Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Unique among constitutional provisions, the clause prohibiting state abridgement of the “privileges or immunities” of United States citizens was rendered a “practical nullity” by a single decision of the Supreme Court issued within five years of its ratification. In the Slaughter-House Cases,1 the Court evaluated a Louisiana statute that conferred a monopoly upon a single corporation to engage in the business of slaughtering cattle. In determining whether this statute abridged the “privileges” of other butchers, the Court frustrated the aims of the most aggressive sponsors of the privileges or immunities Clause. According to the Court, these sponsors had sought to centralize “in the hands of the Federal Government large powers hitherto exercised by the States” by converting the rights of the citizens of each state at the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment into protected privileges and immunities of United States citizenship. This interpretation would have allowed business to develop unimpeded by state interference by limiting state laws “abridging” these privileges.
According to the Court, however, such an interpretation would have “transfer[red] the security and protection of all the civil rights . . . to the Federal Government, . . . to bring within the power of Congress the entire domain of civil rights heretofore belonging exclusively to the States,” and would “constitute this court a perpetual censor upon all legislation of the States, on the civil rights of their own citizens, with authority to nullify such as it did not approve as consistent with those rights, as they existed at the time of the adoption of this amendment. . . . [The effect of] so great a departure from the structure and spirit of our institutions . . . is to fetter and degrade the State governments by subjecting them to the control of Congress, in the exercise of powers heretofore universally conceded to them of the most ordinary and fundamental character . . . . We are convinced that no such results were intended by the Congress which proposed these amendments, nor by the legislatures of the States which ratified them,” and that the “one pervading purpose” of this and the other War Amendments was “the freedom of the slave race.”
Based on these conclusions, the Court held that none of the rights alleged by the competing New Orleans butchers to have been violated were derived from the butchers’ national citizenship; insofar as the Louisiana law interfered with their pursuit of the business of butchering animals, the privilege was one that “belong to the citizens of the States as such.” Despite the broad language of this clause, the Court held that the privileges and immunities of state citizenship had been “left to the State governments for security and protection” and had not been placed by the clause “under the special care of the Federal government.” The only privileges that the Fourteenth Amendment protected against state encroachment were declared to be those “which owe their existence to the Federal Government, its National character, its Constitution, or its laws.” 2 These privileges, however, had been available to United States citizens and protected from state interference by operation of federal supremacy even prior to the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Slaughter-House Cases, therefore, reduced the Privileges or Immunities Clause to a superfluous reiteration of a prohibition already operative against the states.
- 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36, 71, 77–78 (1873).
- 83 U.S. at 78, 79.