March 3, 1832 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Worcester v. Georgia

Samuel Worcester was appointed as a missionary to the Cherokee Nation in Georgia in 1825. He lived with his wife in New Echota, the capital of the Cherokee Nation from 1825 until the forced removal of the Cherokees in the 1830s.


In March, 1831, members of the Georgia State Guard, in furtherance of the goal of imposing state authority over Cherokee land, arrested Worcester for violating a Georgia law that no white person could live on Cherokee land without a state permit. Worcester countered that he was a U.S. official, having served as the postmaster at New Echota, and moreover was conducting missionary work with the permission of the federal government. He was released, but then confronted again three weeks later, this time accused by the state governor of “criminal” conduct. In the meantime, President Andrew Jackson not only had Worcester dismissed as postmaster but said furthermore that the missionaries were not acting as agents of the federal government. Worcester was ordered to leave or be prosecuted. Worcester refused to go and was rearrested in July. In September, he appeared for a state trial for his crime of living without a state permit on Indian lands. He was convicted, receiving a sentence of four years “at hard labor” at the prison in the state capital.

Samuel Worcester, "Cherokee Messenger"

Samuel Worcester, “Cherokee Messenger”

Worcester’s lawyer, William Wirt, appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which was heard in February, 1832.

In Worcester v. Georgia (31 U.S. 515), Chief Justice John Marshall delivered the opinion, once again reviewing the history of “the right of discovery,” as he had done in previous opinions, writing:

America, separated from Europe by a wide ocean, was inhabited by a distinct people, divided into separate nations, independent of each other and of the rest of the world, having institutions of their own, and governing themselves by their own laws. It is difficult to comprehend the proposition that the inhabitants of either quarter of the globe could have rightful original claims of dominion over the inhabitants of the other, or over the lands they occupied, or that the discovery of either by the other should give the discoverer rights in the country discovered which annulled the preexisting rights of its ancient possessors. (emphasis added)”

There was, he observed, no evidence that the Cherokees had surrendered their remaining rights to the land. He reminded readers of the opinion:

The Constitution, by declaring treaties already made, as well as those to be made, to be the supreme law of the land, has adopted and sanctioned the previous treaties with the Indian nations, and consequently admits their rank among the powers who are capable of making treaties.”

In short, he concluded:

The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community, occupying its own territory, with boundaries accurately described, in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties and with the acts of Congress. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation is, by our Constitution and laws, vested in the Government of the United States.

The act of the State of Georgia under which the plaintiff in error was prosecuted is consequently void, and the judgment a nullity.”

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court had no powers of enforcement, and both the State of Georgia and the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, decided not only to ignore the ruling, but to vitiate its effect however and wherever possible.

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

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