although Georgia offered to pardon Worcester on the condition he vacate the Cherokee territory immediately, Worcester instead filed a case at the U.S. Supreme Court on the ground (a) the Cherokee Nation was its own state, and (b) the enforcement of the Georgia law would deprive the Cherokee Nation of its autonomy, as granted under the Cherokee Treaties.

Worcester and his other missionary fellows, after an unsuccessful attempt in the highest state court appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on a writ of error. This writ, essentially, demanded the lower court to provide full record to the higher court for review of errors. The Federal question raised (a necessary step for appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court) was whether the State of Georgia had jurisdiction, since the men were present in the territory under the authority of the U.S. President doing missionary work, and with the permission of the Cherokee Nation. Put simply, did the State of Georgia have the authority to hear the case or to pass laws concerning sovereign Indian nations?

Decision of the Supreme Court in Worcester v. Georgia

On 3rd March 1832, the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall in a 5:1 decision held that the Georgia legislation was unconstitutional and thus void. Chief Justice Marshall stated that the “…treaties and laws of the United States contemplated the Indian territory as completely separate from that of the states; and provide that all intercourse with them shall be carried on exclusively by the government of the union…”. Going further, he added that, the “Indian nations had always been considered as distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original natural rights as the undisputed possessors of the soil”. He emphasized that “[T]he whole intercourse between the United States and this nation [the Cherokee Nation], is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.” On this basis, the Georgia legislation was struck down.

Alternatively, Justice Henry Baldwin dissented with the decision of the majority on the ground that he deemed the Cherokee was not a “nation” and “treaties” with them were merely agreements.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, the decision was never followed by the State of Georgia nor enforced by the U.S. government. President Andrew Jackson, who was sensitive to Georgia’s claims of independence at a time when the States wielded considerable power, shied away from making reference to the ruling fearing political repercussions and conflict with State governments. Worcester and his other missionary colleagues remained imprisoned till 1833 when a new Georgia governor pardoned their remaining sentence. As for the Georgia Cherokees, they were forcibly relocated in 1838 to present-day Oklahoma, following a U.S. treaty. The forced relocation is often called the Trail of Tears. At present-day, the Supreme Court ruling in Worcester v. Georgia is no longer binding. The Supreme Court accepts that a State may regulate Indian territories within its boundaries.

A copy of the judgment can be found here.

A Video Explanation of Worcester v. Georgia

For an interactive understanding, here is a video explanation for your reference. [This is not a sponsored video nor do we guarantee the authenticity of the video. It is for informative purposes only]

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