Rhode Island v. Massachusetts
40 U.S. 233

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 40 U.S. 15 Pet. 233 233 (1841)

Rhode Island v. Massachusetts

40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 233

ORIGINAL

Page 40 U. S. 234

THIS case was before the court, at January term, 1838, 37 U. S. 12 Pet. 657, and again at January term, 1840, 39 U. S. 14 Pet. 210.

A bill was filed in the Supreme Court on 16 March, 1832, by the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations asking the Court to settle the boundary between that state and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Mr. Webster appeared for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

After various proceedings in the case, a plea and answer to the bill of the State of Rhode Island were filed by Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and at January term, 1838, Webster, counsel for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, "moved to dismiss the bill on the ground that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction in the cause." A full report of the matters contained in the bill, and in the plea and answer, will be found in 37 U. S. 12 Pet. 659-669. The question of jurisdiction was argued by Austin, Attorney-General of Massachusetts, and Webster, on the part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and by Hazard and Southard, for the State of Rhode Island. The Court ordered that the motion to dismiss the bill of the complainants should be overruled.

Afterwards, at the same term, 37 U. S. 12 Pet. 755, Webster, in behalf of the State of Massachusetts as her counsel and attorney in court, moved for leave to withdraw the plea filed in the case

Page 40 U. S. 235

on the part of the State of Massachusetts, and also the appearance which had been entered for the state. The Court, after argument, on 24 February, 1838, 37 U. S. 12 Pet. 761, ordered

"That if the counsel for the State of Massachusetts shall elect to withdraw the appearance heretofore entered, that leave for the same be and was given, and the State of Rhode Island may proceed ex parte. But that if the appearance be not withdrawn, that then, as no testimony had been taken, the parties be allowed to withdraw or amend the pleadings under such order as the Court should thereafter make in the premises. The appearance of the State of Massachusetts was not withdrawn, and the case was argued, on the sufficiency of the plea, at January term 1840, the bill of the complainants having been amended. 39 U. S. 14 Pet. 210."

On 8 January, 1841, the State of Massachusetts, by Austin, Attorney-General of the commonwealth, and Webster, "for himself," filed the following demurrer to the complainant's bill:

"The defendant, by protestation, not confessing all or any of the matters and things in the complainant's bill of complaint contained to be true, doth demur to the said bill, and for cause of demurrer, showeth that no case is stated by the bill authorizing this Court to grant the relief sought, or any other relief; that no such mistake or fraud is averred in the bill as is sufficient to set aside the awards and agreements between the parties therein stated, nor any other cause or reason sufficient for that purpose; and that these awards and agreements conclude the question; that the bill states nothing which can do away the effect of the possession by Massachusetts up to the line asserted by her to be the true line, which possession the bill itself admits to have been continued for more than a century, and which possession is itself conclusive on the title; that the bill states no case for the interference of this Court with the line of division actually existing between two independent states, fixed by treaty, compact, or agreement between them and acquiesced in for a century, as is true of this case, according to the bill itself;

Page 40 U. S. 236

that this Court has no power or jurisdiction to disturb or interfere with a boundary line actually existing between two states, well known and defined and resting on early compact and long continued acquiescence and possession, upon any allegation of fraud or mistake in the original transaction. Wherefore and for divers other good causes of demurrer appearing in the said bill, the defendant doth demur thereto, and asks the judgment of the Court whether said defendant ought to be ordered to make any further or other answer to said bill, and prays to be hence dismissed with costs. "

Page 40 U. S. 269

TANEY, CH.J., delivered the opinion of the Court.

The attention of the Court has on several occasions been drawn to this case by the important questions which have arisen in different stages of the proceedings. At the last term, it came before us upon a plea in bar to the complainant's bill, which, upon the motion of the complainant, had been set down for argument. This part of the case is reported in 39 U. S. 14 Pet. 210, where the allegations contained in the bill are so fully set out, that it is unnecessary to repeat them here. The Court having overruled the plea for the reasons stated in the report of the case, the defendant has since demurred, and in this state of the pleadings the question is directly presented whether the case stated by Rhode Island in her bill, admitting it to be true as there stated, entitles her to relief.

