The Oral Argument


Over three years went by before the case actually was heard before the Supreme Court. In January 1896, Tourgee received a telegram from Louis Martinet which stated, Think best let Plessy case go next session will write…

“It appears as if there were some doubts arising as to the general national feeling in opposing the separate car laws. In 1895, two significant events took place that seemed to impact the direction of civil rights activism. Frederick Douglass died that February, at the age of 77 and shortly thereafter, Booker T. Washington gave his famous “Atlanta Compromise Speech” at the Cotton States and International Exposition, advocating a policy of what would be called “accommodation” Both of these events no doubt impacted national sentiment in terms of race relations; the fiery oratorical leadership of Douglass was gone and in his place, a new kind of leadership voice represented by Washington’s approach to change.

Tourgee’s oral argument was prepared to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in April 1896. His typed argument is a lengthy and complex discussion of not only the issues involved in the case, but is also a narrative of comparing the “old” views of states’ rights and citizenship to the “new” views of these concepts in American society and governance. According to Tourgee, the Civil War and the ensuing enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment ended the exclusive control of personal rights that states had over its citizens. The “new” national citizenship was determined by the national government and not by individual states as before the war, when some states could determine, based on race and condition of servitude, who could and could not be a citizen. The “new” order made each person, regardless of color: FIRST a citizen of the United States and AFTER that and BY REASON OF IT, a citizen of the State in which he may reside...”

Image & Captions:
Item Image:
Item Caption:

Legal brief (typed manuscript), Plessy v. Ferguson, Argument of A.W. Tourgée, undated. Courtesy of Chautauqua County Historical Society.

View item information