Case Law: United States v. Corrie

The citation for this case is United States v. Corrie, 25 Fed. Cas. 658, Case No. 14,869, [1 Brunner, Col. Cas. 686; 23 Law Rep. 145] Circuit Court, D. South Carolina, April Term, 1860.

South Carolinian William C. Corrie was the captain of the slave ship Wanderer. “It was charged from ‘credible information,’ that William C. Corrie, master or commander of the vessel called Wanderer, did land in the Southern district of Georgia certain negros [sic] not held to service by the laws of either of the states or territories of the United States, with intent to make them slaves; and that the said William C. Corrie, master or commander of a vessel called the Wanderer, on a foreign shore, did seize, decoy, and forcibly bring, carry and receive on board the said vessel such negros [sic], landed by him as aforesaid in the Southern district of Georgia, with intent to make them slaves, contrary to the fourth and fifth sections of the act of congress of the 15th May, 1820 [3 Stat. 600].” [25 Fed. Cas. 658] He was arrested in South Carolina, and Georgia requested he be extradited there for trial. United States Judge for the District of South Carolina Andrew G. Magrath denied this request “because by the express provisions of the act of congress of the 15th May, 1820, under which he was charged and arrested, jurisdiction of the offence was in the circuit courts of the state in which the offender was ‘brought’ or ‘found,’ and the offender having been ‘found’ in the state of South Carolina. It was at the same time declared that the jurisdiction which thus became vested in the courts of the United States for the state of South Carolina was exclusive of jurisdiction in the courts of any other state; and application having been made in that behalf, he was admitted to bail, and became bound with sureties to appear and answer the charge against him at the next ensuing term of the circuit court of the United States for the state of South Carolina.” [Ibid.]

After that, Corrie was indicted for piracy in Georgia, and Georgia again requested Corrie be extradited for trial. Judge Magrath denied that request as well, but doubled the bail. Corrie was indicted again in Georgia, this time for a violation of “the act of congress of 1818.” [25 Fed. Cas. 658, 659] Judge Magrath again refused extradition “for several reasons, one of which was, that it was without precedent to ask a court having before it a criminal accused of a capital offence and whose case the grand jury were in waiting to consider, to send him to another tribunal, there to be tried for a minor offence.” [Ibid.] After that, Corrie was indicted in South Carolina for piracy.

In discussing the Act of May 15, 1820, Judge Magrath wrote, “This act has been in the statute book for nearly forty years; but as yet no court has been called on to give to it a construction which would show the true nature of the offences which it creates.” [25 Fed. Cas. 658, 662] He goes on to write, “There have been verdicts of acquittal rendered by juries in the case of persons charged with a violation of this act; and such verdicts have been regarded as indicative of a purpose on the part of juries not to enforce its provisions. How far such an opinion has a just foundation may be seen in the statement which I now make: that no case has been tried in the court of the United States for the state of South Carolina for alleged violations of the act of 15th May, 1820, in which any other verdict than that which acquitted could have been given consistently with the law and the evidence in such case. I will go farther and say, that had in any of these cases which were tried in the courts of the United States for this state a verdict of guilty been rendered, I do not believe that any judge of the United States would have hesitated in directing a new trial.” [Ibid.] He next claims, “It has been said that by this act of congress the slave trade has been declared piracy. I cannnot find in this act anything which sustains that construction; while in the act, and in the other acts distinctly passed for the suppression of the slave trade, everything leads us to reject that conclusion. Offences similar to such as ar prohibited by the act of congress of 1820 were declared to be; and punished as offences by the British parliament, when the slave trade itself was legalized by that body.” [Ibid.]

At first glance, this seems to me to be tortured reasoning if we look at the act itself. Its title is, “An Act to continue in force ‘An act to protect the commerce of the United States, and punish the crime of piracy,’ and also to make further provisions for punishing the crime of piracy.” [3 US Statutes 600] He claims, “The first thing which strikes attention in the consideration of the act of 1820 is that it does not, in its title, nor in any part of the act, either by way of modification, amendment or repeal, refer to the previously existing slave trade laws, or to the slave trade as the object for which its provisions were intended. In every other act passed for the suppression of the slave trade, the purpose is plainly declared in the tittle and every section of the act. In the only portions of this act in which the slave trade is mentioned; to the mention of it are added certain other things; which other things, when committed, constitute the offences which the act prohibits. These offences, referring to them now only generally, consist of landing on a foreign shore, and there seizing or decoying a negro or mulatto, not held to service by the laws of either of the states or territories of the United States, with in tent of making him a slave. And this offence, commencing on a foreign coast, is followed out, in its several stages, as it affects that negro or mulatto, in forcibly bringing, carrying, or receiving him on board of the vessel; there confining and detaining him, with intent to make him a slave; or transferring him to another vessel on the high seas or tide-water, or from on board landing or delivering him on shore, with intent to sell or having sold him as a slave.” [25 Fed. Cas. 658, 662-663]

Here’s the part of the law in question:

USvCorrie-1 USvCorrie-2

It certainly seems to me that this act makes the foreign slave trade an act of piracy.