The character of the case and of the parties has made it the duty of the Court to examine very carefully the different questions which from time to time have arisen in these proceedings. And if those which are brought up by the demurrer were new to the Court, or if the judgment now to be pronounced would seriously influence the ultimate decision, we should deem it proper to hold the subject under advisement until the next term for the purpose of giving to it a more deliberate examination. But although the questions now before the Court did not arise upon the plea and of course were not then decided, yet much of the argument on that occasion turned upon principles which are involved in the case as it now stands. The facts stated in the bill were brought before us, and the grounds upon which the complainant claimed relief were necessarily discussed in the argument at the bar, and the attention of the Court strongly drawn to the subject. The whole case, as presented by the bill and demurrer, has been again fully and ably argued at the present term, and as the Court has made up its opinion and is satisfied that the delay of its judgment to the next term would not enable it to obtain more or better light upon the subject, it would be useless to postpone the decision.

Page 40 U. S. 270

The demurrer admits the truth of the facts alleged in the bill, and it is sufficient for the purposes of this opinion to state in a few words the material allegations contained in it.

1. It alleges that the true boundary line between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, by virtue of their charters from the English Crown, is a line run east and west three miles south of Charles River or any or every part thereof, and sets out the charters which support in this respect the averments in the bill.

2. That Massachusetts holds possession to a line seven miles south of Charles River, which does not run east and west, but runs south of a west course, and that the territory between this line and the true one above mentioned belongs to Rhode Island, and that the defendant unjustly withholds it from her.

3. That Massachusetts obtained possession of this territory under certain agreements and proceedings of commissioners appointed by the two colonies which are set out at large in the bill, and the complainant avers that the commissioners on the part of Rhode Island agreed to this line, under the mistaken belief that it was only three miles south of Charles River, and that they were led into this mistake by the representations made to them by the commissioners on the part of Massachusetts, upon whose statement they relied.

4. That this agreement of the commissioners was never ratified by either of the colonies, and the bill sets out the various proceedings of the commissioners and legislatures of the two colonies which, if not sufficient to establish the correctness of the averment, are yet not incompatible with it.

5. The bill further states that the mistake was not discovered by Rhode Island until 1740, when she soon afterwards took measures to correct it; that she never acquiesced in the possession of Massachusetts after the mistake was discovered, but has ever since continually resisted it, and never admitted any line as the true boundary between them but the one called for by the charters. Various proceedings are set out and facts stated in the bill to show that the complainant never acquiesced and to account for the delay in prosecuting her claim. Whether they are sufficient or not for that purpose is not now in question. They are certainly consistent with the averment, and tend to support it.

Page 40 U. S. 271

The case, then, as made by the bill, and to be now taken as true, is substantially this:

The charter boundary between these colonies was three miles south of Charles River, and the parties, intending to mark a line in that place, marked it by mistake four miles further south, encroaching so much on the territory of Rhode Island, and the complainant was led into this mistake by confiding in the representations of the commissioners of the defendant. And as soon as the error was discovered, she made claim to the true line, and has ever since contended for it. We speak of the case as it appears upon the pleadings. It may prove to be a very different one hereafter, when the evidence on both sides is produced. But taking it as it now stands, if it were a dispute between two individuals in relation to one of the ordinary subjects of private contract and there had been no laches to deprive the party of his title to relief, would a court of equity compel him to abide by a contract entered into under such circumstances?

It is one of the most familiar duties of the chancery court to relieve against mistake, especially when it has been produced by the representations of the adverse party. In this case, the fact mistaken was the very foundation of the agreement. There was no intention on either side to transfer territory nor any consideration given by the one to the other to obtain it. Nor was there any dispute arising out of conflicting grants of the Crown or upon the construction of their charters which they proposed to settle by compromise. Each party agreed that the boundary was three miles south of Charles River, and the only object was to ascertain and mark that point, and upon the case as it comes before us, the complainant avers and the defendant admits that the place marked, was seven miles south of the river, instead of three, and was fixed on by mistake, and that the commissioners of Rhode Island were led into the error by confiding in the representations of the Massachusetts commissioners. Now if this mistake had been discovered a few days after the agreements were made, and Rhode Island had immediately gone before a tribunal having competent jurisdiction, upon principles of equity, to relieve against a mistake committed by such parties, can there be any doubt that the agreement would have been set aside and Rhode Island restored to the true charter line? We think not. Agreements thus obtained

Page 40 U. S. 272

cannot deprive the complainant of territory which belonged to her before unless she has forfeited her title to relief by acquiescence or unreasonable delay.

