Virginia v. Tennessee (1893)

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Virginia v. Tennessee
Seal of the Supreme Court of the United States.png
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued April 3, 1893
Commonwealth of Virginia v. State of Tennessee
The border as set forth in the survey of 1803 is the border between the two states.
The Commonwealth of Virginia v. Tennessee, 148 U.S. 503 (1893), was a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States, which had been requested to settle a boundary dispute between Virginia and Tennessee based on an agreement ratified by the two states 90 years earlier. The Court relied heavily on the Instate Compact Clause (Article I, § 10, Clause 3) of the United States Constitution in reaching its verdict. The long term repercussions of the decision would not be apparent until the second half of the twentieth century when the Court used the case as a basis for establishing a guideline on determining the constitutionality of interstate compacts.


The Royal Colonial Boundary of 1665 was a civil engineering landmark launched by King Charles II of England to designate the boundaries of the various English colonies in North America. Specifically, however, the 36°30′ north latitude, where the survey was conducted, was to serve as the boundary line for Virginia and North Carolina. Though it had originally been intended for the survey to cover all areas between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it ultimately only stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. A deviation from the line occurred along the Virginia-Tennessee border as a result of surveying errors from Peter Jefferson, the father of Thomas Jefferson, and Joshua Fry, who were commissioned in 1749 to survey a new line. For unknown reasons, the surveyors continually drifted north away from the assigned latitude until reaching Steep Rock Creek. The aberration in the line was not made a matter of dispute until years later because Tennessee did not officially become a state until 1796, long after these surveys were conducted.

An effort to designate a new joint boundary between Virginia and North Carolina was commissioned in 1779. Dr. Thomas Walker and General Daniel Smith were appointed to represent Virginia, while Colonel Richard Henderson, William Bailey Smith and John Williams were assigned as dignitaries for North Carolina. In the beginning, all four of the surveyors reached an agreement that placed the 36°30′ parallel latitude a little over one mile south of where Fry and Jefferson had stopped their survey at Steep Rock Creek. It soon became apparent, however, this was an error. While the North Carolina surveyors marked the border, what would later become known as the "Henderson Line," as stretching from Steep Rock Creek to the Cumberland Mountain, it differed so greatly from the line set by Walker and Smith that it left a significant patch of land between Steep Rock Creek and the Cumberland Gap which belonged to neither state. In order to alleviate this issue, the Compromise Line of 1802 was agreed upon in which the border between the two states was placed halfway between the Henderson and Walker survey lines.

In spite of this compromise, the dispute over the survey line continued after both Kentucky and Tennessee entered into the Union. Even though Kentucky had lost some territory as a result of errors in the Walker line, it accepted it as its boundary in 1820. In return, Tennessee gave Kentucky title to all the vacant land between 36°30′ and the Walker Line. Additionally, an agreement was reached in which the boundary was relocated south to the 36°30′ between the Tennessee-Mississippi rivers.

The Virginia-Tennessee border was intended to match the 36°30' parallel, but curves and notches in the line created issues. Public officials from both states agreed to survey a compromise line in 1802 and commissioners were appointed to represent both parties - Joseph Martin, Creed Taylor and Peter Johnson for Virginia and General John Sevier, Moses Fisk and General Joseph Rutledge for Tennessee. Brice Martin and Nathan Markland were hired as the surveyors. An agreement was reached in which the compromise line ran from the Whitetop Mountain to the Cumberland Gap. However, since Virginia's border with Kentucky was based solely on the Walker line, it lost land as a result of the boundary with Tennessee being placed further south. While Virginia would challenge the boundary line in 1858, 1870 and 1887, Tennessee chose to remain with the 1802 compromise. Virginia ultimately invoked the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, asking it to set aside the 1802 compromise survey.

The decision

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both parties between March 8 and 9, 1893. After nearly a month's deliberation, the Court reached a unanimous 8-0 verdict on April 3, 1893, in favor of Tennessee; Justice John M. Harlan did not participate in the case. The opinion of the Court, delivered by Associate Justice Stephen J. Field, reached the following conclusion:

"The boundary line established by the States of Virginia and Tennessee by the compact of 1803 is the true boundary between them, and that, on a proper application, based upon a showing that any marks for the identification of that line have been obliterated or have become indistinct, an order may be made at any time during the present term for the restoration of such marks without any change of the line."[1]

This decision was a blatant rejection of Virginia's claim that "charters of the English sovereigns" took precedent over the 1803 compromise in settling a dispute over a strip of land that the Commonwealth contended Tennessee had asserted and unlawfully exercised sovereign jurisdiction over. Justices of the Supreme Court concurred with Tennessee's counter argument in which they stated that "the line they established was subsequently approved in 1803 by the legislative action of both states, and has been recognized and acted upon as the true and real boundary between them ever since, until the commencement of this suit."[2] In the absence of both states, who entered into the arrangement together agreeing to change the boundary, the original compact stands regardless of whether or not the placement of the border was based on the "misapprehension of facts by either or both of the parties."[3]

Though never argued by either state, the Court felt it necessary to address the issue of interstate compacts and whether, in not receiving the direct approval of the United States Congress, the compromise was invalid. In this respect, the Court based their decision heavily on the works of the Honorable Joseph Story, a former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and arguably one of the first legal authorities in the nation to theorize on the legal considerations of interstate compacts. Story asserted the Interstate Compact Clause served as a means for the federal government to protect its supremacy over the states.[4] The Court concurred with Story's analysis, insisting that the "prohibition is directed to the formation of any combination tending to the increase of political power in the states, which may encroach upon or interfere with the just supremacy of the United States."[2] Since the boundary compromise between the two states does neither, it does not need the direct approval of the United States Congress. It was noted in the opinion that the states had informed Congress of the original survey, so in actuality the compact had implicitly been approved by the federal government, if not directly.

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