Judge Magrath continues, “From a very early period to 1819, various acts had been passed by the congress of the United States in relation to the slave trade, considering it as a trade. As a trade, it has been prohibited under heavy penalties. But while prohibited as a trade, no act of congress had made the seizure and decoying of negros [sic] or mulattos [sic] on a foreign coast, with the intent to make them slaves, an offence to be tried and punished in its courts. That the slave trade itself, and such acts of violence and spoliation are distinct, is seen, as already stated, in the fact: that in the 23 Geo. III. c. 31 by which the slave trade was legalized, it is, also, provided that no commander or master of any ship trading to Africa shall, by force or fraud, take on board or carry away from the coast of Africa any native or negro of said country, or commit, or suffer to be committed, any violence on the natives, to the prejudice of the trade. As far back, then, as 1750, force, fraud, or indirect practices in obtaining possession of the negro was held so distinct from the slave trade that it was prohibited and punished as injurious to the trade; while the slave trade itself was permitted and legalized.” [25 Fed. Cas. 658, 663] Regarding the Act of March 15, 1820, he tells us, “If it shall be said that because the act relates to the offence of seizing or decoying a negro or mulatto, or using such a negro or mulatto in any of the modes prohibited by the act, with the intent of making him or her a slave, that, therefore, it relates to the slave trade, enough has already been said to show that such a proposition involves a confusion in the apprehension of degrees of crime made very manifest in the act of 1820; the slave trade laws of the United States up to the year 1819; the legislation of the British parliament; and the obvious distinction between participation in a trade or traffic, business or commerce declared unlawful; and acts of force or fraud, spoliation or rapine, in regard to the subject matter of that trade or traffic, business or commerce; which may very well be considered as robbery and piracy.” [Ibid.]

At this point I’m wondering if the words, “or shall receive” in the act are being ignored here.

Judge Magrath continues, “When congress, in the exercise of a power which it has, if it is pleased to exercise it, shall make the slave trade a piracy, it must do so in terms which refer to it as a trade. To infer that the slave trade is piracy because seizing and decoying on a foreign shore, a negro or mulatto, with intent to make him a slave, is so declared, is not, in my mind, recommended by a rule of reason or consistent with fact. If we consider now the persons who by the act of 1820 are made liable upon conviction to the punishment it indicts, we will see, more clearly, how inconsistent it is with the idea of its connection with the slave trade. No one can be punished under the act of 1820, unless he is of the crew or ship’s company. Hence no one on board, although the owner of the negros [sic] or mulattos [sic], with which the vessel is laden, can be convicted or punished under its provisions. In all other acts of congress passed for the suppression of the slave trade, all persons are embraced, who by violating these laws, can be made liable for such offences in the courts of the United States.” [Ibid.]

He also tells us, “No one can be punished under the act of 1820, unless he is of the crew or ship’s company. Hence no one on board, although the owner of the negros [sic] or mulattos [sic], with which the vessel is laden, can be convicted or punished under its provisions. In all other acts of congress passed for the suppression of the slave trade, all persons are embraced, who by violating these laws, can be made liable for such offences in the courts of the United States. In the act of 1794 the prohibition is directed to a citizen or citizens of the United States, or any other person coming into or residing in the same; and words of the same or like general description in regard to persons who shall be liable to the punishment imposed, will be found in the several acts down to 1819. It may very well be understood, that such acts were intended for the suppression of the slave trade, when they were directed to all persons upon whom the courts could impose punishment, in cases where they were convicted of its violation. But, with what show of reason is it to be urged that an act is intended for the suppression of the slave trade, as a trade or business, which imposes its penalties only on those persons who may be fairly presumed never able to engage in it as a trade or business? Nor can it be said by the severe penalty visited by the act of 1820, upon the crew or ships company, it was intended to destroy the agencies by which the slave trade could be carried on, and in this manner extinguish the trade. For that construction has been given to the intent, by the act made an essential part of the offence, which relieves the crew of the penalty, unless in cases where they claim and exercise over the negros or mulattos [sic], the control of ownership. Without this evidence, they may be guilty of transporting, which is a misdemeanor, punished by fine and imprisonment; but they cannot be held guilty of piracy, and for it punished by death. If then all persons are exempted from the operation of the act of 1820, except the crew or ship’s company; and if the crew or ship’s company can never have been considered as the persons for whose benefit the slave trade is carried on, or who are able to engage in it as a trade or business; does it not at once appear almost absurd to consider such an act as intended for the suppression of the slave trade? It would suppress the trade by inculpating only those who never could be found guilty of its violations. But, if we will enquire why is it, that the act of 1820 relates exclusively to the crew or ship’s company, and no one else, we will understand the crimes which the act declares. It has been seen that if they are persons never engaged in the slave trade as a trade or traffic, the act is meaningless.” [25 Fed. Cas. 658, 663-664]

Once again, he appears to be ignoring the words “or shall receive” in the act. It seems to me those words cover the crew or ship’s company for the crime of piracy. All that needs to be shown is that they received the Africans with the intent to bring them into slavery.

