Little v. Barreme
Annotate this Case
6 U.S. 170 (1804)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Little v. Barreme, 6 U.S. 2 Cranch 170 170 (1804)
Little v. Barreme
6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 170
The Act of Congress of 9 February, 1799, authorized the seizure on the high seas of vessels of the United States bound or sailing to any port or place of the French Republic. This act did not authorize the capture of a vessel sailing from a French port, and the orders of the President of the United States to the commanders of the armed vessels of the United States enjoining the seizure of American vessels sailing from French ports will not protect them from a claim for damages for the capture of a vessel coming from a port of France.
On 9 February, 1799, an act was passed by Congress entitled "An act further to suspend the commercial intercourse between the United States and France and the dependencies thereof." 1 Story's L.U.S. 558.
The first section proceeds:
"That from and after the first day of March next, no ship or vessel owned, hired, or employed, wholly or in part by any person resident within the United States and which shall depart therefrom shall be allowed to proceed directly or from any intermediate port or place to any port or place within the territory of the French Republic or the dependencies thereof or to any place in the West Indies or elsewhere under the acknowledged government of France or shall be employed in any traffic or commerce with or for any person resident within the jurisdiction or under the authority of the French Republic. And if any ship or vessel in any voyage thereafter commencing and before her return within the United States shall be voluntarily carried or suffered to proceed to any French port or place as aforesaid or shall be employed as aforesaid contrary to the intent hereof, every such ship or vessel, together with her cargo, shall be forfeited and shall accrue the one-half to the use of the United States and the other half to the use of any person or persons, citizens of the United States, who will inform and prosecute for the same, and shall be liable to be seized, and may be prosecuted and condemned in any circuit or district court of the United States which shall be holden within or for the district where the seizure shall be made. "
The fifth section enacts:
"That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to give instructions to the commanders of the public armed ships of the United States to stop and examine any ship or vessel of the United States on the high sea which there may be reason to suspect to be engaged in any traffic or commerce contrary to the true tenor hereof, and if upon examination it shall appear that such ship or vessel is bound or sailing to any port or place within the territory of the French Republic or her dependencies contrary to the intent of this act, it shall be the duty of the commander of such public armed vessel to seize every such ship or vessel engaged in such illicit commerce and send the same to the nearest port in the United States, and every such ship or vessel thus bound or sailing to any such port or place shall, upon due proof thereof, be liable to the like penalties and forfeitures as are provided in and by the first section of this act."
Under the provisions of this act, the President of the United States gave the following instructions to the commanders of the armed vessels of the United States.
"Sir: Herewith you will receive an act of Congress further to suspend the commercial intercourse between the United States and France and the dependencies thereof, the whole of which requires your attention. But it is the command of the President that you consider particularly the fifth section as part of your instructions and govern yourself accordingly."
"A proper discharge of the important duties enjoined on you arising out of this act will require the exercise of a sound and impartial judgment. You are not only to do all that in you lies to prevent all intercourse, whether direct or circuitous, between the ports of the United States and those of France and her dependencies in cases where the vessels or cargoes are apparently, as well as really, American and protected by American papers only, but you are to be vigilant that vessels or cargoes really American, but covered by Danish or other foreign papers, and bound to or from French ports do not escape you. "
"Whenever, on just suspicion, you send a vessel into port to be dealt with according to the aforementioned law, besides sending with her all her papers, send all the evidence you can obtain to support your suspicions and effect her condemnation."
"At the same time that you are thus attentive to fulfill the objects of the law, you are to be extremely careful not to harass or injure the trade of foreign nations with whom we are at peace nor the fair trade of our own citizens."
On 2 December, 1779, the brigantine Flying Fish was captured near the Island of Hispaniola bound to Jeremie by the United States frigates Boston and General Greene and sent into Boston as liable to seizure under the act of Congress.
The Flying Fish and her cargo were owned by Samuel Goodman, a Prussian by birth but at the time of the capture an inhabitant of the Danish Island of St. Thomas. The master was born in and was at the same time an inhabitant of that island, but had for several years been employed in vessels of citizens of the United States, speaking the English language perfectly in the accent of an American and having the appearance of being one. The crew were Englishmen, Portuguese, and Negroes, and the supercargo was a Frenchman. The vessel had carried a cargo of dry goods from Thomas to Jeremie, and was, when captured, returning with a cargo of coffee.
The district court adjudged the vessel to be restored to the original owners and refused damages to the claimants for the capture and detention.
From this decree the claimants appealed to the circuit court, where it was reversed, and $8,504 damages were given. The damages being assessed by assessors appointed by the court, a final sentence was pronounced, from which the captors appealed to this Court.