But it has been argued on the part of the defendant that assuming the agreement to have been made by mistake, and that the complainant would have been entitled to set it aside if she had prosecuted her claim within a reasonable time, yet as Massachusetts entered into the disputed territory immediately after the agreement and has held it ever since, the complainant is too late in seeking relief; that after such a lapse of time, she is barred by prescription, or must be presumed to have acquiesced in the boundary agreed upon; and that if she did not acquiesce, she has been guilty of such laches and negligence in prosecuting her claim that she is no longer entitled to the countenance of a court of chancery. The answer to this argument is a very plain one. The complaint avers that she never acquiesced in the boundary claimed by the defendant, but has continually resisted it since she discovered the mistake, and that she has been prevented from prosecuting her claim at an earlier day by the circumstance mentioned in her bill. These averments and allegations, in the present state of the pleadings, must be taken as true, and it is not necessary to decide now whether they are sufficient to excuse the delay. But when it is admitted by the demurrer that she never acquiesced, and has from time to time made efforts to regain the territory by negotiations with Massachusetts, and was prevented by the circumstances she mentions from appealing to the proper tribunal to grant her redress, we cannot undertake to say that the possession of Massachusetts has been such as to give her a title by prescription or that the laches and negligence of Rhode Island have been such as to forfeit her right to the interposition of a court of equity.

In cases between individuals, where the statute of limitations would be a bar at law, the same rule is undoubtedly applied in a court of equity. And when the fact appears on the face of the bill and no circumstances are stated which take the case out of the operation of the act, the defendant may undoubtedly take advantage of it by demurrer, and is not bound to plead or answer. The time necessary to operate as a bar in equity is

Page 40 U. S. 273

fixed at twenty years by analogy to the statute of limitations, and the rule is stated in Story, Equity Plead. 389, and is supported and illustrated by many authorities cited in the notes. It was recognized in this Court in the case of Elmendorf v. Taylor, 10 Wheat. 168-175. But it would be impossible, with any semblance of justice, to adopt such a rule of limitation in the case before us. For here, two political communities are concerned, who cannot act with the same promptness as individuals; the boundary in question was in a wild unsettled country, and the error not likely to be discovered until the lands were granted by the respective colonies and the settlements approached the disputed line, and the only tribunal that could relieve after the mistake was discovered was on the other side of the Atlantic, and not bound to hear the case and proceed to judgment except when it suited its own convenience. The same reasons that prevent the bar of limitations make it equally evident that a possession so obtained and held by Massachusetts under such circumstances cannot give a title by prescription. The demurrer, therefore, must be overruled.

But the question upon the agreements, as well as that upon the lapse of time, may assume a very different aspect if the defendant answers and denies the mistake and relies upon the lapse of time as evidence of acquiescence, or of such negligence and laches as will deprive the party of his right to the aid of a court of equity. It will then be open to him to show that there was no mistake, that the line agreed on is the true charter line, or that such must be presumed to have been the construction given to the charters by the commissioners of both colonies, or that the agreement was the compromise of a disputed boundary, upon which each party must be supposed to have had equal means of knowledge. So too in relation to the facts stated in the bill to account for the delay. It will be in the power of the complainant to show, if she can, that her long continued ignorance of an error (which, if it be one, was palpable and open) was occasioned by the wild and unsettled state of the country, and that the subsequent delay was produced by circumstances sufficiently cogent to justify it upon principles of justice and equity, or was assented to by

Page 40 U. S. 274

Massachusetts or occasioned by her conduct. And on the other hand it will be the right of the defendant to show, if she can, that Rhode Island could not have been ignorant of the true position of this line until 1740, or, if she remained in ignorance until that time, that it must have arisen from such negligence and inattention to her rights as would render it inexcusable, and should be treated therefore as if it had been acquiescence with knowledge, or she may show that after the mistake is admitted to have been discovered, Rhode Island was guilty of laches in not prosecuting her rights in the proper forum, and that the excuses offered for the delay are altogether unfounded or insufficient, and that Massachusetts never assented to it nor occasioned it.

We state these questions as points that will remain open upon the final hearing for the purpose of showing that the real merits of the controversy could not have been finally disposed of upon the present pleadings, but without meaning to say that other questions may not be made by the parties if they shall suppose them to arise upon the proceeding hereafter to be had. The points above suggested, which are excluded by the case as it now stands, make it evident that this controversy ought to be more fully before the Court upon the answer and the proofs to be offered on both sides before it is finally disposed of.

The Court will therefore order and decree that the demurrer be overruled and that the defendant answer the complainant's bill on or before the first day of August next.

This cause came on to be heard, on the amended bill and demurrer, and was argued by counsel, on consideration whereof it is now here ordered by this Court that the said demurrer be and the same is hereby overruled, and it is also now further here ordered by this Court that the defendant answer the bill of complaint as amended on or before the first day of August next.

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