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Maxwell v. Dow


The Court reaffirmed the notion that due process, as guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment, did not necessarily apply to the rights spelled out in the Bill of Rights, and that state governments should be the primary defenders of most rights.

When Congress drafted the Fourteenth Amendment, its major goal was to provide citizenship to the newly freed slaves and to guarantee their rights as citizens of both the United States and the individual states. But two parts of the Fourteenth Amendment soon took on a larger meaning.

The amendment said no state government could deny "privileges and immunities" guaranteed to citizens of the United States. They also could not "deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law." These words echoed the Fifth Amendment, which held the federal government to the same standard.

At first, the Supreme Court ruled the Fourteenth Amendment was only meant to protect ex-slaves. But in his dissent to the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), Justice Stephen J. Field said the Fourteenth Amendment gave the federal government the authority to strike down state laws that affected anyone, not just ex-slaves. That idea soon became accepted, giving people like Charles Maxwell a chance to have his day in the Supreme Court.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Maxwell v. Dow - Significance, Maxwell's Claim, After Maxwell, Further Readings