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March 27: The 14th Amendment and the Railway Tax

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Section three of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution is perhaps best known for the restrictions it places on who is qualified to be President. But there are four other sections in the Amendment, and one of them directly relates to North Dakota railroads.

The 14th Amendment’s journey to ratification was an uncertain one. It began on this date in1866 when President Andrew Johnson vetoed a civil rights bill. Johnson was a former Democrat from Tennessee who served as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president and became president when Lincoln was assassinated. On this date in 1866, Johnson vetoed a bill that would guarantee full social, political, and economic equality for former slaves. Congress responded by proposing the 14th Amendment, which would guarantee equal rights for all citizens. It was ratified on July 28, 1868.

So, what about the railroads? North Dakota railroads had a history of objecting to the amount of tax they were required to pay. The state routinely enacted laws like the 1898 Anderson Tax Law, which addressed a property tax for railroads. Railroads routinely demanded hearings and brought court cases over such taxation. In 1919, they presented two arguments against the tax: that railroad property was overvalued and that it was taxed at a higher assessment than farmland. And in 1936, the Great Northern Railroad brought their fight against the North Dakota railroad tax all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court relied on the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment in deciding the case. That section says, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The six to three decision went in favor of the railroad, but not entirely. The railroad did not want to pay more than sixty percent of the tax bill. The court said the state could charge up to eighty-seven percent. Since the railroad had already paid sixty percent, the Great Northern still owed twenty-seven percent of the original tax bill from 1933.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher.


  • Bismarck Tribune. “Court Sets Aside N.D. Railway Tax.” Bismarck ND. 2/4/1936. Page 1.
  • Courier Democrat. “State Finances.” Langdon ND. 1/18/1894. Page 1.
  • Bismarck Tribune. “Railway Tax Hearings to Be Continued.” Bismarck ND. 3/15/1919. Page 1.
  • Washburn Leader. “Railway Tax Fight Opens.” Washburn ND. 3/7/1919. Page 2.
  • Jamestown Weekly Alert. “Silver Republican’s Resolutions.” Jamestown ND. 6/23/1898. Page 3.
  • Bill of Rights Institute. “Andrew Johnson’s Veto of the Civil Rights Act, 1866. Accessed 2/16/2024.
  • National Archives. 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Civil Rights (1868). Accessed 2/16/2024.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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