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Slaughterhouse Cases

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Significance: In these cases, the Supreme Court made a narrow interpretation of the privileges or immunities clause (P or I clause) of the Fourteenth Amendment, with the result that none of the first eight amendments have been applied to the states by way of that clause.


The Slaughterhouse Cases combined three suits challenging a Louisiana law that granted a single company the exclusive right to butcher animals in New Orleans. Although the legislature tried to defend the law as a rational means of promoting sanitation, it appeared to provide a monopoly to a small group of wealthy individuals with powerful political connections. Hundreds of New Orleans butchers, operating as small businesses, were put out of work as a result of the monopolistic legislation. The butchers, represented by former Supreme Court justice John A. Campbell, took their case to the state courts. Among other arguments, Campbell maintained that the privileges or immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protected the right of American citizens to labor freely in an honest profession. After losing in the state's highest court, Campbell appealed the cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Slaughterhouse Cases presented the Court with its first important opportunity to explore the meaning of the privileges or immunities clause, which, according to some of its framers, guaranteed the fundamental rights of citizenship, including those listed in the Bill of Rights. The Court, by a 5-4 margin, rejected Campbell's arguments and interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment very narrowly. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Samuel F. Miller held that the only real purpose of the amendment was to secure the freedom and civil equality of African Americans and not to increase protections for white Americans. He drew a distinction between the rights of state citizenship and those of national citizenship, with the second category reduced to a very small number. The new amendment, Miller asserted, had not produced any basic changes in American federalism, and it did not make the Supreme Court “a perpetual censor upon all legislation of the states.” In addition to holding that the Fourteenth Amendment did not protect economic rights, the Slaughterhouse decision meant that the privileges or immunities clause did not authorize the federal courts to apply the Bill of Rights to the state governments. Dissenting justice Stephen J. Field, joined by three additional justices, insisted that the privileges and immunities of national citizenship included the right to labor. Years later, the Supreme Court would broadly interpret the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as a means of protecting the kinds of economic liberties that the butchers asserted, and it would also use the due process clause to apply most of the Bill of Rights to the states. Although the Slaughterhouse ruling has never been overturned, in Saenz v. Roe (1999), the Court breathed new life into the privileges or immunities clause when it held that the clause protected a right to interstate travel and migration.



Further Reading

  • Labb, Ronald M., and Jonathan Lurie. The Slaughterhouse Cases: Regulation, Reconstruction, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.