Fitzsimmons v. Newport Insurance Company
8 U.S. 185 (1808)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Fitzsimmons v. Newport Insurance Company, 8 U.S. 4 Cranch 185 185 (1808)

Fitzsimmons v. Newport Insurance Company

8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 185

ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF

THE DISTRICT OF RHODE ISLAND

Syllabus

An American ship, warranted to be American property, is impliedly warranted to conduct herself during the voyage as an American, and an attempt to enter a blockaded port knowing it to be blockaded forfeits that character.

The fact of clearing out for a blockaded port is itself innocent unless it is accompanied with a knowledge of the blockade.

By the treaty with Great Britain it is agreed that every vessel may be turned away from any blockaded or besieged port or place which shall have sailed for the same without knowing of the blockade or siege, but she shall not be detained, nor her cargo, if not contraband, be confiscated unless after notice she shall again attempt to enter; but she shall be permitted to go to any other port or place she may think proper. The treaty is conceived to be a correct exposition of the law of nations.

Neither the law of nations nor the treaty admits of the condemnation of the neutral vessel for the intention to enter a blockaded port unconnected with any fact. Under the treaty, a second attempt to enter the invested place must be made after notification of the blockade, and inquiring about the place, as if watching for an opportunity to sail into it, or the single circumstance of not asking immediately for some other port, or possibly obstinate and determined declarations of a resolution to break the blockade might be evidence of an attempt, after warning, to enter the blockaded port. But whether these circumstances or others may or may not amount to evidence of the offense, the offense itself is attempting again to enter, and unless "after notice she shall again attempt to enter," the two nations expressly stipulate she shall not be detained, nor her cargo, if not contraband, confiscated.

However conclusive the sentence of a foreign court of admiralty may be of the facts which it alleges, those facts not amounting to a justifiable cause of condemnation, the Court will look into the facts of a case and draw from them such conclusions as they will authorize.

Error to the Circuit Court of the district of Rhode Island in an action upon a policy of insurance on the brig John, warranted American property, from Charleston, South Carolina, to Cadiz, captured by a British ship of war on 16 July, 1800, carried into Gibraltar, and there condemned on 26 August following. The cause of condemnation set forth in the sentence was that the brig was "cleared out for Cadiz, a port actually blockaded," and that the master "persisted in his intention of entering that port after warning from the blockading force not to do so, in direct breach and violation of the blockade thereby notified." On the trial in the court below, the jury found a special verdict stating, among other things, that the blockade of Cadiz was not known at Charleston when the John sailed from thence, and that the first notice the master had was from the blockading squadron, who brought to the brig, and warned the master not to proceed to, nor attempt to enter the port of Cadiz, and endorsed his register; but the master had no notice of such endorsement upon his register until after the condemnation. The mate and some of the seamen were taken out and a prize master and British seamen put on board. She was detained by the

Page 8 U. S. 186

blockading squadron from the 16th to the 27th of July, when the master was ordered on board the admiral's ship, and told,

"we have thoughts of setting you at liberty, and in case we do, and deliver you your vessel and papers, what course will you steer, or what port will you proceed for?"

To which the master answered that in case he got no new orders, he should continue to steer by his old ones. The admiral then said, "that will be, I suppose, for Cadiz." To which the master replied, "certainly, unless I have new orders." Upon which the admiral said, "that is sufficient; I shall send you to Gibraltar for adjudication." Whereupon the brig, without being liberated, was sent into Gibraltar and condemned on the grounds stated in the sentence. The libel and proceedings in the vice admiralty are found by the special verdict. An appeal was prayed and granted from the vice-admiralty court, but it does not appear to have been prosecuted. The judgment in the court below was for the original defendants.

This cause was several times argued, having been pending in this Court ever since the year 1803.

