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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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GELPCKE v. DUBUQUE. The case was argued before the United States Supreme Court on December 15, 1863 and was decided on January 11, 1864 by a vote of 8 to 1. Justice Swayne wrote the decision for the Court; Miller wrote the dissent; and Taney did not participate. (1)

The history of the case involved the competition of northern cities before the CIVIL WAR for rail traffic. Poorly backed bond issues led to defaults. Promoters in Dubuque, Iowa, issued bonds for the Sioux City and Marion and Western railroads. (2) The amounts exceeded the debt limit specified in the Iowa constitution. A reform‐minded Iowa Supreme Court reversed earlier rulings upholding the validity of the bonds. (3)

Dennis MAHONY, editor of the Dubuque Democratic Herald, and others suggested a compromise agreement with the bondholders. According to an editorial in the paper, Mahony's suggestion was met with several patrons threatening to withdraw their business if he persisted in his idea (4)

The bondholders appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that federal courts, under Swift v. Tyson (1842), could construe state constitutions when state supreme court precedent was inconsistent. In Leffingwell v. Warren (1862), the Supreme Court had stated that it was obliged to follow the most recent state supreme court holdings construing state constitutions. (5)

In Gelpcke v. Dubuque, Justice Noah Swayne rejected the Iowa Supreme Court ruling. (6) Federal judges were not bound by state courts, Swayne wrote. “We shall never immolate truth, justice, and the law, because a State tribunal has erected the altar and decreed the sacrifice." Justice Samuel Freeman Miller (an Iowan) dissented, arguing that only state judges should have final authority to construe the state's constitution and laws.

Investors, law writers, and legal academics praised the decision. Critics charged that it deepened harsh feelings between federal judges and the elected state courts and that it blocked urban development. (7)

The resulting cost of the city was $450,000 and several years interest. (8) This was still part of its debt in 1923. (9) Dubuque County was subject to $200,000 and $70,000 in interest. (10)



1. "Dubuque Helped Build Road That Takes Trade," Telegraph Herald, Apr. 22, 1923

2. "The Gelpcke Case Gone Against the City," Dubuque Democratic Herald, January 13, 1864, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=A36e8EsbUSoC&dat=18640113&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

3. "Dubuque Helped Building..."

4. "Gelpcke Case," Dubuque Democratic Herald, January 13, 1864, p 1. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=A36e8EsbUSoC&dat=18640113&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. "Dubuque Helped Build..."

6. "Decision in the United States Supreme Court Against City," Dubuque Democratic Herald, January 13, 1864, p. 1. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=A36e8EsbUSoC&dat=18640113&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

7. "Dubuque Helped Build..."

8. "Gelpcke Case,"

9. "John H. Thedinga," Linwood Legacies. Online: http://www.linwoodlegacies.org/john-h-thedinga.html

10. "Gelpcke Case,"