by Raoul Berger

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt of the book Government by Judiciary: The Transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment, Foreword by Forrest McDonald (2nd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1997).

Invocation of the Bill of Rights against the States is of fairly recent origin whether it be regarded within the older framework of “adoption” or the more recent theory of “incorporation.” From the First Amendment’s “Congress shall make no law” may be gathered that it was to apply exclusively to Congress, and it was held in Barron v. Baltimore that the Bill of Rights had no application to the States, as in fact the First Congress, which drafted the Bill, had earlier made clear. Justice[156] Harlan spoke truly in stating that “every member of the Court for at least the last 135 years has agreed that our Founders did not consider the requirements of the Bill of Rights so fundamental that they should operate directly against the States.”  And for a long time the Supreme Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment had made no change in this respect. By means of “selective” incorporation or adoption the Court has worked “a revolutionary change in the criminal process” of the States. Some consider that the Court was “trying to legislate a detailed criminal code for a continental country.”

Historically the citizenry have relied upon the States for protection, and such protection was afforded before the Constitutional Convention by a Bill of Rights in virtually every state Constitution. It was not fear of State misgovernment but distrust of the remote federal newcomer that fueled the demand for a federal Bill of Rights which would supply the same protection against the federal government that State Constitutions already provided against the States. This was understood by the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, and their own attachment to State sovereignty led them to refrain from intruding beyond the ban on discrimination against blacks with respect to certain rights. All else, including suffrage, was left to the States. In particular, Chairman Wilson[157] emphasized during the debates on the Civil Rights Bill, “We are not making a general criminal code for the States.” Since the Amendment indisputably was designed to “incorporate” the guarantees of the Civil Rights Act, evidence is required to show that the framers had moved beyond the limited purposes of the Act.

The architect of the “incorporation” theory, Justice Black, invoked some fragmentary history—utterances in connection with an explanation of “privileges or immunities” by two leading Republican spokesmen, Bingham, author of §1, and Senator Jacob M. Howard, who purported to express the views of the Joint Committee. Such statements are not lightly dismissed, after the manner of Justice Frankfurter, because “Remarks of a particular proponent of the Amendment, no matter how influential, are not to be deemed part of the Amendment.”  Accepted canons of construction are to the contrary; the paramount consideration is to ascertain the intention of the legislature. That intention may be evidenced by statements of leading proponents, and, if found, is to be regarded as good as written into the enactment: “the intention of the lawmaker is the law.”  But Black’s history falls far short of the “conclusive demonstration” he thought it to be in his famous Adamson dissent. The contrary, it may fairly be said, was demonstrated in Charles Fairman’s painstaking and scrupulous impeachment of Black’s history, buttressed by Stanley Morrison’s telling companion article.

Absorption of one or another portion of the Bill of Rights—free speech, for example—antedated Adamson, but this was on a selective basis, under cover of due process. To Black this was an abhorrent claim to “boundless power under ‘natural law’ periodically to expand and contract constitutional standards to conform to the court’s conception of what at a particular time constitutes ‘civilized decency’ and ‘fundamental liberty and justice.’ ” Why, he asked, should the Bill of Rights “be ‘absorbed’ in part but not in full?” The cure, he maintained, was “incorporation” en bloc. His condemnation was not, however, wholehearted, for he was ready to accept “selective” adoption if he could not obtain wholesale incorporation, suggesting that sacrifice of a desired result was more painful than “boundless power to expand or contract constitutional standards.”  The words “privileges or immunities” seemed “an eminently reasonable way of expressing the idea that henceforth the Bill of Rights shall apply to the States.” The two concepts, however, are of entirely different provenance and deal with quite different matters. “Privileges or immunities” has its roots in Article IV, §2, which requires States to accord certain privileges to citizens of a sister State; the Bill of Rights, on the other hand, was designed to protect certain rights against the federal government. The debates in the First Congress contain not the faintest intimation that the “privileges and immunities” of Article IV were being enlarged or, indeed, that the Bill of Rights was in any way related to “privileges and immunities.” And, when Justice Bushrod Washington later enumerated those “privileges and immunities,” he too made no reference to the Bill of Rights. To read the Bill of Rights into “privileges or immunities” is therefore no more “reasonable” than to read a “bill of attainder” into “habeas corpus.”