Page 8 U. S. 197

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE MARSHALL (all the seven judges being present) delivered the opinion of the Court as follows:

This suit is instituted to recover from the underwriters the amount of a policy insuring the brig John on a voyage from Charleston to Cadiz. The vessel was captured on her passage by a British squadron then blockading that port, was sent into Gibraltar for adjudication, and was there condemned by the court of vice-admiralty as lawful prize. The assured warrants the ship to be American property, and the defense is that this warranty is conclusively falsified by the sentence of condemnation.

The points made for the consideration of the court are,

1st. Is the sentence of a foreign court of admiralty conclusive evidence, in an action against the underwriters, of the facts it professes to decide? If so,

2d. Does this sentence, upon its face, falsify the warranty contained in the policy? If not,

3d. Does the special verdict exhibit facts which falsify the warranty?

The question on the conclusiveness of a sentence of a foreign court of admiralty having been more than once elaborately argued, the Court reluctantly avoids a decision of it at present. But there are particular reasons which restrain one of the judges from giving an opinion on that point, and another case has been mentioned in which it is said to constitute the sole question. In that case it will of course be determined.

Page 8 U. S. 198

Passing over the consideration of the first point, therefore, the court proceeded to inquire whether this cause could be decided on the second and third points.

Admitting for the present that the sentence of a foreign court of admiralty is conclusive with respect to what it professes to decide, does this sentence falsify the warranty contained in this policy that the brig John is American property?

The sentence declares

"The said brig to have been cleared out for Cadiz, a port actually blockaded by the arms of our sovereign Lord the King, and that the master of said brig persisted in his intention of entering that port, after warning from the blockading force not to do so, in a direct breach and violation of the blockade thereby notified."

The sentence, then, does not deny the brig to have been American property. But it is contended by the counsel for the underwriters that a ship warranted to be American is impliedly warranted to conduct herself during the voyage as an American, and that an attempt to enter a blockaded port, knowing it to be blockaded, forfeits that character.

This position cannot be controverted.

It remains, then, to inquire whether the sentence proves the brig John to have violated the laws of blockade -- that is, whether the cause of condemnation is alleged in such terms as to show that the vessel had forfeited her neutral character or in such terms as to show its insufficiency to support the sentence.

The fact of clearing out for a blockaded port is in itself innocent unless it be accompanied with knowledge of the blockade. The clearance, therefore, is not considered as the offense; the persisting in the intention to enter that port, after warning by the blockading force, is the ground of the sentence.

Is this intention (evidenced by no fact whatever) a breach of blockade? This question is to be decided by

Page 8 U. S. 199

a reference to the law of nations and to the treaty between the United States and Great Britain.

Vattel, b. 3, s. 177, says

"All commerce is entirely prohibited with a besieged town. If I lay siege to a place, or only form the blockade, I have a right to hinder anyone from entering and to treat as an enemy whoever attempts to enter the place or carry anything to the besieged without my leave."

The right to treat the vessel as an enemy is declared by Vattel to be founded on the attempt to enter, and certainly this attempt must be made by a person knowing the fact.

But this subject has been precisely regulated by the treaty between the United States and Great Britain which was in force when this condemnation took place. That treaty contains the following clause:

"And whereas it frequently happens that vessels sail for a port or place belonging to an enemy without knowing that the same is either besieged, blockaded or invested, it is agreed that every vessel so circumstanced may be turned away from such port or place, but she shall not be detained, nor her cargo, if not contraband, be confiscated unless after notice she shall again attempt to enter; but she shall be permitted to go to any other port or place she may think proper."

This treaty is conceived to be a correct exposition of the law of nations; certainly it is admitted by the parties to it, as between themselves, to be a correct exposition of that law or to constitute a rule in the place of it.

Neither the law of nations nor the treaty admits of the condemnation of the neutral vessel for the intention to enter a blockaded port, unconnected with any fact. Sailing for a blockaded port, knowing it to be blockaded, has been in some English cases construed into an attempt to enter that port, and has therefore been adjudged a breach of the blockade from the departure of the vessel.

