Worcester v. Georgia: Summary & Explanation

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  • 0:00 Worcester v. Georgia
  • 0:39 Indian Removal
  • 1:51 The Marshall Court Ruling
  • 2:34 The Jackson…
  • 3:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The case of Worcester v. Georgia established the legal principle of 'tribal sovereignty.' Learn how this principle came about during a contentious legal battle between the state of Georgia and the Cherokee nation in this lesson.

Worcester v. Georgia

The case of Worcester v. Georgia was a very peculiar but interesting legal battle that occurred in the United States between February and March of 1832. The proceeding set the precedent for what came to be known as 'tribal sovereignty' that various indigenous groups exercised throughout the country. In other words, in the case of Worcester v. Georgia, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Native American tribes were considered 'nations,' and could not be subjected to state law. This may seem like a difficult notion to grasp, so let's try to break it down.

Indian Removal

An important part of history to remember is the Indian removal period under President Andrew Jackson. Various southern tribes were subjected to harsh new laws, which inevitably forced them from their land and to move west across the Mississippi River. One of these groups was the Cherokee. The Cherokee inhabited most of the state of Georgia, and were not quick to relinquish their land to President Jackson and white settlement. To expedite the Cherokee removal, the state of Georgia incorporated anti-Cherokee laws.

Among the many new state laws issued against the Cherokee, the most prominent was the requirement for white missionaries and pro-Indian settlers to obtain a license to live on Cherokee territory. In an important side note, many white missionaries stayed on native lands in an attempt to ameliorate many of the hardships that Native Americans faced. However, as per the state of Georgia, if the missionaries did not have a state license, or if they promoted opposition, they were arrested and sent to labor camps. The battle over the constitutionality of the anti-Cherokee Georgia state laws were tested in the Supreme Court after prominent missionary Samuel Austin Worcester was arrested for attempting to incite opposition.

The Marshall Court Ruling

As previously mentioned, the missionaries, along with the Cherokee nation, challenged the state of Georgia at the federal level. Presiding over the case was the legal sage Chief Justice John Marshall. In a hastily argued legal bout, Marshall instituted a portion of the ruling in the case of Worcester v. Georgia which maintained that Native American groups in the United States were considered sovereign nations. Therefore, the Supreme Court declared that since the Cherokee should be considered an individual nation, dependent on the federal government only, the anti-Cherokee laws passed by Georgia were unconstitutional. Simply put, Native American groups were independent nations living in the United States that were only subjected to federal rule.

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