Judge Magrath also tells us, “The intent prohibited is to make a slave. To make implies the creation of that condition. Of one already a slave it could never be said of him who continued his servitude that he had made him a slave. The law may presume a condition of freedom until one of subjection is proved. But no such general presumption could prevail, while in the United States over negros [sic] and mulattos [sic] there was and is a recognized lawful control and established right of property in them. When, however, that condition of servitude recognized in the United States becomes disproved, then it is competent to proceed upon the presumption that the negro or mulatto charged to have been taken or held in violation of the act of 1820 is free until it is proved that he is not. But if the presumption of freedom, unless it was disproved, might support the charge, and be evidence in the charge of an intent to make that negro or mulatto a slave; so, upon the negation of that presumption, and proof of his servitude at the place from which he was taken, the charge of an intent to make him a slave would be disproved; in the same manner as it would be, in a case where the negro or mulatto was proved to be held in servitude by the laws of a state or territory of the United States. The same reason would in both cases lead to the same conclusion. Whether the negro or mulatto was held to servitude by the laws of either of the states or territories of the United States, by the laws of Brazil, of Cuba or of Africa, of him it could not be said that there was proof of an intent to make him a slave, if he was already a slave. To purchase on that foreign coast a slave may be by other laws of the United States, passed for the suppression of the slave trade, an offence punishable by fine and imprisonment; but no law has yet said that it is piracy. Now, the intent being as is said to make a slave,—that is, create a servitude which did not exist until it was imposed by him who was charged with its commission,—it will be seen how consistent is such an intent with the offence which the act creates.” [25 Fed. Cas. 658, 664-665]

Basically, he’s saying if the African was already enslaved, then those engaging in the trade did not have the intent of making him a slave and therefore were not guilty of violating the act.

Attorney-General Jeremiah Black told Judge Magrath to enter a nolle prosequi for the case. Judge Magrath refused to do so. Black wanted the nolle prosequi to end the proceedings in South Carolina so Georgia could prosecute Corrie. Magrath wrote, “It is not made in the exercise of that discretion of the attorney of the United States, which is necessary, if not indispensable with me, as the evidence of its propriety. It is not made for the purpose either of abandoning a prosecution, for any of the various causes which suggest that course; but to prepare the way for other proceedings, which, in their practical operation, overrule and set aside a judgment of the court.” [25 Fed. Cas. 658, 669]

If Judge Magrath’s writing seems outrageous to you, you’re not alone. To me, he ignores a key part of the law and does all he can to make the 1820 act meaningless. Why would he do this?

“Of all of Corrie’s friends in Charleston, the most valuable was a U.S. district court judge by the name of Andrew G. Magrath. Magrath had been born in Charleston and had received his law degree at Harvard. But he hated Cambridge, especially the abolitionist fervor of the place. In 1850, at the age of thirty-seven, he wrote a fiery pamphlet advocating disunion. And when Lincoln was elected president ten years later, Magrath dramatically threw off his robes, quitting the federal bench. He later became the Confederate governor of South Carolina. As a federal judge, Magrath may have sworn to uphold the Constitution and laws of the land, but by the time that Corrie had made it back to Charleston, Magrath was a fierce disunionist, and eager to challenge the authority of the federal government. Magrath was well aware that [Joseph] Ganahl [the assistant US Attorney in Savannah, Georgia], [Henry Rootes] Jackson [assisting Ganahl with the prosecution’s case], and Attorney General Black wanted Corrie back in Savannah, to stand trial with [Nicholas D.] Brown, [Miguel] Arguirir, and [Juan] Rajesta [all slave traders with the Wanderer]. Corrie’s signature, after all, was on the Wanderer’s ownership papers, as big as the words John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence. But Magrath was equally determined not to give Corrie back.” [Erik Calonius, The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails, pp. 172-173]

Magrath in fact used this case to further the sectional conflict. “To the horror of many Northerners, Magrath was clearly playing the nullification card created by John C. Calhoun thirty years earlier. Corrie ‘struts the streets of Charleston amidst the caresses of applauding thousands,’ roared Massachusetts senator Henry Wilson, ‘shielded from a felon’s doom by the monstrous perversions of the laws of the land by a faithless, if not by a perjured judge.’ Moreover, Magrath’s decision demonstrated the widening gap between North and South: While the Northern press condemned Magrath’s decision, not a single Southern newspaper condemned Magrath’s decision. The Savannah Daily Morning News even offered applause: ‘The judge’s decision certainly does great credit to the bench, whose independence he vindicates, and to himself, for the ability he displays.’ The British were watching the proceedings closely as well. British consul Bunch noted that Magrath’s nullification of federal law was a clear sign that the bonds holding the United States together were coming apart.” [Ibid., p. 231]

With Judge Magrath’s ample assistance, William Corrie was eventually set free. He thus avoided the later fate of Captain Nathaniel Gordon, the only person in US history executed for being a slave trader. While this case seems to be on the legal periphery of issues surrounding the war, it in fact is very illustrative of the priorities the future confederacy would have.


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