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Worcester v. Georgia

Significance

This case reestablished the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation, and other Native American Nations, as nations separate from the United States and exempt from the laws of the States of the Union that may surround their territory.

Samuel Worcester was indicted in a superior court in Georgia "for residing on the 15th of July, 1831, in that part of the Cherokee Nation attached by the laws of the State of Georgia, without license or permit, and without having taken the oath to support and defend the constitution and laws of the State of Georgia, etc." To this indictment he pleaded that, on that date, in the Cherokee Nation, he was a citizen of Vermont and entered the Cherokee Nation as a missionary under the authority of the president of the United States and with permission of the Cherokee Nation was engaged in preaching the gospel. He added that Georgia should not maintain the prosecution, as several treaties between the Cherokee Nation and the United States recognized the Cherokee Nation as a sovereign nation, and that the laws under which he was indicted were repugnant to the treaties, were unconstitutional and void, and were repugnant to the 1802 act of Congress entitled "An Act to regulate trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes." The superior court overruled the plea, and the plaintiff in error was tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years of hard labor.

President Andrew Jackson and the United States cited and admonished the state of Georgia and commanded the state to appear before the Supreme Court, pursuant to a writ of error. Chief Justice Marshall delivered the opinion of the Court.

Marshall felt that the indictment and plea in the case brought up two questions. The first dealt with the validity of the treaties made by the United States with the Cherokee Nation, and the second question was the validity of a statute of the state of Georgia entitled "An Act to prevent the exercise of assumed and arbitrary power by all persons, under pretext of authority from the Cherokee Indians," etc., that stated that all white people residing within the Cherokee Nation must conform to the rules of Georgia, including license or permit from a state official of Georgia to live in the Cherokee Nation, taking an oath to the state of Georgia, and, failing to do so, being sentenced to a minimum of four years hard labor. The extraterritorial power to each legislature being limited in the action of its own citizens, Marshall wrote that the very passage of the act was an assertion of jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation.

The treaty between the United States and the Cherokee Nation was based on the previous treaties between the Native American Nations and Great Britain. Accordingly, the United States received the Cherokee Nation into their favor and protection. The Cherokee acknowledged themselves to be under the protection of the United States and no other power. Protection did not imply the destruction of the protected. The manner in which this stipulation was understood by the American government was explained by the language and acts of the first president. The sixth and seventh articles stipulated for the punishment of the citizens of either country who may commit offenses on or against the citizens of the other. The only inference to be drawn from this was that the United States considered the Cherokees as a nation. Marshall wrote that multiple treaties between the United States and the Cherokee Nation again and again affirmed the Cherokee Nation's right to self-government and recognized it as a distinct community, occupying its own territory, over which the state of Georgia had no right.

Based on these arguments, Marshall wrote that the act of the state of Georgia under which the plaintiff was prosecuted was void. Marshall further wrote that the act of the state of Georgia interfered with the relations established between the United States and the Cherokee Nation and was in direct hostility with treaties repeated in a succession of years. Furthermore, according to Justice Marshall, the forcible seizure and abduction of Worcester, who was residing in the Cherokee nation, with its permission, and by authority of the President of the United States, was also a violation.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832Worcester v. Georgia - Decision, Significance, John Ross, Further Readings