Worcester v. Georgia

31 U.S. 515 (1832)

“The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force …” — Chief Justice John Marshall

Case Summary

In December 1829, President Andrew Jackson announced his Indian removal proposal in an address to the U.S. Congress. In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to grant the Indians unsettled lands west of the Mississippi River in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders. The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall addressed the Indian lands question in two cases: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831 and Worcester v. Georgia in 1832. Both cases developed out of Georgia’s attempt to assert its jurisdiction over Cherokee land within the state that was protected by federal treaty. In the first case, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to hear the Cherokee request to prevent Georgia’s attempt. The Court determined that the Cherokees were “a domestic, dependent nation” (in other words, a ward of the United States), rather than “a sovereign nation.” By refusing to hear the case, the Court left the Cherokees at the mercy of the state of Georgia.

The Georgia Legislature meanwhile had passed a law requiring anyone other than Cherokees who lived on Indian territory to obtain a license from the state. Samuel Worcester and several other non-Cherokee Congregational missionaries settled and established a mission on Cherokee land at the request of the Cherokees and with permission of the U.S. government. The state of Georgia charged Worcester and the other missionaries with “residing within the limits of the Cherokee nation without a license.” They were tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years of hard labor. Worcester and the other missionaries appealed their convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legal Issue

The Court considered the following questions:

  1. Does a state have the power to pass laws concerning sovereign Indian nations?

Decision

Chief Justice John Marshall delivered the opinion of the court.

Marshall Court (1801-1835)

Speaking through Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court, with only one justice dissenting, ruled in favor of Worcester and the Cherokees. The Court reasoned that the Cherokee nation was “a distinct community” with “self-government” in which the laws of Georgia had no force. Marshall explains that the government of the United States inherited from Great Britain the powers that that nation formerly held, including the sole power to deal with the Indian nations. He writes: “From the commencement of our government, Congress has passed acts to regulate trade … with the Indians; which treat them as nations, respect their rights, and manifest a firm purpose to afford that protection which treaties stipulate. All these acts … manifestly consider the several Indian nations as distinct political communities, having territorial boundaries, within which their authority is exclusive, and having a right to all the lands within those boundaries, which is not only acknowledged, but guaranteed by the United States … .” Marshall goes on to write that the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter Cherokee land “but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties, and with the acts of Congress. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation, is, by our Constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.” Therefore, the Chief Justice concludes, “The acts of Georgia are repugnant to the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States.”

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