Bank of the United States v. Deveaux
9 U.S. 61 (1809)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Bank of the United States v. Deveaux, 9 U.S. 5 Cranch 61 61 (1809)

Bank of the United States v. Deveaux

9 U.S. (5 Cranch) 61

ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT

FOR THE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA

Syllabus

A corporation aggregate composed of citizens of one state may sue a citizen of another state in the circuit court of the United States.

Where the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States depends not on the character of the parties, but upon the nature of the case, the circuit courts derive no jurisdiction from the Judiciary Act except in case of a controversy between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants from different states.

No right is conferred on the bank by its act of incorporation to sue in the federal courts. A corporation aggregate cannot, in its corporate capacity, be a citizen.

The duties of this Court to exercise jurisdiction where it is conferred and not to usurp it where it is not conferred are of equal obligation. The Constitution therefore and the law are to be expounded without a leaning the one way or the other, according to those general principles which usually govern in the construction of fundamental or other laws.

A constitution, from its nature, deals in generals, not in detail. Its framers cannot perceive minute distinctions which arise in the progress of the nation, and therefore confine it to the establishment of broad and general principles.

The Judicial Department was introduced into the American Constitution under impressions and with views which are too apparent not to be perceived by all. However true the fact may be that the tribunals of the states will administer justice as impartially as those of the nation to parties of every description, it is not less true that the Constitution itself either entertains apprehensions on this subject or views with such indulgence the possible fears and apprehensions of suitors that it has established national tribunals for the decision of controversies between aliens and a citizen or between citizens of different states.

The declaration, or petition, as it is there called, was as follows:

"District of Georgia"

"To the Honorable the Judges of the Sixth Circuit

Page 9 U. S. 62

Court of the United States in and for the District aforesaid."

"The petition of The President, Directors and Company of the Bank of the United States, which said bank was established under an act of Congress entitled 'An act to incorporate the subscribers to the Bank of the United States,' passed 25 February, 1791, showeth,"

"That Peter Deveaux and Thomas Robertson, both of the City of Savannah, Esquires, have endamaged your petitioners in the sum of three thousand dollars for this, to-wit, that the said Thomas Robertson, then acting under authority from the said Peter Deveaux, on 20 April, 1807, at Savannah, in the district aforesaid and within the jurisdiction of this honorable court, with force and arms entered into the house and premises of your petitioners at Savannah aforesaid and then and there seized, took, and detained two boxes (the goods and chattels of your petitioners) containing each one thousand dollars in silver, then and there found in the possession of your petitioners, and being of the value of two thousand and four dollars, and carried the same away, and converted and disposed thereof to their own use, and other wrongs to your petitioners then and there did against the peace of the district and to the great damage of your petitioners, therefore your petitioners say they are injured and have sustained damage to the value of three thousand dollars, and therefore they bring suit. And your petitioners aver that they are citizens of the State of Pennsylvania, and the said Peter Deveaux and Thomas Robertson are citizens of the State of Georgia. Wherefore your petitioners pray process, &c."

"And the said Peter and Thomas, by R.L., their attorney, come and defend the force and injury, when, &c., and pray judgment of the declaration aforesaid, because they say that the Sixth Circuit Court of the United States ought not to have and

Page 9 U. S. 63

entertain jurisdiction of the said declaration and the matters therein contained, for that the said president, directors, and company of the bank of the United States aver themselves to be a body politic and corporate, and that in that capacity these defendants say they cannot sue or be sued, plead, or be impleaded in this honorable court by anything contained in the Constitution or laws of the same United States, and this they are ready to verify; wherefore, for want of jurisdiction in this behalf, they pray judgment, and their costs, &c."

To this plea there was a demurrer and joinder, and judgment in favor of the defendants upon the demurrer.

Page 9 U. S. 84

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court as follows:

Two points have been made in this cause.

1. That a corporation composed of citizens of

Page 9 U. S. 85

one state may sue a citizen of another state in the federal courts.

2. That a right to sue in those courts is conferred on this bank by the law which incorporates it.

The last point will be first considered.

The judicial power of the United States, as defined in the Constitution, is dependent 1st on the nature of the case, and 2d on the character of the parties.

By the Judicial Act, the jurisdiction of the circuit courts is extended to cases where the constitutional right to plead and be impleaded in the courts of the union depends on the character of the parties; but where that right depends on the nature of the case, the circuit courts derive no jurisdiction from that act except in the single case of a controversy between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants from different states.

Unless, then, jurisdiction over this cause has been given to the circuit court by some other than the Judicial Act, the Bank of the United States had not a right to sue in that court upon the principle that the case arises under a law of the United States.