Page 8 U. S. 200

Without giving any opinion on that point, it may be observed that in such cases the fact of sailing is coupled with the intention, and the sentence of condemnation is founded on an actual breach of blockade. The cause assigned for condemnation would be a justifiable cause, and it would be for the foreign court alone to determine whether the testimony supported the allegation that the blockade was broken. Had this sentence averred that the brig John had broken the blockade or had attempted to enter the port of Cadiz after warning from the blockading force, the cause of condemnation would have been justifiable, and without controverting the conclusiveness of the sentence, the assured could not have entered into any inquiry respecting the conduct of the vessel. But this is not the language of the sentence. An attempt to enter the port of Cadiz is not alleged, but persisting in the intention, after being warned not to enter it, is alleged as the cause of condemnation. This is not a good cause under the treaty. It is impossible to read that instrument without perceiving a clear intention in the parties to it that after notice of the blockade, an attempt to enter the port must be made in order to subject the vessel to confiscation. By the language of the treaty, it would appear that a second attempt after receiving notice must be made in order to constitute the offense which will justify a confiscation. "It is agreed," says that instrument,

"that every vessel so circumstanced [that is, every vessel sailing for a blockaded port without knowledge of the blockade] may be turned away from such port or place, but she shall not be detained, nor her cargo, if not contraband, be confiscated unless after notice she shall again attempt to enter."

These words strongly import a stipulation that there shall be a free agency on the part of the commander of the vessel, after receiving notice of the blockade, and that there shall be no detention nor condemnation unless in the exercise of that free agency a second attempt to enter the invested place shall be made.

It cannot be necessary to state that testimony which would amount to evidence of such second attempt. Lingering about the place, as if watching for an opportunity

Page 8 U. S. 201

to sail into it, or the single circumstance of not making immediately for some other port, or possibly obstinate and determined declarations of a resolution to break the blockade, might be evidence of an attempt, after warning, to enter the blockaded port. But whether these circumstances or others may or may not amount to evidence of the offense, the offense itself is attempting again to enter, and "unless, after notice, she shall again attempt to enter," the two nations expressly stipulate "that she shall not be detained, nor her cargo, if not contraband, be confiscated." It would seem as if, aware of the excesses which might be justified by converting intention into offense, the American negotiator had required the union of fact with intention to constitute the breach of a blockade.

The cause of condemnation, then, as described in this sentence, is one which, by express compact between the United States and Great Britain, is an insufficient cause unless the intention was manifested in such manner as in fair construction to be equivalent to an attempt to enter Cadiz after knowledge of the blockade. This not being proved by the sentence itself, the parties are let in to other evidence.

However conclusive, then, the sentence may be of the particular facts which it alleges, those facts not amounting in themselves to a justifiable cause of condemnation, the court must look into the special verdict, which explains what is uncertain in the sentence. The special verdict shows that the vessel was seized on her approaching the port of Cadiz without previous knowledge of the blockade; that she never was turned away and "permitted to go to any other port or place;" that she was "detained" for several days, and then sent in for adjudication without being ever put into the possession of the captain and crew so as to enable her either "again to attempt to enter" the port of Cadiz or to sail for some other port; that while thus detained, the commander of the blockading squadron drew the captain of the John into a conversation which must be termed insidious, since its object was to trepan him into expressions which might be construed into evidence of an intention to sail for Cadiz should he be liberated;

Page 8 U. S. 202

that availing himself of some equivocal, unguarded, and perhaps indiscreet answers on the part of the captain, the vessel was sent in for adjudication, and on those expressions was condemned.

This Court is of opinion that these facts do not amount to an attempt again to enter the port of Cadiz, and therefore do not amount, under the treaty between the United States and Great Britain, to a breach of the blockade of Cadiz. The sentence of the Court of Vice-Admiralty in Gibraltar therefore is not considered as falsifying the warranty that the brig John was American property or as disabling the assured from recovering against the underwriters in this action, and the testimony in the case shows that the blockade was not broken.

The judgment of the circuit court is to be reversed with costs, and it is to be certified to that court that judgment is to be entered on the special verdict for the plaintiff.

Judgment reversed.

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.