A legislative act declaring that certain lands which should be
purchased for the Indians should not thereafter be subject to any
tax constituted a contract which could not be rescinded by a
subsequent legislative act. Such repealing act being void under
that clause of the Constitution of the United States which
prohibits a state from passing any law impairing the obligation of
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court as
This is a writ of error to a judgment rendered in the court of
last resort in the State of New Jersey by which the plaintiffs
allege are deprived of a right secured to them by the Constitution
of the United States.
Page 11 U. S. 165
The case appears to be this.
The remnant of the tribe of Delaware Indians, previous to 20
February, 1758, had claims to a considerable portion of lands in
New Jersey, to extinguish which became an object with the
government and proprietors under the conveyance from King Charles
II to the Duke of York. For this purpose a convention was held in
February, 1758, between the Indians and commissioners appointed by
the government of New Jersey, at which the Indians agreed to
specify particularly the lands which they claimed, release their
claim to all others, and to appoint certain chiefs to treat with
commissioners on the part of the government for the final
extinguishment of their whole claim.
On 0 August, 1758, the Indian deputies met the commissioners and
delivered to them a proposition reduced to writing, the basis of
which was that the government should purchase a tract of land on
which they might reside, in consideration of which they would
release their claim to all other lands in New Jersey south of the
This proposition appears to have been assented to by the
commissioners, and the legislature on 12 August, 1758, passed an
act to give effect to this agreement.
This act, among other provisions, authorizes the purchase of
lands for the Indians, restrains them from granting leases or
making sales, and enacts
"that the lands to be purchased for the Indians aforesaid shall
not hereafter be subject to any tax, any law usage or custom to the
contrary thereof in any wise notwithstanding."
In virtue of this act the convention with the Indians was
executed. Lands were purchased and conveyed to trustees for their
use, and the Indians released their claim to the south part of New
The Indians continued in peaceable possession of the lands thus
conveyed to them until sometime in the year 1801, when, having
become desirous of migrating from
Page 11 U. S. 166
the State of New Jersey and of joining their brethren at
Stockbridge in the State of New York, they applied for, and
obtained an act of the Legislature of New Jersey authorizing a sale
of their land in that state.
This act contains no expression in any manner respecting the
privilege of exemption from taxation which was annexed to those
lands by the act under which they were purchased and settled on the
In 1803, the commissioners under the last recited act sold and
conveyed the lands to the plaintiffs, George Painter and
In October, 1804, the legislature passed an act repealing that
section of the act of August, 1758, which exempts the lands therein
mentioned from taxes. The lands were then assessed and the taxes
demanded. The plaintiffs, thinking themselves injured by this
assessment, brought the case before the courts in the manner
prescribed by the laws of New Jersey, and in the highest court of
the state the validity of the repealing act was affirmed and the
land declared liable to taxation. The cause is brought into this
Court by writ of error, and the question here to be decided is does
the act of 1804 violate the Constitution of the United States.
The Constitution of the United States declares that no state
shall "pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto
law impairing the obligation of contracts."
In the case of Fletcher v.
Peck, 10 U. S. 87
, it was
decided in this Court on solemn argument and much deliberation that
this provision of the Constitution extends to contracts to which a
state is a party, as well as to contracts between individuals. The
question then is narrowed to the inquiry whether in the case
stated, a contract existed and whether that contract is violated by
the act of 1804.
Every requisite to the formation of a contract is found in the
proceedings between the then Colony of New Jersey and the Indians.
The subject was a purchase on the part of the government of
extensive claims of the Indians the extinguishment of which would
quiet the title to a large portion of the province. A proposition
to this effect is made, the terms stipulated, the
Page 11 U. S. 167
consideration agreed upon, which is a tract of land with the
privilege of exemption from taxation, and then in consideration of
the arrangement previously made, one of which this act of assembly
is stated to be the Indians execute their deed of cession. This is
certainly a contract clothed in forms of unusual solemnity. The
privilege, though for the benefit of the Indians, is annexed, by
the terms which create it, to the land itself, not to their
persons. It is for their advantage that it should be annexed to the
land, because, in the event of a sale, on which alone the question
could become material, the value would be enhanced by it.
It is not doubted but that the State of New Jersey might have
insisted on a surrender of this privilege as the sole condition on
which a sale of the property should be allowed. But this condition
has not been insisted on. The land has been sold, with the assent
of the state, with all its privileges and immunities. The purchaser
succeeds, with the assent of the state, to all the rights of the
Indians. He stands, with respect to this land, in their place and
claims the benefit of their contract. This contract is certainly
impaired by a law which would annul this essential part of it.
Judgment of the court.
This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record
of the writ of error of the State of New Jersey and was argued by
counsel on the part of the plaintiffs in error, on consideration
whereof it is the opinion of the Court that there is error in the
judgment of the said court of errors in this, that the judgment of
the said court is founded on an act passed by the Legislature of
the State of New Jersey in December, 1804, entitled "An act to
repeal part of an act respecting lands purchased for the Indians,"
which act, in the opinion of this Court, is repugnant to the
Constitution of the United States inasmuch as it impairs the
obligation of a contract, and is on that account void. It is
therefore considered by the Court that the said judgment be
reversed and annulled, and that the cause be remanded to the said
court of errors that judgment may be rendered therein annulling the
assessment in the proceedings mentioned so far as the same may
respect the land in the said proceedings also mentioned.