In Adamson, Black appealed to “the original purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment.”  as disclosed by the Bingham-Howard statements. These statements had reference to the “privileges or immunities” clause, but that clause had been emasculated in the Slaughter-House Cases.  Hence Black relied on “the provisions of the Amendment’s first section, separately, and as a whole” for incorporation of the Bill of Rights. The “privileges or immunities” clause gains no fresh vitality as a component of the “whole” of §1. Reliance on the due process clause runs afoul of Black’s statement in the Adamson case that in Chicago, M. & St. P. R. Co. v. Minnesota (1890) the Court “gave a new and hitherto undisclosed scope for the Court’s use of the due process clause to protect property rights under natural law concepts.”  Substantive due process was fashioned in Wynehamer v. The People (1856) to bar abolitionist natural law[160] claims and confine protection to property; and libertarian due process came long after economic substantive due process. No one in the 39th Congress intimated that the due process clause would incorporate the Bill of Rights; Bingham looked to the judicial decisions for the scope of due process, then purely procedural. Speaking to the Bingham amendment, Chairman Wilson indicated that the due process clause was considered to furnish a “remedy” to secure the “fundamental rights” enumerated in the Civil Rights Act. To transform it into a “source” of other unspecified rights is to set at naught the careful enumeration of rights in the Act, “constitutionalized” by the Amendment, which is incompatible with Black’s invocation of the original purpose. In truth, expansion of due process to libertarian claims is largely a product of the post-1937 era; and “substantive equal protection” is a very recent concept indeed. Black’s reliance on §1 “as a whole” can therefore be met with the adage “when nothing is added to nothing, the sum is and remains the same—nothing.”

Bingham’s remarks were addressed to H. R. No. 63, the antecedent Bingham amendment: “The Congress shall have power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper to secure to citizens of each State all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States (Art. IV, §2); and to all persons in the several States equal protection in the rights of life, liberty, and property (5th amendment).” This proposal, said Bingham, “stands in the very words of the Constitution . . . Every word . . . is today in the Constitution.”  It is a mark of Bingham’s sloppiness that “every word” was not “in the Constitution”: “equal protection” was missing altogether. “ [T]hese great provisions of the Constitution,” he continued, “this immortal bill of rights embodied in the Constitution, rested for its execution and enforcement hitherto upon the fidelity of the[161] States.”  As Fairman pointed out, the antecedent of his remark was Article IV, §2, and the Fifth Amendment due process clause which Bingham equated with “equal protection.”  There is no reason to believe that his subsequent references to the Bill of Rights had broader compass. Certainly his fellow Republicans did not so read his proposed amendment. The radical William Higby of California thought that the Article IV, §2, clause and the Fifth Amendment due process clause constituted “precisely what will be provided” by the Bingham amendment. Another radical, Frederick E. Woodbridge of Vermont, stated: “It is intended to enable Congress by its enactments when necessary to give a citizen of the United States in whatever State he may be, those privileges and immunities which are guarantied to him under the Constitution [Article IV] . . . that protection to his property which is extended to other citizens of the State [due process clause].” Bingham’s reference to “the enforcement of the bill of rights, touching the life, liberty, and property . . . within every organized State . . .”  would convey to his fellows the technical meaning that had been attached to “life, liberty, and property” in the Civil Rights Bill debate.

Bingham, it will be recalled, had proposed his amendment to avoid doubts as to the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Bill. Wilson, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, joined issue: “in relation to the great fundamental rights embraced in the bill of rights, the citizen . . . is entitled to a remedy. The citizen is entitled to the right of life, liberty and property. Now if a State intervenes, and deprives him, without due[162] process of law, of those rights . . .” And he said, “I find in the bill of rights which the gentleman desires to have enforced by an amendment . . . that ‘No person shall be deprived of life, liberty and property without due process of law.’ I understand that these constitute the civil rights . . . to which this bill relates.”  Implicit in Wilson’s formulation is the assumption that no more is needed; and that is likewise the implication of the Higby and Woodbridge remarks about the Bingham amendment.

