Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


When the Constitution was submitted to the American people in conventions in the several states, many objected that the lack of a bill of rights made the general government a dangerous tool of oppression. They looked to English antecedents, such as the English Bill of Rights of 1689, their historical colonial charters, many of which had contained express reservations of rights, and their existing state constitutions, many of which–but not all–had bills of rights. Some supporters of the Constitution, such as Alexander Hamilton, considered bills of rights empty verbiage at best, and dangerous implications of general governmental powers at worst. Moreover, Hamilton pointed out–in some tension with his previous argument– that the Constitution already contained limitations on the general government, for example, in the important provision in Article I, Section 9, against ex post facto laws. However, the need to get favorable outcomes in some closely-divided conventions persuaded the Constitution’s supporters to agree to promote a bill of rights once the new government was successfully established.

The First Congress set to that task. The initial set of amendments drafted by Representative James Madison were distilled from those submitted by the various state ratifying conventions, with the author declaring to Congress “I shall not propose a single alteration but is likely to meet the concurrence required by the constitution.” While most of those changes dealt with the powers of the general government or with limits to be imposed on that body, one group did not. Hamilton had also criticized the fact that the New York constitution, like that of some other states, lacked an explicit bill of rights. If anything, he noted, states needed bills of rights more than the federal government did, because they were governments of general and inherent legislative power, while the federal government was one of limited and delegated powers. For the former, then, any restriction on its powers had to be express.

Madison proposed to amend Article I, Section 10, of the Constitution (which dealt with restrictions on state governments), to add, “No State shall violate the equal rights of conscience, or the freedom of the press, or the trial by jury in criminal cases.” The House Committee of Eleven, to whom Madison’s proposal was referred, modified his language somewhat and added a protection of the freedom of speech. The House of Representatives made several changes. First, it changed the basic approach. Rather than revise the text of the original Constitution by interlineation of these changes, the original text would remain, and the changes would be separated and formally styled “Amendments.” Second, it rephrased the proposal as “ARTICLE the FOURTEENTH,” which declared, “No State shall infringe the right of trial by Jury in criminal cases, nor the rights of conscience, nor the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Two weeks later, the Senate passed its own version, which omitted all references to limitations on state governments. The Senate’s version of the proposed amendments was, in essence, what was finally submitted to the states for approval. It is not entirely clear why the Senate dropped the restriction on state governments, though their selection by the state legislatures may have made Senators reluctant to impose express limits on those bodies. As a result, the Bill of Rights (and the 27th Amendment, which was proposed then, but failed to get the requisite state support until 1992) is concerned entirely with powers of the general government and with limits thereon.

In 1833, Chief Justice John Marshall, in Barron v. Mayor of Baltimore, confirmed that neither the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment at issue there, nor any other provision of the Bill of Rights, applied to the states. Referring to the constitutional settlement of 1789 that resulted in the adoption of the Bill of Rights, Marshall noted that the amendments “demanded security against the apprehended encroachments of the general government–not against those of the local governments.” There matters remained, formally, for nearly a century. Any restrictions on state governments, other than those in Article I, Section 10, had to come from the respective states’ constitutions.

In a society as locally-focused as Jefferson’s “Yeoman Republic” of artisans and farmers, such an arrangement made sense. But with the growing industrialization and its accompanying commercial intercourse shaping stronger regional and–more gradually, national–bonds, a new constitutional settlement was needed. The social dislocations caused by the “Industrial Revolution” were increasingly the targets of state law. Direct federal regulation of peacetime commerce did not occur until near the end of the 19th century with the Interstate Commerce Act, directed at the railroads, and the Sherman Antitrust Act, directed at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust and similar “malefactors of wealth.” The new entrepreneurial class that opposed state interference in their economic activities was frustrated by the variability of protections offered by the state constitutions and, if they were interstate companies, by the inconvenience and potential contradictions of state-by-state litigation to protect their interests.

There was the germ of another constitutional approach during this time, in the form of Corfield v. Coryell, a case in 1823 from the federal circuit court. Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington (George Washington’s nephew), as circuit judge, declared that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV, Section 2, protected a citizen of one state travelling to another state against discriminatory legislation by the latter, at least as to the exercise of certain fundamental rights. The “P & I Clause” had its antecedent in the Articles of Confederation. Washington wrote, “We feel no hesitation in confining these expressions to those privileges and immunities which are, in their nature fundamental; which belong, of right, to the citizens of all free governments; and which have, at all times, been enjoyed by the citizens of the several states which compose this Union, from the time of their becoming free, independent, and sovereign.” Washington’s opinion reflected the “higher law” reasoning, based on theories of natural law, natural rights, and broad principles of freedom reflected in the social contract, to which the courts of that time had frequent recourse to limit the actions of state governments.

