United States v. Keehler
76 U.S. 83

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Keehler, 76 U.S. 9 Wall. 83 83 (1869)

United States v. Keehler

76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 83

Syllabus

1. The voluntary payment by an officer of the federal government of money held by hum for the government to a creditor of the United States cannot be set up by him or his sureties as a defense in a suit on his official bond.

2. The whole Confederate power must be regarded by this Court as a usurpation of unlawful authority, and its Congress as incapable of passing any valid laws, whatever weight may be given under some circumstances to its acts of force on the ground of irresistible power or to the legislation of the states in domestic matters, as to which the Court decides nothing now.

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3. A depositary of the money of the United States or a public debtor cannot defend against a suit on his official bond by proving that he paid the money due the United States to one of its creditors under an order of the Confederate authorities where he shows no force or physical coercion which compelled obedience to such order.

4. In a suit on an official bond, the obligation is not that of a mere depositary, but of a person who has made a contract which he must at his own peril perform.

5. The Acts of Congress of April 29, 1864, and March 3, 1865, furnish the only exceptions to this rule which this Court can act upon.

The case was this:

Keehler, the defendant, had been appointed postmaster at Salem, in the state just named, some years before the rebellion broke out. His official bond, with sureties, was in the ordinary form, and was conditioned well and truly to execute the office of postmaster, and among other things, to render accounts once in three months, and to pay all balances, and to keep safely, without lending, using, depositing in banks, or exchanging for other funds, than as allowed by law, all the public money at any time in his custody, till the same was ordered by the Postmaster General to be transferred or paid out, and that when such orders for transfer or payment were received, that he should faithfully and promptly make the transfer or payment as directed.

Keehler was still postmaster when the rebellion broke out in the spring of 1861, and had in his hands $330 of post office money belonging to the United States. On the other hand, the United States were indebted to one Clemmens, a mail contractor in that region, for postal service in a sum exceeding $300, and the sum due to Clemmens by the United States had never been paid.

In August, 1861, the Congress of the so-called Confederate States passed an act appropriating the balances which were at the date of the breaking out of the rebellion in the hands of the several postmasters of the United States who resided

Page 76 U. S. 85

within the limits of the states then in rebellion, to the pro rata payment of claims against the United States for postal service; and in pursuance of the said act and in obedience to a regular official order from the Post Office Department of the so-called Confederate States directing him to pay to Clemmens the whole sum of money in his, the said Keehler's, hands, received for the United States previous to the 1st of June, 1861, the said Keehler, on the 10th of April, 1862, paid to Clemmens the $330, and Clemmens gave him a receipt for it in form.

It was an admitted part of the case that the post office at Salem was, in 1861, a collection office, and that Clemmens was the mail contractor, named in his special instructions, to whom the postmaster at Salem was required to pay over the net proceeds of his office quarterly, upon the production, by Clemmens, from time to time, of the proper orders and receipts from the Post Office Department of the United States, and an admitted fact, moreover, that throughout the year 1862, the so-called Confederate government had force sufficient at its command to enforce its orders, and did enforce the orders of said government, in that part of North Carolina in which Salem is situated, and that no protection was afforded to the citizens of that part of the state by the government of the United States during that term.

The rebellion being suppressed, the United States brought suit against Keehler and his sureties on their official bond, already mentioned. The pleas were conditions performed, conditions not broken, and especially that the balance claimed by the United States, to-wit, the $330, had been paid over and delivered by Keehler to the said Clemmens on the 10th day of April, 1862, under the circumstances above stated. Upon this case, so agreed on, the judges of the circuit court were divided in opinion on the question whether the law was for the plaintiff or for the defendant.

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