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Slaughterhouse Cases

Last Updated: 2006

This is the decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment for the first time. The dispute provided the occasion for a classic effort to employ judicial power to protect property rights from unreasonable regulation. The Court’s definitions of the amendment’s key terms influenced the course of constitutional development, particularly in the area of fundamental rights, for a century.

In March 1869, the Louisiana legislature, which had been organized under the Reconstruction Acts of Congress, passed an act granting to a single company an exclusive twenty-five-year franchise to operate a centralized slaughterhouse and stockyard in New Orleans. The act required the city’s many private slaughterhouses and stockyards to be closed, and it meant that their owners would have to relocate their operations to the site of the new facilities, which were located across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, and pay fees to use them.

The legislature defended the act as a sanitary measure designed to promote the health of the city by requiring the noxious business of landing, yarding, and slaughtering livestock to be done in one place, away from well-populated areas and where sanitary practices could be effectively enforced. Indeed, there is ample evidence to justify the act as a long-overdue sanitary reform. Conditions of sanitation and public health were deplorable in New Orleans for much of the nineteenth century. The city’s leading physicians charged that it was the dirtiest and most unhealthy city in the nation. The city’s many slaughterhouses had long been identified as a major contributor to these circumstances, but efforts to regulate them effectively had never been successful. Attempts to require consolidation of the slaughterhouses had been made by ordinance in 1862 and by legislative act in 1867, but both had failed. By 1869 a national public health movement was well underway, and it had already led to the consolidation of slaughtering in several other cities. The New Orleans act can properly be viewed as part of this movement. That having been said, however, it is equally true that in 1869 it was widely believed in New Orleans that the trade in Texas cattle had enormous financial potential. It is very doubtful that the organizers of the new company—almost none of whom had any experience in the livestock industry—were motivated by an interest in public health.

The Slaughterhouse Act provoked a furor in New Orleans. It was attacked on grounds that it created a monopoly and that it had been obtained by bribery from a legislature of carpetbaggers all too willing to be corrupted. The butchers charged that, far from being a public health measure, the act was merely a private scheme designed to enrich a few opportunistic newcomers.

About 250 suits and cross-suits were filed by the company and the butchers and stockdealers. Six of these were submitted to the trial courts for decision and appeal and eventually they became known as The Slaughterhouse Cases (1873).

Throughout the litigation the butchers were represented, chiefly by John Archibald Campbell, a Southerner and a former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who had resigned from the Court at the outbreak of the Civil War to ally himself with the Confederacy. In one of the great ironies of American constitutional law, Campbell resorted to the newly adopted Fourteenth Amendment—the centerpiece of congressional Reconstruction—in an effort to defeat an act of Louisiana’s Republican-dominated, reconstructed legislature.

Campbell’s arguments focused on the key provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment’s first section, which prohibited the states from abridging “the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” or depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” or from denying “the equal protection of the laws” to anyone. In his view these provisions had worked a fundamental change in the system of American federalism. According to Campbell, under the amendment the violation of any civil right by a state had become a violation of the Constitution—and one that could be redressed either in the federal courts or by Congress. In short, the amendment had the effect of nationalizing the protection of civil rights. Moreover, the butchers’ right to earn their living at a lawful calling of their own choosing (e.g., by practicing the trade of a butcher) amounted to a fundamental right of property, and it had been unreasonably violated by the Slaughterhouse Act. Campbell’s argument is remembered as the first instance in which the courts were urged to use the Fourteenth Amendment to declare an act unconstitutional because they found it unreasonable.

Counsel for the company defended the Slaughterhouse Act as an exercise of the state’s police power, the well-established power possessed by every state to regulate persons and property for the health, safety, and well-being of the community. As for the charges of monopoly, they pointed out that the act did not prevent anyone from slaughtering or selling meat to the public: it applied only to the operation of a slaughterhouse. And, it was well settled in the law that as a matter of practicality, certain dangerous or particularly noxious trades could not be open to the whole public. In April 1870 the Louisiana Supreme Court accepted the company’s arguments and upheld the Slaughterhouse Act (Louisiana ex rel. Belden v. Fagan 1870). The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this decision on April 14, 1873. In a majority opinion written by Justice Samuel F. Miller for himself and for Justices David Davis, Nathan Clifford, Ward Hunt, and William Strong, the Court found that the Slaughterhouse Act was well within the state’s police power. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, Joseph P. Bradley, Stephen J. Field, and Noah H. Swayne dissented. They argued that the act was a violation of fundamental rights of property prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment. In this regard, the Slaughterhouse decision was the precursor of many other cases in which the justices would debate the role of the courts and of the Fourteenth Amendment in the protection of property rights from allegedly unreasonable legislation.