The drawback of Corfield was that Washington correctly held that the P & I Clause only applied to state laws that targeted out-of-state visitors. It was an anti-discrimination protection, not a guarantee of basic rights to anyone. Since state laws typically restricted in-state businesses as well as interstate enterprises, Corfield was of limited use initially.

Further change came through the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. That amendment contains protections against laws by state and local governments that infringe the privileges or immunities of citizens, that deprive persons of life, liberty or property without due process of law or that deny a person the equal protection of the law. The first Supreme Court decision to address the application of the Fourteenth Amendment to safeguard property and economic liberty against state regulation came in the Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873. An association of butchers in New Orleans challenged a state-created slaughterhouse monopoly. The Court rejected their claims and held that the privileges and immunities clause only protected rights of national citizenship, that is, rights that arise directly from a citizen’s connection to the federal government, such as the right of access to federal instrumentalities, and certain rights protected in the Constitution itself, such as the right of assembly and petition. As to due process, that clause only protected rights of fair trial. The equal protection clause only protected Blacks against racially discriminatory state laws.

The dissent in the Slaughterhouse Cases envisioned much greater protections. Using remarks made during the congressional debates on the amendment, Justice Stephen Field claimed that the privileges and immunities protected were those listed in the Bill of Rights, as well as those that would be within Justice Washington’s expansive description in Corfield. This would include the right to pursue any lawful trade or profession without the restriction posed by a state-licensed monopoly. Justice Joseph Bradley proposed an alternate theory, that the Louisiana law’s substance was an unconstitutional deprivation of property and liberty without due process.

The Slaughterhouse justices generally agreed that the Fourteenth Amendment applied some or all of the Bill of Rights to the states. Moreover, the dissenters argued that broad conceptions of privileges and immunities, and of property and liberty also restricted the states. Both approaches subsequently were used by the Supreme Court to overturn state laws. While Justice Field’s broad reading of privileges and immunities did not catch on, Justice Bradley’s views became the majority’s in Allgeyer v. Louisiana in 1897 and Lochner v. New York in 1905. There, the Court overturned economic regulations as a violation of the “liberty of contract” protected under the Due Process Clause. This doctrine of “substantive due process” is no longer used to invalidate federal laws (under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause) or state laws (under the Fourteenth Amendment’s) that regulate economic liberty, but has been used to strike down laws that violate various ill-defined aspects of the “right of privacy,” including long-standing laws that defined traditional marriage, prohibited certain forms of sexual conduct, and restricted access to contraception and abortion.

In addition to such “unenumerated” rights, the Supreme Court gradually applied the specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights to the states. Scholars debate about which case first “incorporated” specific provisions of the Bill of Rights into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Supreme Court began to acknowledge that some rights protected by that clause were similar to those in the Bill of Rights. In any event, beginning in the 1930s, the Court over the next three decades clearly moved to incorporate, first, the Free Speech and Free Press Clauses and, second, various criminal procedure protections.

Three factions developed among the Supreme Court justices. One group, led by Justice Benjamin Cardozo, argued that only certain “preferred freedoms” within the Bill of Rights are incorporated into the Due Process Clause. Under this process of “selective incorporation,” only those freedoms that are “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” would be applied against the states in the same manner that they applied to the federal government. Writing in Palko v. Connecticut in 1938, Cardozo defined these as the “fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions,” a vague and flexible formulation reminiscent of that by Bushrod Washington in Corfield a century earlier.

Justice Felix Frankfurter leaned towards Cardozo’s approach, but argued that the federal government and the states had different roles in our federal system. Particularly in the traditional state law domain of criminal law and procedure, the interests of the states must be balanced against the right at issue. As a result, the scope of the Bill of Rights protections when incorporated against the states should be similar to, but not necessarily identical with, those protections when they directly limit the federal government.

Justice Hugo Black urged “wholesale incorporation” of all of the first eight amendments of the Constitution. Black relied on his reading of the congressional debates over the Fourteenth Amendment, and on what he saw as the main purpose of that Amendment. The Court rejected Black’s approach as unsupported by the historical record. However, even though Black lost that battle, he effectively won the war. On recognition of the increased mobility and homogenization of our population across the country, the Court has come to incorporate almost all provisions of the first eight amendments. Only the Third, Seventh, and small parts of the Fifth and Eighth Amendments so far have avoided the process of the nationalizing of rights through their incorporation into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

Click Here for the next essay. 

Click Here for the previous essay.

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90 Day Study on Congress.

1 reply
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Thank you for another very informative essay. This topic has been covered extensively under various essay over the years. The complexity and sweeping impact of incorporation warrant thorough coverage. Hence, I welcome this and more essays.



Join the discussion! Post your comments below.

Your feedback and insights are welcome.
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *