In 1822 John Barron sued the city of Baltimore for alleged financial losses after his wharf became unusable for commercial purposes. When Barron had originally purchased the wharf it was on the deepest section of harbor, making it highly suitable for shipping and thus profitable. Baltimore initiated plans to renovate the city in 1815, paving roads and diverting some of the city' s streams into the harbor. Over the course of several years, the waters around Barron' s wharf filled with silt, causing the wharf to become unsuitable for shipping. Barron argued that the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution applied to the states and that Baltimore deprived him of his private property without just compensation in violation of the takings clause.
Barron v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore marked the first time the Supreme Court was asked whether the rights outlined in the first eight amendments of the Bill of Rights applied to the states as well as the federal government. According to the justices, the question was “of great importance, but not of much difficulty.” Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for a unanimous ( 7–0 ) Court, ruled that the “Constitution was ordained and established by the people of the United States for themselves, for their own government, and not for the government of the individual states.”
Where the Constitution is intended to regulate state legislatures, it does so explicitly, as in Article I, Section 10, with its explicit language that “no state shall” enter into treaties, coin money, and so on. The amendments were recommended to alleviate fears over abuses of power by the federal government and contain no indication that they were intended to apply to state governments. “Had the framers of these amendments intended them to be limitations on the powers of the State governments,” Marshall argued, “they would have imitated the framers of the original Constitution, and have expressed that intention.” The Fifth Amendment, therefore, restricted the activities of the federal government only. If citizens of individual states wished to restrict the behaviors of their state legislatures, Marshall suggested, they could do so in their individual state constitutions.
Following the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments, some thought the rights contained within the Bill of Rights were “incorporated” into the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The primary framers of the Fourteenth Amendment chose their language, in part, in response to the ruling in Barron. However, the Supreme Court rejected this logic in the Slaughter-House Cases ( 1875 ) and United States v. Cruikshank ( 1876 ), continuing to argue that the Bill of Rights placed limits on the federal government and not on state governments.
Barron was never explicitly overturned, but the Court did eventually apply most of the Bill of Rights to state governments through a process of selective incorporation. Beginning in the early twentieth century, the Court gradually interpreted certain rights and protections to be so fundamental as to apply to both states and the federal government. Through this incorporation doctrine, the court selectively applied clauses of the Bill of Rights to state governments through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
SEE ALSO Federalism in American History ; Incorporation of the Bill of Rights .
Amar, Akhil Reed. “The Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment.” Yale Law Journal 101, no. 6 (1992): 1193–284.
Shauna F. Fisher
West Virginia University