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In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564; 15 S. Ct. 900; 39 L. Ed. 1092 (1895)

Facts—Eugene V. Debs and associates, officers of the American Railway Union, had instituted a strike against the Pullman Company of Chicago. To enforce their demands, they picketed the railway cars of that company and would not allow them to either enter or leave Chicago. In doing this they stopped interstate commerce and also the cars carrying U.S. mail. The federal court granted an injunction against the union picketing, and when Debs and the other officers of the union resisted, they were convicted of contempt.

Question—Is the federal government able to prevent a forcible obstruction of interstate commerce and of the mails?


Reasons—J. Brewer (9–0). “The entire strength of the nation may be used to enforce in any part of the land the full and free exercise of all national powers and the security of all rights entrusted by the Constitution to its care. The strong arm of the national government may be put forth to brush away all obstructions to the freedom of interstate commerce or the transportation of the mails. If the emergency arises, the army of the nation, and all its militia, are at the service of the nation to compel obedience to its laws.” Brewer further observed: “It is obvious from these decisions that while it is not the province of the government to interfere in any mere matter of private controversy between individuals, or to use its great powers to enforce the rights of one against another, yet, whenever the wrongs complained of are such as affect the public at large, and are in respect of matters which by the Constitution are entrusted to the care of the nation, and concerning which the nation owes the duty to all the citizens of securing to them their common rights, then the mere fact that the government has no pecuniary interest in the controversy is not sufficient to exclude it from the courts, or prevent it from taking measures therein to fully discharge those constitutional duties.”

Note—Governor John Altgeld of Illinois strongly protested the introduction of troops to break up the strike, as did, years later, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas when President Dwight Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to control violence and assist in school integration—see Cooper v. Aaron (1958). When President John Kennedy dispatched federal troops to Mississippi to force the state university to admit James Meredith, a black student, Governor Ross Barnett protested vehemently.

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