United States v. Thomas - 82 U.S. 337 (1872)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Thomas, 82 U.S. 15 Wall. 337 337 (1872)
United States v. Thomas
82 U.S. (15 Wall.) 337
1. A collector or receiver of public money, under bond to keep it safely and pay it when required, is not bound to render the money at all events, but is excused if prevented from rendering it by the act of God or the public enemy, without any neglect or fault on his part.
2. Such collector or receiver is a bailee of the government, and by the common law is only bound to due diligence and only liable for negligence or dishonesty; but by the policy of the acts of Congress on the subject, a more stringent accountability is exacted.
3. The measure of this enhanced accountability is particularly to be found in the official bond required of these officers, the condition of which requires the payment of the moneys that come to their hands as and when directed; the performance of which condition can only be excused by an overruling necessity.
4. The late rebellion being a public war, the forcible seizure by the rebel authorities of public moneys in the hands of loyal government agents, against their will and without their fault or negligence, was a sufficient discharge from their obligations in reference to said moneys.
The United States sued Thomas and others as the principal and sureties on the official bond of the said Thomas, as surveyor of the customs for the port of Nashville, Tennessee,
and depositary of public moneys at that place. The condition of the bond was in the usual form, that he should faithfully execute and discharge the duties of his office according to law and should well, truly, and faithfully keep safely, without loaning, using, depositing in banks, or exchanging for other funds than as allowed by act of Congress, all the public money collected by him or otherwise placed in his possession and custody till the same should be ordered by the proper department or officer, to be transferred or paid out; and when such orders for transfer or payment were received, should faithfully and promptly make the same as directed, and should perform all other duties as fiscal agent of the government which might be imposed by any act of Congress or regulation of the Treasury Department &c. The breach alleged was that certain public moneys were collected by Thomas in his official capacity, and were placed in his possession and custody, of which a balance of $4,880 remained in his hands on the 27th of April, 1861, which he did not keep safely, but which he paid out to persons not entitled thereto, whereby it was wholly lost; and that although the said sum was ordered by the proper department and officer to be transferred and paid out, he failed and refused to transfer or pay it out as so required. The defendants, besides performance, pleaded seizure of the moneys in question by the rebel authorities by the exercise of force which Thomas was unable to resist, and against his will and consent, he being a loyal citizen endeavoring faithfully to perform his duty. Upon the trial, evidence was adduced tending to support this plea, and the court charged the jury that if they believed from the evidence that, at the time the demand was made by the insurgents for the surrender by Thomas of the effects in his hands belonging to the government, there was an organized insurrection in the State of Tennessee and in the City of Nashville against the government of the United States with a force sufficient to compel obedience to the orders and demands of the governor who led and controlled such insurrection, and that in this state of things the demand was made upon Thomas to surrender
said effects; and if they further believed that Thomas was acting in good faith, and surrendered the effects in his hands only in the honest belief that he would be imprisoned and the effects seized by force, and had good reason to apprehend that and other violence to his person; and if they believed that the threatened force would be applied to compel the surrender, then the court was of opinion that the seizure and appropriation of the government effects in his hands would be by public enemies of the United States, and would relieve him from liability for the same notwithstanding the condition of his bond; but if they believed that Thomas was one of the insurrectionists, or willingly cooperated with them in their lawless acts against the government, the jury might infer that he was willing that the effects in controversy should fall into the hands of the rebel authorities, and he would not be relieved from the obligations of his bond. To this ruling an exception was taken, and whether the ruling was correct in law was the point now before this Court.