On February 7, 1795 the required three-fourths of the states ratified what would become the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution (although it wasn’t declared part of the Constitution until January 8, 1798). The Eleventh amendment to the Constitution is obviously the first amendment added to the Constitution after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, and began the true amending of the Constitution. From this point forward the Constitution would be amended to cure oversights and problems unanticipated by the Constitution’s drafters. The history of this amendment shows that the new nation was slowly maturing.
The Eleventh Amendment was conceived as a response to the Supreme Court decision in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia (2 U.S. 419 (1793)). After the Revolutionary War Alexander Chisholm, representing the estate of Robert Farquhar, filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia for unpaid debts incurred for supplies purchased during the recently ended war. Many other states owed money for war debts and they were nervous if Chisholm won his case in federal court. The question of whether Chisholm could sue in federal court went to the Supreme Court. Georgia was so upset at being hauled into court that they didn’t even send a lawyer to represent them. The court held for Chisholm, allowing him to sue, and a landslide of lawsuits were filed against a variety of states.
Congress realized this result could potentially bankrupt the states and took action. The Chisholm case was decided on February 18, 1793; on March 4, 1794 Congress sent an amendment to the states for ratification. The final state voted for ratification on February 7, 1795.
Although the Eleventh Amendment’s immediate purpose was overturning Chisholm, it also acted to clarify federal court jurisdiction as laid out in Article III of the Constitution and in a way ratified the sovereign immunity of the States. Citizens of one state can’t use the federal court system to sue the government of another state. Foreign citizen can’t use federal courts to sue a state government. A state government can’t be forced into federal court against its will; being a sovereign it can only be sued if it consents to the lawsuit.
While the Eleventh Amendment may seem obscure, and not as sexy as those that make up the Bill of Rights of the Civil War amendments, its implications are far reaching in the areas of federalism and federal jurisdiction. Take some time today to celebrate the Eleventh Amendment, because after all, it’s bigger than ten.