After finding in his majority opinion that the Slaughterhouse Act fell within the regulatory power of the state, Justice Miller then went on to deal with John Campbell’s argument that the act violated the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment. It is evident that Miller was keenly aware that Campbell’s interpretation of the amendment portended a fundamental change in the federal system. “Was it the purpose of the 14th Amendment,” he wrote, “by the simple declaration that no state should make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, to transfer the security and protection of all the civil rights which we have mentioned, from the states to the Federal government?” Unable to find the certain meaning of the amendment, either in its wording or in any settled and undisputed body of opinion, Miller chose to interpret it in a way that preserved the federal system as it then and had always existed.

The amendment’s meaning could be found, he wrote, in its “pervading purpose,” which was to secure “the freedom of the slave race.” Thus he interpreted the Privileges and Immunities Clause—the most volatile of the provisions—as a protection only of rights enjoyed by citizens of the United States per se. It had no reference to rights derived from state citizenship. This narrow interpretation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause effectively rendered it a constitutional “dead letter” from which it has only begun to recover.

Justice Miller also found that the Due Process of Law Clause protected only procedural and not substantive rights, and the Equal Protection Clause had application only to the legal equality of the newly freed slaves. In short, there was nothing in the amendment to protect the right of the New Orleans butchers to practice their trade, even if it had been infringed upon.

The dissenting justices reacted strongly against the Slaughterhouse Act. Among their opinions, Justice Field’s opinion came closest to suggesting that John Campbell’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment had broken ground on which new doctrine could later be rooted. In Field’s view, the Privileges and Immunities Clause was intended to protect all those fundamental rights that “of right belong to the citizens of all free governments.” Admittedly, these rights are subject to regulation but only by “just, equal and impartial laws.” Ignoring the fact that the Slaughterhouse Act did not prevent anyone from pursuing his occupation but only required the butchers to slaughter in a centralized location, Field insisted that the act subjected “the right to pursue a lawful employment in a lawful manner” to a scheme of regulation that privileged only a few to practice it and denied the right to everyone else. This, in his view, was not reasonable regulation.

Justice Miller’s majority opinion anticipated a philosophy of judicial restraint later embraced by the Court and individual justices in litigation concerning economic policy. In the long run, however, he did not succeed in preventing the federal judiciary from carving out for itself the sort of activist role espoused by the dissenters or in preventing doctrinal developments that brought important changes in the respective powers of the state and national governments.

In the late nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth century, the Due Process Clause was given a substantive and not strictly a procedural meaning, and activist courts used it to strike down a great deal of legislation aimed at regulating the economy. The Due Process Clause was also used to bring about, over a century’s time and in a case-by-case fashion, the national protection of civil rights that Miller declined to accept in terms of the Privileges and Immunities Clause. Moreover, Justice Miller’s declaration in Slaughterhouse that the Equal Protection Clause had relevance only to blacks proved shortsighted. This provision has been used with historical significance to remove racial barriers to the political, economic, and social advancement of all Americans.

As a result of its response to a century of litigation in all these areas of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court has achieved for itself and the other federal courts the sort of important role in the federal system that was urged but declined in the Slaughterhouse Cases.

SEE ALSO: Edwards v. CaliforniaFourteenth AmendmentIncorporation (Nationalization) of the Bill of RightsLochner v. New YorkPolice PowerPrivileges and Immunities Clause: Fourteenth AmendmentSubstantive Due Process


Henry J. Abraham and Barbara A. Perry, Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Liberties in the United States (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003); Ronald M. Labbé and Jonathan Lurie, The Slaughterhouse Cases: Regulation, Reconstruction and the Fourteenth Amendment (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003); and Michael A. Ross, Justice of Shattered Dreams: Samuel Freeman Miller and the Supreme Court during the CivilWar Era (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 2003).