Hepburn v. Griswold
75 U.S. 603 (1869)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Hepburn v. Griswold, 75 U.S. 8 Wall. 603 603 (1869)

Hepburn v. Griswold

75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 603

Syllabus

1. Construed by the plain import of their terms and the manifest intent of the legislature, the statutes of 1862 and 1863 which make United States notes a legal tender in payment of debts, public and private, apply to debts contracted before as well as to debts contracted after enactment.

2. The cases of Lane County v. Oregon, Bronson v. Rodes, and Butler v. Horuitz, 7 Wall. 74 U. S. 71, 74 U. S. 229, and 74 U. S. 258, in which it was held that, upon a sound construction of those statutes, neither taxes imposed by state legislation nor dues upon contracts for the payment or delivery of coin or bullion are included, by legislative intent, under the description of "debts, public and private," are approved and reaffirmed.

3. When a case arises for judicial determination and the decision depends on the alleged inconsistency of a legislative provision with the Constitution, it is the plain duty of the Supreme Court to compare the act with the fundamental law, and if the former cannot, upon a fair construction, be reconciled with the latter, to give effect to the Constitution, rather than the statute.

4. There is in the Constitution no express grant of legislative power to make any description of credit currency a legal tender in payment of debts.

5. The words "all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution" powers expressly granted of vested have, in the Constitution, a sense

Page 75 U. S. 604

equivalent to that of the words laws, not absolutely necessary, indeed, but appropriate, plainly adapted to constitutional and legitimate ends, which are not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution; laws really calculated to effect objects entrusted to the government.

6. Among means appropriate, plainly adapted, not inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution, nor prohibited by its terms, the legislature has unrestricted choice; but no power can be derived by implication from any express power to enact laws as means for carrying it into execution unless such laws come within this description.

7. The making of notes or bills of credit a legal tender in payment of preexisting debts is not a means appropriate, plainly adapted, or really calculated to carry into effect any express power vested in Congress, is inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution, and is prohibited by the Constitution.

8. The clause in the acts of 1862 and 1863 which makes United States notes a legal tender in payment of all debts, public and private, is, so far as it applies to debts contracted before the passage of those acts, unwarranted by the Constitution.

9. Prior to the 25th of February, 1862, all contracts for the payment of money, not expressly stipulating otherwise were, in legal effect and universal understanding, contracts for the payment of coin, and under the Constitution, the parties to such contracts are respectively entitled to demand and bound to pay the sums due, according to their terms, in coin, notwithstanding the clause in that act and the subsequent acts of like tenor, which make United States notes a legal tender in, payment of such debts.

On the 20th of June, 1860, a certain Mrs. Hepburn made a promissory note, by which she promised to pay to Henry Griswold on the 20th of February, 1862, eleven thousand two hundred and fifty "dollars."

At the time when the note was made, as also at the time when it fell due, there was confessedly no lawful money of the United States, or money which could lawfully be tendered in payment of private debts, but gold and silver coin.

Five days after the day when the note by its terms fell due -- that is to say on the 25th of February, 1862 -- in an exigent crisis of the nation in which the government was engaged in putting down an armed rebellion of vast magnitude, Congress passed an act authorizing the issue of $150,000,000

Page 75 U. S. 605

of its own notes, [Footnote 1] and enacted in regard to them, by one clause in the first section of the act, as follows:

"And such notes, herein authorized, shall be receivable in payment of all taxes, internal duties, excises, debts, and demands of every kind due to the United States except duties on imports, and of all claims and demands against the United States of every kind whatsoever, except for interest upon bonds and notes, which shall be paid in coin, and shall also be lawful money and a legal tender in payment of all debts, public and private, within the United States except duties on imports and interest as aforesaid."

The note given by Mrs. Hepburn not being paid at maturity, interest accrued on it. And in March, 1864, suit having been brought on the note in the Louisville Chancery Court, she tendered in United States notes issued under the act mentioned, $12,720, the amount of principal of the note with the interest accrued to the date of tender, and some costs, in satisfaction of the plaintiff's claim. The tender was refused. The notes were then tendered and paid into court, and the chancellor, "resolving all doubts in favor of the Congress," declared the tender good and adjudged the debt, interest and costs to be satisfied accordingly.

The case was then taken by Griswold to the Court of Errors of Kentucky, which reversed the chancellor's judgment, and remanded the case with instructions to enter a contrary judgment.

From the judgment of the Court of Errors of Kentucky, the case was brought by Mrs. Hepburn here.

Page 75 U. S. 606

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