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Luther v. Borden (1849)

Last Updated: 2006

In 1849, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to apply Article IV, Section 4, of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees states a “republican form of government,” to a dispute over the duly constituted state authority in Rhode Island. The decision denied the higher court’s authority to settle political questions and allotted that role to the nation’s political branches.

Rhode Island, in the early 1840’s, operated under the original colonial charter given to it by England. The charter possessed property qualifications for voting rights that disfranchised a substantial number of the state’s citizens. Led by Thomas Wilson Dorr, a People’s Party emerged in 1841 to correct this grievance. The party organized a convention to draft a new Constitution. It provided all adult white males with the right to vote and hold political office. The General Assembly, which exercised power under the charter, issued the Freeman’s Constitution in response. While offering expanded voting rights, it was still more restrictive than the People’s Constitution and was defeated narrowly by popular vote. The new People’s Party government elected Dorr as governor and formed an entirely separate governmental body that claimed sovereignty in the state. The General Assembly then declared martial law and imposed severe penalties upon anyone assuming office in the Dorrite government. The state militia subsequently arrested the leading figures in the Dorr Rebellion.

Martin Luther, the moderator of a town meeting for the Dorr government, filed a case of trespass against Luther M. Borden for invading his house under martial law without a warrant. Supporters of the Dorr Rebellion saw this case as an opportunity to recoup a victory for their cause in the federal court system. In the circuit court, Luther argued that citizens had the right to change their government and Borden had no right to enter his house. The circuit court justices had opposed the rebellion prior to the case coming before them and ruled against Luther. Luther appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, found that the Court had no jurisdiction to give state government validity. State government derived authority from political power, not from the judiciary. According to the Court, enforcement of the fourth section of Article IV in the Constitution rested with the president and Congress. Luther v. Borden set an important standard reflecting the Supreme Court’s refusal to settle political questions. During Reconstruction, Republicans, who despised Chief Justice Taney for the Dred Scott decision, cited this case as a precedent to justify congressional authority in reconstructing the South.


Paul Bartholomew, Summaries of Leading Cases on the Constitution (Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams and Co., 1975); Ward E. Y. Elliott, The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court’s Role in Voting Rights Disputes, 1845–1969 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974); Stanley I. Kutler, ed., The Supreme Court and the Constitution: Readings in American Constitutional History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969); and Carl B. Swisher, History of the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. 5: The Taney Period (New York: Macmillan, 1974).