Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873: Summary, Overview

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873. The case set before the Supreme Court pitted a group of butchers against the city of New Orleans in an early test of the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment.

Strength Testing

It is truly an achievement to work out hard and sculpt yourself a great body, with bulging muscles and a trim waist. Bodies such as these, however, require continuous exercise and testing, or those sparkling muscles can lose their tone fast.

The same can be said for functioning governments. It is one thing to craft some of the best, most just laws in the world. However, to truly gauge the legitimacy of those laws, and keep the legal system as healthy as your body, those laws must be continuously tested through the courts. One such test came before the Supreme Court in 1873 in the form of the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873. These cases tested the laws and clauses of the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in a way its writers likely did not foresee.

Background

In the mid-nineteenth century, the city of New Orleans attempted to tackle its sewage problem caused by many of the city's slaughterhouses. Many of the butcheries existed a few miles upstream from the city and dumped the remaining entrails, blood, and other animal parts into the Mississippi River. The discarded parts floated downstream and often affected the city's drinking water, causing frequent disease outbreaks in the city.

With the butcheries existing upstream and outside the city limits, city ordinance could not restrict the action of the butchers. To get around this problem, the Louisiana legislature passed 'An Act to Protect the Health of the City of New Orleans, to Locate the Stock Landings and Slaughter Houses, and to incorporate the Crescent City Livestock Landing and Slaughter-House Company,' in 1869.

The Act essentially created a corporation with a land grant on the Mississippi River south of the city, and granted the corporation sole rights to landing livestock and leasing and selling workspace to butchers. Further restrictions ensured fair play for all butchers by enacting harsh penalties upon any corporation employees found to be giving competitive advantages or disadvantages to any butcher. Subsequently, all other butcher shops in the city's vicinity were to be closed.

Case and Decision

The butchers took the state of Louisiana to court, objecting to the creation of a monopolistic corporation which would essentially govern their operations and restrict their abilities to exercise free trade, as well as force them to move their operations to a new location.

The butchers based their argument on a broad interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Though the Fourteenth Amendment was originally designed to prohibit southern states from restricting the rights of newly freed African-American slaves, the butchers claimed that their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause were being infringed by the city forcing them to relocate against their will.

Six lower court cases all found for the state, and the Supreme Court upheld these decisions by a slim 5-4 margin on April 14, 1873. The Court declared the federal rights of the butchers were not being infringed, as the state was exercising the police power of the state in order to ensure the better health and general welfare of the city of New Orleans. This right to exercise police power, according to the Court, was the right of each state, and the federal government had no legal standing to obstruct its use.

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