On this day, February 7, 1795, the 11th Amendment of U.S. Constitution is ratified. This amendment is the result of an early experience leading to what was probably the first real Federal Court Case of lasting significance. Here’s the story:
Article Three, Section Two, of the U.S. Constitution grants federal jurisdiction in cases where citizens in one state sue another state.
That’s exactly what was happening in the early days of our Republic. Under this article many suits were being brought against states by their creditors to force them to pay their debts. The most popular case was “Chisholm vs. Georgia.” Alexander Chisholm from South Carolina was the executor of the estate of a man who supplied goods to Georgia during the Revolutionary war. Georgia neglected to pay the bill, so in 1792 Chisholm sued. The Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, argued for the plaintiff. But the defendant, Georgia, refused to answer the summons to trial claiming that the court had no jurisdiction over a sovereign state in this matter.
The case then went before the Supreme Court and Chief Justice John Jay presided. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff 4-1 with only Justice Iredell dissenting. The court ruled that Article 3, Section 2, of the Constitution annuls Georgia’s claim of sovereign immunity in this case and gives a citizen the right to sue a state other than the one in which he lives. The Federal Court compelled Georgia to respond to the suit.
This ruling involved far reaching consequences making other states which had financial problems due to post-war inflation very nervous. Joseph Story describes the situation this way:
“…if a suit could be brought by any citizen of one state against another state, upon any contract or matter of property, the state would be constantly subject to judicial action, to enforce private rights against it (ie; the state) in its sovereign capacity.”
Both parties in Congress were united in the belief that it wasn’t right for a state to be sued by a citizen of another state; it violated their ideas of state sovereignty. So they created the eleventh amendment which revises Article 3, Section 2, by further limiting judicial power with regards to the states. It reads:
“The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit, in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another state, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.”
Once the Amendment became law, it was construed to include pending suits as well as any future suits. As a result, all pending suits were dismissed without any further adjudication. Many problems arise out of this amendment, but that’s a story for another time.
The Constitutional Amendment process proves that America is an experiment which requires experiences of success and failure, wisdom and folly, and trial and error.
Was the 11th Amendment wise? Foolish? Just? Unjust?
—An Extended Note On The History Making Provision Of An Amendment Process
The Declaration reads,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That, whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
These words are the foundation, the authorizing principles, of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Founders abolished their connection with the English government with the Declaration and with the Constitution they instituted a new Government founded on such principles that they believed would best affect their safety and happiness.
The principles of 1776, however, aren’t locked static in time; they live on from 1776 to this day with you and me! Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment … But I know, also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind … We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” — to Samuel Kerchival
In this spirit the Founders provided for the “Amendment” process. The Founders, unlike governments and tyrants of old, believed they were fallible men. They realized that the American experiment could only survive if future generations improved their original work, if they amended it as experience combined with wisdom dictated.
This serves as a perpetual call to all Americans today to be watchful, just, wise, and kind. To “amend” means to “make something better.” Only the watchful, the wise, the just, and the kind can truly make things better. Every Amendment is an act of the people altering its “Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
This solemn responsibility requires good character.