Far from accepting every word that fell from Bingham as gospel, the framers gave his proposal a chilly reception. According to Kendrick, he “stood almost alone . . . a great many Republicans, including particularly the entire New York delegation, were opposed to the amendment.”  He tried to soften the opposition by arguing that to oppose his amendment was “to oppose the grant of power to enforce the bill of rights,” to perpetuate statutes of confiscation, of banishment, of murder. Bickel considers that Bingham “was suggesting to those members who were alarmed that he had some definite evils in mind, limited and distinct in nature.” When we add: (1) the fact that Bingham’s amendment was shelved argues against adoption of his views; (2) the fact that the Joint Committee’s subsequent rejection of Bingham’s motion to add to Owen’s proposed amendment the phrase “nor take private property for public use without just compensation” is incompatible with blanket adoption of the first eight Amendments; (3) the fact that Bingham made no reference to inclusion of the Bill of Rights during debate on the final proposal which became §1 of the Amendment; (4) Wilson’s emphasis during debate that the Civil Rights Bill embodied the very civil rights embraced by due process protection of life, liberty, and property; and (5) Wilson’s assurances during that debate that “we are not making a general criminal code for the States” (suggesting that what was unpalatable in the Bill would be no more acceptable in the Amendment)—it becomes apparent that beyond due process the framers had no intention to adopt the Bill of Rights.

Bingham was in fact utterly at sea as to the role of the Bill of Rights. At first he considered it to be binding upon the States. Thus, after reading the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment as the source of his own proposed amendment, he stated: “this proposed amendment does not impose upon any State . . . an obligation which is not now enjoined upon them by the very letter of the Constitution.”  For this he appealed to the “supremacy clause” of Article VI, which makes the Constitution binding, hurdling the preliminary question whether the Constitution made the Fifth Amendment binding on the States. Although he noted that Barron v. Baltimore held that the Bill of Rights is “not applicable to and do[es] not bind the States,” he stated on February 28: “A State has not the right to deny equal protection . . . in the rights of life, liberty, and property.” On March 9 he stated:

the care of the property, the liberty, and the life of the citizen . . . is in the States, and not in the Federal Government. I have sought to effect no change in that respect . . . I have advocated here an amendment which would arm Congress with the power to punish all violations by State officers of the bill of rights . . . I have always believed that protection . . . within the States of all the rights of person and citizen, was of the powers reserved to the States.

Reservation of “protection” to the States runs counter to rejection of a State’s denial of an existing “right to equal protection”; it is incompatible with State “violations” of the Bill of Rights. Apparently unaware that Article IV, §2, protected nonresident migrants, not residents, Bingham said: “No State ever has the right . . . to abridge . . . the privileges and immunities of any citizen of the Republic.” Shifting again, he stated: “we all agree . . . that the exercise of the elective franchise, though it be one of the privileges of a citizen of the Republic, is exclusively under the control of the States.”  “Exclusive control” authorizes a State to “abridge” the privilege. In truth, as Morrison, concurring with Fairman, stated, Bingham’s “many statements . . . are so confused and conflicting as to be of little weight.”  This goes beyond the issue of credibility, which courts test by inconsistent statements. It poses the question: upon which of his conflicting explanations did the framers rely? How can “conclusive” legislative history rest on shifting sands?

In the eyes of Justice Black, “Bingham may, without extravagance be called the Madison of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment.”  Shades of Madison! Bingham was a muddled thinker, given to the florid, windy rhetoric of a stump orator, liberally interspersed with invocations to the Deity, not to the careful articulation of a lawyer who addresses himself to great issues. Recall his location of the words “equal protection” in the Constitution from which they were notably absent. Hale attributed to Bingham the view that “there had been from first to last, a violation of the provisions of this bill of rights by the very existence of slavery itself,”  thereby, as Judge Hale doubtless was aware, converting the Bill into a repealer of several existing provisions that sanctioned slavery—and this in the teeth of the First Congress’ express intention to exclude the States from the ambit of the Bill of Rights.

Presumably the framers who listened to Bingham found his frequent shifts of position no less perplexing than they seem to us; consequently, they had an added incentive to cling to the vastly preponderant view that they were merely incorporating the limited provisions of the Civil Rights Act in the Amendment. Whatever be the weight that attaches to Bingham’s utterances, it needs to be noted that even his admirers read them restrictively. So, Kelly states that his speech of February 29 “makes it clear that by ‘bill of rights’ Bingham meant both the guarantees of the comity clause and the guarantee of due process in the Fifth Amendment.”  And tenBroek asks, “What Bill of Rights? Certainly not the first eight amendments to the Constitution. The answer is not left open[166] to conjecture: the Bill of Rights that contain (1) the comity clause . . . which guarantees the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States; (2) the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment; and (3) the requirement that all shall be protected alike in life, liberty, and property, not explicitly mentioned in either body or amendments . . . this was the ‘immortal Bill of Rights’ of John A. Bingham.” Among the abolitionists themselves there was general agreement only about the due process clause and the First and Fourth Amendments; the “rights in the other amendments,” tenBroek says, “received only casual, incidental, and infrequent reference.” Justice Black, therefore, would impute to Bingham views which far outran the abolitionist program that allegedly was the source of his inspiration. Before we marshall the evidence which further undermines attribution of Bingham’s views to the framers, let us consider the companion remarks of Senator Jacob M. Howard.

