“The Constitution of the United States,” Justice John Blair wrote, “is the only fountain from which I shall draw; the only authority to which I shall appeal.” He added that the states gave up whatever sovereignty they had by adopting the Constitution.
Justice James Wilson rejected the idea of the term “sovereignty” altogether. But he began by noting that “To the Constitution of the United States,” he wrote, “the term SOVEREIGN, is totally unknown.”
Referring to the first three words of the Constitution, Justice Wilson explained that “our national scene opens with the most magnificent object which the nation could present. ‘The PEOPLE of the United states’ are the first personages introduced.
The Eleventh Amendment modified Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution. Originally, the judicial power expressly extended to controversies between a state and a citizen of another state. Now, while a state can be a plaintiff against another state or a citizen thereof, a state cannot be a defendant in a suit by a citizen “of another state.”
In 1793, the Supreme Court decided its first major constitutional controversy. Chisholm v. Georgia considered whether a state could be sued in federal court by a citizen of another state. The facts of this case arose before the Constitution was even ratified.
During the Revolutionary War, the Executive Council of Georgia authorized the purchase of clothing from Robert Farquhar, a South Carolina merchant. After receiving the supplies, Georgia did not deliver the payments as promised. Soon, Farquhar died. In 1793, the executor of his estate, Alexander Chisholm, filed suit against Georgia in the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction. At the time, the Supreme Court convened in Old City Hall in Philadelphia.
This suit raised an important question of first principles: Could an individual like Chisholm sue a state like Georgia?