The Supreme Court Decides in Chisholm v. Georgia

A document box sits on a table surrounded by a book, candlestick and walking stick.
Lawyers shared a table in the courtroom in [Old] City Hall in the 1790s.

NPS photo

In Chisholm v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that states were subject to the authority of the federal government. This decision initiated a series of events culminating in the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, an amendment limiting the judicial power of the U.S. Supreme Court.

This first test of the strength of the new national judiciary against state power took place in 1793 in the Mayor's Court of the new City Hall in Philadelphia (known today as Old City Hall). Philadelphia served as the nation's temporary capital, and the courtroom was mere steps away from where the Constitutional Convention gave life to the idea of a national judiciary.

At Issue

  • Can a citizen bring suit against a state government in a federal court? Under the longstanding concept of sovereign immunity, a state could not be sued without its consent.
  • But, did the new U.S. Constitution now grant power to the federal courts to hear cases involving private citizens and states?

The Facts in the Case

Plaintiff Alexander Chisholm was the executor of the late Robert Farquhar, a merchant from South Carolina. In 1777 during the American Revolution, Farquhar was en route to South Carolina from the West Indies with a shipment of clothing, cottons, linens, and blankets. A British ship pursued him off the coast of Georgia. He diverted to Savannah, Georgia, where American troops commandeered his cargo. The State of Georgia appointed commissioners who were authorized to pay Farquhar for his goods from the state treasury. They failed to do so. Though Farquhar pursued payment, he never received the $170,000 owed to him.

Georgia erased all claims brought against the state after the war ended. Farquhar died in 1784. In February 1791, executor Chisholm filed a lawsuit before the new federal circuit court to recover the fund in Georgia. The state, as the defendant, contended the circuit court lacked jurisdiction. Supreme Court Associate Justice James Iredell (who also served as a circuit court judge) believed the U.S. Supreme Court was the only suitable venue to try the case. He stated, "The Constitution…seems to provide, that in the cases where a state is a party, the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction.” The lawsuit was dismissed.

Chisholm then filed his lawsuit directly with the U.S. Supreme Court meeting in Philadelphia. He hired the Attorney General of the United States Edmund Randolph as his lawyer. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in its August 1792 term in Philadelphia. Georgia refused to send an official representative before the Court. Randolph proposed a motion that unless the state entered an appearance for the following February term of the Court, the justices should find in favor of his client.

Arguments Before the Court

The case came before the U.S. Supreme Court, sitting in [Old] City Hall in Philadelphia on February 5, 1793. Again, Georgia chose not to send a representative. Instead, it offered a formal written remonstrance in protest presented by the state’s Philadelphia lawyers Alexander Dallas and Jared Ingersoll. Georgia invoked sovereign immunity, a principle that says a state cannot be sued in federal court without its consent. Georgia believed the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction in the matter.

The Verdict

On February 18, 1793, in a 4-1 decision, the Court found in favor of Chisholm. The next day, the Court entered a Judgment of Default against Georgia unless it could show cause to the contrary by the first day of the August 1793 term. However, on August 6, 1793, the case was continued with the consent of Chisholm's counsel. A judgment in favor of Chisholm was entered in the following February 1794 term.

The opinions make clear that the majority of justices viewed suits within states as subject to federal courts. Speaking for the majority, Associate Justice James Wilson questioned the entire theory of state sovereignty. In this opinion, a Federal union was founded by popular consent for all. Therefore, a state cannot run under the cover of state immunity to suit its own purposes.

In his opinion, Chief Justice John Jay stabbed at the very heart of the sovereignty argument. He said sovereignty rested entirely with the people. A state constitution, like the national one, was a compact made between the citizens of that political entity. He further asserted that the states were never in the possession of anything like independent sovereignty. The sovereignty of the nation was the people.

Only Associate Justice Iredell dissented. In an opinion delivered in an hour and a quarter, Iredell defended the right of states to be independent sovereignties. He argued that the American states were the heirs of British sovereignty and, under English common law, the sovereign could never be sued without consent. He further argued he found nothing specific in the U.S. Constitution that would move the Court in favor of Chisholm without Congressional authority.

Reaction and Aftermath

The Supreme Court's verdict directly challenged a state’s belief in its own sovereignty. Not surprisingly, states objected to the Court’s interpretation. Georgia's governor, Edward Telfair, proclaimed that “an annihilation of [the state’s] political existence must follow” if anything approaching the likes of Chisholm were permitted again.

To satisfy the states, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution for an amendment to be added to the Constitution, forbidding suits against states from individuals residing in other states. In the following January, the Senate passed its own amendment which the House soon adopted. By 1795, the states ratified the 11th Amendment:

"The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State."

The Executor Alexander Chisholm died in Charleston, South Carolina in 1810. Farquhar’s son-in-law Peter Trezevant carried on the case on behalf of the estate. The Georgia Legislature finally passed a bill of relief in November 1847. Trezevant devoted a total of fifty-eight years of his life to pursue the settlement of this case.

Chisholm v. Georgia illustrated the torturous path the plaintiff underwent to bring a case questioning the legitimacy of a suit between a citizen of one state with another state. It also laid bare that the new Court was not above criticism when upholding the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution.
Marcus, Maeva, Ed. The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800, Volumes 1-4. New York: Columbia University, 1992.

Warren, Charles. The Supreme Court in United States History. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1922.

Trezevant, Robert W. “A Blockade Runner, a Bon Vivant, and the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Charleston: Carologue Magazine, Fall, 2016.

Hall, Kermit L., Ed. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Federal Judicial Center. “Chisholm v. Georgia (1793)”

Independence National Historical Park

Last updated: August 15, 2022