By a caprice of fortune—the sudden illness of Chairman Fessenden—it fell to Senator Howard to act as spokesman for the Joint Committee in explaining the Amendment. Up to this point his participation in the debates on the Civil Rights Bill and the several aspects of the Amendment had been negligible. Poles removed from Chairman Fessenden, who “abhorred” extreme radicals, Howard, according to Kendrick, was “one of the most . . . reckless of the radicals,” who had “served consistently in the vanguard of the extreme Negrophiles.” He had expended “fruitless efforts” to include the right to vote; he and Elihu B. Washburne of Illinois “had been the only Republicans to hold out for black suffrage to the end, all the others proved willing to abandon it.”  That such a man should speak “for” a Committee in which the “non-radicals clearly outnumbered the radicals,” in which, by the testimony of the co-chairmen Fessenden and Stevens, there “was very considerable difference of opinion,”  needs to be taken, in the words of the “immortal” Samuel Goldwyn, with “a bushel of salts.”

On May 23 Senator Howard rose in the Senate, alluded to Fessenden’s illness, and stated that he would present “the views and the motives which influenced the committee, so far as I understand [them].” After reading the privileges and immunities listed in Corfield v. Coryell, he said, “to these privileges and immunities . . . should be added the personal rights guaranteed and secured by the first eight amendments.”  That is the sum and substance of Howard’s contribution to the “incorporation” issue. Justice Black assumed without more ado that Howard “emphatically stated the understanding of the framers.” No one, to be sure, rose to challenge Howard’s remark, casually tucked away in a long speech. “The argument from silence,” as Alfred Kelly observed, “is always more than a little dangerous.”  But was there really silence? Consider Senator Poland’s subsequent statement: “Great differences have existed among ourselves; many opinions have had to yield to enable us to agree upon a plan.” A similar statement had been made by Fessenden and repeated by the radical leader Senator Benjamin Wade. Now, after the compromise of such differences about known objectives, we are asked to infer that there was unquestioning acceptance of a sweeping, brand-new element, which had received no consideration whatever! Then too, others who spoke after Howard, repeated that the goal was legitimation of the Civil Rights Act. So, Senator Poland observed, “The clause . . . that ‘no State shall . . . abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States’ rsecures nothing beyond what was intended by the original [Article IV, §2] provision in the Constitution.”  If this be not regarded as a delicately phrased repudiation of Howard’s addition, at the very least it exhibits a more limited view than that of Howard by a respected Republican. Senator Doolittle stated that the Civil Rights Bill “was the forerunner of this constitutional amendment, and to give validity to which this constitutional amendment is brought forward.” Such reminders of known and limited objectives were designed to reassure those whose consent had thus far been won; and they rob Howard’s remark of uncontroverted standing.

Account must also be taken of expressions in the House after Howard’s speech, for even if his words be taken to express the sentiment of the Senate, it must not be facilely assumed that it was shared by the House. Nothing was said about the Bill of Rights upon return of the measure to the House —surely a remarkable silence about an extraordinary expansion of jointly accepted goals! Instead, George R. Latham, a West Virginia Republican, remarked, “The ‘civil rights bill’ which is now a law . . . covers exactly the same ground as this amendment.” Henry Van Aernam of New York said that the Amendment gives “constitutional sanctions and protection to the substantial guarantees of the civil-rights bill.” The Latham–Van Aernam remarks, parenthetically, afford additional proof that the earlier Bingham remarks did not represent the thinking of the House. Also significant are Stevens’ final remarks lamenting his failure to abolish “all” “inequality” and “distinctions” and explaining that he was constrained to accept so “imperfect a proposition” because he lived “among men and not among angels . . . who . . . do not choose to yield their opinions to mine.” It strains credulity to attribute to “men” who had rejected abolition of “all” distinctions readiness to swallow whole-hog reconstruction of their Northern institutions which had not even been discussed. Instead, the specific incorporation of one portion of the Bill of Rights—the due process clause—and the rejection of another—the just compensation clause—gave the framers ample reason to conclude that “due process” alone was to be “incorporated.”

