Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876

By Stephen P. Halbrook | Go to book overview

7
The Cruikshank Case, from Trial to
the Supreme Court

GRANT PARISH, LOUISIANA:
FROM RIOT TO MASSACRE

A tragic racial conflict in Louisiana in 1873 led to the last major federal prosecution against private individuals for conspiring to violate Bill of Rights freedoms, including the rights to assemble and bear arms. Known as either the “Colfax Riot” or the “Grant Parish Massacre,” this tragedy led to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Cruikshank, which held that private individuals, unlike the states, cannot violate the Bill of Rights, and hence persons cannot be prosecuted for such conduct under the Enforcement Act.1 The events and proceedings leading up to the Cruikshank decision reflected and shaped attitudes toward enforcement of the Bill of Rights at the end of the Reconstruction era. Contemporary accounts of the incident and ensuing criminal trials, including testimony concerning the facts and legal arguments about the constitutional issues raised, were recorded in New Orleans newspapers of the time.2

Competing Republican and Democrat factions claimed to have won the offices of judge and sheriff in Grant Parish, Louisiana, in the chaotic elections of 1872. In March 1873, a Republican faction, led by black militia leader William Ward, seized the courthouse in Colfax, the parish seat, and began arming and drilling within the city limits.3 A party of whites led by Democrat political leader James Hadnot was repulsed by the black militia,

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