The plaintiffs contend that the incorporating act confers this jurisdiction.

That act creates the corporation, gives it a capacity to make contracts and to acquire property, and enables it "to sue and be sued, plead and be impleaded, answer and be answered, defend and be defended, in courts of record or any other place whatsoever."

This power, if not incident to a corporation, is conferred by every incorporating act, and is not understood to enlarge the jurisdiction of any particular court, but to give a capacity to the corporation to

Page 9 U. S. 86

appear as a corporation in any court which would by law have cognizance of the cause if brought by individuals. If jurisdiction is given by this clause to the federal courts, it is equally given to all courts having original jurisdiction and for all sums, however small they may be.

But the 9th article of the 7th section of the act furnishes a conclusive argument against the construction for which the plaintiffs contend. That section subjects the president and directors, in their individual capacity, to the suit of any person aggrieved by their putting into circulation more notes than is permitted by law, and expressly authorizes the bringing of that action in the federal or state courts.

This evinces the opinion of Congress that the right to sue does not imply a right to sue in the courts of the union unless it be expressed. This idea is strengthened also by the law respecting patent rights. That law expressly recognizes the right of the patentee to sue in the circuit courts of the United States.

The Court, then, is of opinion that no right is conferred on the bank by the act of incorporation to sue in the federal courts.

2. The other point is one of much more difficulty.

The jurisdiction of this Court being limited, so far as respects the character of the parties in this particular case, "to controversies between citizens of different states," both parties must be citizens to come within the description.

That invisible, intangible, and artificial being, that mere legal entity, a corporation aggregate, is certainly not a citizen, and consequently cannot sue or be sued in the courts of the United States unless the rights of the members in this respect can be exercised in their corporate name. If the corporation

Page 9 U. S. 87

be considered as a mere faculty, and not as a company of individuals who, in transacting their joint concerns, may use a legal name, they must be excluded from the courts of the union.

The duties of this Court to exercise jurisdiction where it is conferred and not to usurp it where it is not conferred are of equal obligation. The Constitution, therefore, and the law are to be expounded without a leaning the one way or the other, according to those general principles which usually govern in the construction of fundamental or other laws.

A Constitution, from its nature, deals in generals, not in detail. Its framers cannot perceive minute distinctions which arise in the progress of the nation, and therefore confine it to the establishment of broad and general principles.

The Judicial Department was introduced into the American Constitution under impressions and with views which are too apparent not to be perceived by all. However true the fact may be that the tribunals of the states will administer justice as impartially as those of the nation to parties of every description, it is not less true that the Constitution itself either entertains apprehensions on this subject or views with such indulgence the possible fears and apprehensions of suitors that it has established national tribunals for the decision of controversies between aliens and a citizen or between citizens of different states. Aliens or citizens of different states are not less susceptible of these apprehensions, nor can they be supposed to be less the objects of constitutional provision, because they are allowed to sue by a corporate name. That name, indeed, cannot be an alien or a citizen, but the persons whom it represents may be the one or the other, and the controversy is, in fact and in law, between those persons suing in their corporate character, by their corporate name, for a corporate right, and the individual against whom the suit may be instituted. Substantially

Page 9 U. S. 88

and essentially, the parties in such a case, where the members of the corporation are aliens or citizens of a different state from the opposite party, come within the spirit and terms of the jurisdiction conferred by the Constitution of the national tribunals.

Such has been the universal understanding on the subject. Repeatedly has this Court decided causes between a corporation and an individual without feeling a doubt respecting its jurisdiction. Those decisions are not cited as authority, for they were made without considering this particular point; but they have much weight, as they show that this point neither occurred to the bar or the bench, and that the common understanding of intelligent men is in favor of the right of incorporated aliens, or citizens of a different state from the defendant, to sue in the national courts. It is by a course of acute, metaphysical, and abstruse reasoning, which has been most ably employed on this occasion, that this opinion is shaken.

As our ideas of a corporation, its privileges, and its disabilities, are derived entirely from the English books, we resort to them for aid in ascertaining its character. It is defined as a mere creature of the law, invisible, intangible, and incorporeal. Yet when we examine the subject further we find that corporations have been included within terms of description appropriated to real persons.

The statute of Henry VIII concerning bridges and highways enacts that bridges and highways shall be made and repaired by the "inhabitants of the city, shire, or riding," and that the justices shall have power to tax every "inhabitant of such city," &c., and that the collectors may "distrain every such inhabitant as shall be taxed and refuse payment thereof, in his lands, goods and chattels."

Under this statute, those have been construed inhabitants who hold lands within the city where the

Page 9 U. S. 89

bridge to be repaired lies, although they reside elsewhere.