Flack’s canvass of “speeches concerning the popular discussion of the Fourteenth Amendment” led him to conclude:

the general opinion held in the North . . . was that the Amendment embodied the Civil Rights Act . . . There does not seem to have been any statement at all as to whether the first eight amendments were to be made applicable to the States or not, whether the privileges guaranteed by those amendments were to be considered as privileges secured by the amendment.

Senator Sherman, for example, told Cincinnati during the campaign for adoption that “the first section was an embodiment of the [Civil Rights] Act.”  Fairman has collected remarks by five Senators and five Representatives, not one of whom “said that the privileges and immunities clause would impose Articles I to VIII upon the States.” We must assume that they knew of no such purpose; men of Sherman’s stature may not be charged with a conspiracy to conceal the proposed imposition from the people—certainly not without substantial proof.[171] There is no need to retrace Fairman’s examination of the State ratification proceedings; let it suffice that there is no intimation therein that ratification would produce radical changes in the States’ judicial machinery, for example, the replacement of an information by a grand jury indictment, of a six-man jury by a jury of twelve. If this was in fact the purpose of the framers, honesty required disclosure. None was made, and the reason, I suggest, is that no such purpose was entertained.

Then there is the remarkable fact that the cases which followed on the heels of the Fourteenth Amendment continued to hold the Bill of Rights inapplicable to State action, without mentioning the Amendment. Oversight will not account for the omission; the Amendment had been widely discussed; bench and bar are alert to every new and relevant enactment; they would not be oblivious to the revolution worked by the alleged incorporation of the Bill of Rights.

In sum, the framers were motivated by discriminatory denials of “fundamental rights” to the blacks. No trace of a purpose to reconstruct Northern institutions for the protection of white inhabitants against the State will be found in the debates; the frequent expressions of jealous regard for State sovereignty repel such a purpose. When Judge Robert Hale insisted that “the American people have not yet found their State governments are insufficient to protect the rights and liberties of the citizen,” Bingham translated this as “the citizens must rely upon the State for their protection,” and added, “I admit that such is the rule under the Constitution as it now stands.” It cannot be presumed that the States which, in Stevens’ words, would not “allow Congress to come within their jurisdiction to fix the qualifications of their voters,” would tolerate a federal overhaul of their judicial processes that went beyond making them available to Negroes. Such a presumption runs counter to Senator Trumbull’s assurance that the “provisions of the [Freedmen’s Bureau] bill in regard to holding courts . . . are confined entirely to the rebellious States.” “Certainly nobody has ever complained,” Senator Cowan said, “that a full and exact measure of justice has not been meted out to him in all our courts . . . I do object to extending it to the loyal States of the North.” Subsequently, Trumbull twice stated that the Civil Rights Bill had no application[173] to a State that did not discriminate between its citizens. The constant reiteration that the purpose of the Amendment was to constitutionalize the Civil Rights Act, the frequent tributes to State sovereignty, and recognition of powers reserved to the States by the Tenth Amendment, in which Bingham joined, unite to repel an inference that the framers intended to interfere with State conduct of its own affairs otherwise than is described in that Act. The pervasive attachment to federalism—State control of local institutions—Phillip Paludan repeatedly emphasizes, was “the most potent institutional obstacle to the Negroes’ hope for protected liberty”  —and even more of an obstacle to federal encroachment on Northern States’ control of their own white citizens. If there was a concealed intention to go beyond the Civil Rights Act, it was not ratified because, first, ratification requires disclosure of material facts, whereas there was no disclosure that the Amendment was meant to uproot, for example, traditional State judicial procedures and practices; and, second, a surrender of recognized rights may not be presumed but must be proved. In truth, the Fourteenth Amendment “was presented to the people as leaving control of suffrage in state hands, as representing no change in previous constitutional conditions so far as protection of rights was concerned [beyond banning discrimination], as stripped of radical character.”

Let Justice Black himself, the unremitting champion of “incorporation,” sum up, substituting for his word “corporations” the words “judicial processes”:

The states did not adopt the Amendment with knowledge of its sweeping meaning under its present construction. No section of the Amendment gave notice to the people that, if adopted, it would subject every state law . . . affecting [judicial processes] . . . to censorship of the United States courts. No word in all this Amendment gave any hint that its adoption would deprive the states of their long recognized power to regulate [judicial processes].


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