Marshall’s last case involving a constitutional issue came to the court in 1831 and is a good example of his decision to moderate his views for the sake of institutional cohesion. The case involved a challenge to a state’s power under the so-called Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
John Barron and John Craig had owned a highly profitable wharf on the Patapsco River in Baltimore, Maryland. When they built the wharf, it was in the deepest water in the harbor, making it easily accessible by a variety of water vessels. Between 1815 and 1821, Baltimore city officials, exercising power delegated by the State of Maryland, authorized a series of public works projects that included paving several Baltimore streets and diverting into the harbor streams that flowed from the hills bordering the city. During rainy seasons, large quantities of sand and dirt were deposited into the water in front of Barron and Craig’s wharf. The water became so shallow that water vessels could no longer use the wharf.
By 1822, Craig was dead and Barron was left with a wharf that for all practical purposes was worthless. The city acknowledged that its public works projects had ruined Barron’s business, but it offered no compensation. It justified its actions as the exercise of a state’s power to protect the health of the city, a right it retained under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Barron sued the mayor and the city council of Baltimore for taking his property without just compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The Baltimore County Court awarded Barron monetary damages, but the state’s highest court reversed that award. Barron sought a writ of error from the United States Supreme Court.
Barron’s lawyer seemed confident that the Supreme Court would reverse the Maryland high court. He had on his side the unambiguous words of the Fifth Amendment: “[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Supreme Court previously had held that it had jurisdiction under Section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 over all cases arising under the Constitution. The Fifth Amendment is part of the Constitution. Moreover, in the past, the Marshall Court had held that the Constitution protects vested property rights and limits the exercise of state powers.
In a unanimous opinion, Marshall wrote that the Supreme Court could not review the decision of the Maryland high court because the Fifth Amendment limits only the national government. It does not limit the states. The national government played no role in the destruction of Barron’s wharf. According to Marshall, a litigant claiming that the action of a state infringes on rights or liberties must look to the state’s constitution, not to the United States Constitution, for a remedy.
Barron v. Baltimore (1831) established the proposition that the Bill of Rights limits only the actions of the national government. The rights in the Bill of Rights do not protect individuals from the actions of state governments. The Barron decision opened the door to an interpretation of the Constitution considerably different from the one Marshall had provided in cases like McCulloch v. Maryland.