Lord Coke says

"Every corporation and body politic residing in any county, riding, city, or town corporate or having lands or tenements in any shire, quae propriis manibus et sumptibus possident et habent, are said to be inhabitants there within the purview of this statute."

The tax is not imposed on the person, whether he be a member of the corporation or not, who may happen to reside on the lands, but is imposed on the corporation itself, and consequently this ideal existence is considered as an inhabitant when the general spirit and purpose of the law requires it.

In the case of King v. Gardner, reported by Cowper, a corporation was decided, by the Court of King's bench, to come within the description of "occupiers or inhabitants." In that case, the poor rates, to which the lands of the corporation were declared to be liable, were not assessed to the actual occupant, for there was none, but to the corporation. And the principle established by the case appears to be that the poor rates on vacant ground belonging to a corporation may be assessed to the corporation as being inhabitants or occupiers of that ground. In this case Lord Mansfield notices and overrules an inconsiderate dictum of Justice Yates that a corporation could not be an inhabitant or occupier.

These opinions are not precisely in point, but they serve to show that for the general purposes and objects of a law, this invisible, incorporeal creature of the law may be considered as having corporeal qualities.

It is true that as far as these cases go, they serve to show that the corporation itself, in its incorporeal character, may be considered as an inhabitant or an occupier, and the argument from them would be more strong in favor of considering the corporation

Page 9 U. S. 90

itself as endowed for this special purpose with the character of a citizen, then to consider the character of the individuals who compose it as a subject which the court can inspect, when they use the name of the corporation for the purpose of asserting their corporate rights. Still the cases show that this technical definition of a corporation does not uniformly circumscribe its capacities, but that courts for legitimate purposes will contemplate it more substantially.

There is a case, however, reported in 12 Mod., which is thought precisely in point. The Corporation of London brought a suit against Wood by its corporate name in the mayor's court. The suit was brought by the mayor and commonalty, and was tried before the mayor and aldermen. The judgment rendered in this cause was brought before the Court of King's bench and reversed because the court was deprived of its jurisdiction by the character of the individuals who were members of the corporation.

In that case, the objection, that a corporation was an invisible, intangible thing, a mere incorporeal legal entity in which the characters of the individuals who composed it were completely merged, was urged and was considered. The judges unanimously declared that they could look beyond the corporate name and notice the character of the individual. In the opinions, which were delivered seriatim, several cases are put which serve to illustrate the principle, and fortify the decision.

The case of Mayor and Commonalty v. Wood is the stronger, because it is on the point of jurisdiction. It appears to the Court to be a full authority for the case now under consideration. It seems not possible to distinguish them from each other.

If, then, the Congress of the United States had in terms enacted that incorporated aliens might sue

Page 9 U. S. 91

a citizen or that the incorporated citizens of one state might sue a citizen of another state in the federal courts by its corporate name, this Court would not have felt itself justified in declaring that such a law transcended the Constitution.

The controversy is substantially between aliens, suing by a corporate name, and a citizen, or between citizens of one state, suing by a corporate name, and those of another state. When these are said to be substantially the parties to the controversy, the Court does not mean to liken it to the case of a trustee. A trustee is a real person capable of being a citizen or an alien, who has the whole legal estate in himself. At law, he is the real proprietor, and he represents himself and sues in his own right. But in this case the corporate name represents persons who are members of the corporation.

If the Constitution would authorize Congress to give the courts of the union jurisdiction in this case in consequence of the character of the members of the corporation, then the Judicial Act ought to be construed to give it. For the term "citizen" ought to be understood as it is used in the Constitution and as it is used in other laws -- that is, to describe the real persons who come into court, in this case under their corporate name.

That corporations composed of citizens are considered by the legislature as citizens under certain circumstances is to be strongly inferred from the registering act. It never could be intended that an American registered vessel, abandoned to an insurance company composed of citizens should lose her character as an American vessel, and yet this would be the consequence of declaring that the members of the corporation were, to every intent and purpose, out of view and merged in the corporation.

The Court feels itself authorized by the case in 12 Mod. on a question of jurisdiction, to look to

Page 9 U. S. 92

the character of the individuals who compose the corporation, and it thinks that the precedents of this Court, though they were not decisions on argument, ought not to be absolutely disregarded.

If a corporation may sue in the courts of the union, the Court is of opinion that the averment in this case is sufficient.

Being authorized to sue in it corporate name, it could make the averment, and it must apply to the plaintiffs as individuals, because it could not be true as applied to the corporation.

Judgment reversed, plea in abatement overruled, and cause remanded.

Judge LIVINGSTON, having an interest in the question, gave no opinion.

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.