The citation for this case is 10 US [6 Cranch] 330. This is an 1810 case pertaining to a slave ship that had been captured and condemned as a prize.
The Lucy had been captured bringing slaves from the West Indies to the US, bringing them into the Louisiana Territory, landing at the port of Orleans. Two acts of Congress in particular are in play here, according to the Court. The first one is from 28 Feb 1803. The first section read “no master of a vessel ‘or any other person shall import or bring or cause to be imported or brought any negro, mulatto or other person of color, not being a native, a citizen, or registered seaman of the United States, or seamen natives of countries beyond the Cape of Good Hope into any port or place of the United States, which port or place shall be situated in any state which by law has prohibited, or shall prohibit, the admission or importation of such negro,’ ” [10 US 330] and the second section read, ” ‘That if any such negro or mulatto, or other person of color shall be landed from on board any ship or vessel, in any of the ports or places aforesaid, or on the coast of any state prohibiting the admission or importation as aforesaid, the said ship or vessel . . . shall be forfeited to the United States.’ ” [Ibid.] The second pertinent act is from 26 March 1804. Section 10 of that act “prohibits the importation of slaves into the Territory of Orleans from any place without the United States under the penalty of $300, and also prohibits, under the like penalty, the importation from the United States of any slave imported into the United States since the 1 May, 1798, and of all other slaves except by a citizen of the United States removing into the territory for actual settlement, and being the bona fide owner of such slaves at the time of such removal.” [10 US 330, 331] The territorial legislature didn’t pass a law to prohibit importing slaves. Mr. Livingston, the attorney for the owners of the Lucy, claimed, “inasmuch as the Territorial Legislature of Orleans had never prohibited such importation, the Act of 28 February, 1803, did not apply. If the territory is to be assimilated to a state, so as to bring the case within the spirit of the law, yet, there must have been a prohibition by the territorial legislature, to make it a parallel case.” [10 US 330, 332] The Court agreed with this and so ruled, and thus the slave ship was not forfeited. It’s unclear if the enslaved people carried aboard were freed or remained enslaved, but it’s probable they remained enslaved and were sold off, with the profit being shared between the United States and the crew that captured the vessel.
Here we have an example where the slave trade was most assuredly outlawed, but because of the way the law was written a slave trader was able to keep his ship and presumably could continue his participation in the slave trade. I find it interesting the Court didn’t refer to the Act of March 2, 1807, which outlawed the slave trade: “That from and after the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and eight, it shall not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of colour, as a slave, or to be held to service or labour.” [2 US Stat at Large 426] This would make sense if the vessel was captured prior to the act’s passage, but it appears the Lucy was captured by Commander David Porter [father of Admiral David Dixon Porter of the Civil War and stepfather of Admiral David G. Farragut of the Civil War] in 1810. Had this act been applied to the case, I don’t see how the Court could have ruled against the United States. Section 7 of the act read in part: “And be it further enacted, That if any ship or vessel shall be found, from and after the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and eight, in any river, port, bay, or harbor, or on the high seas, within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, or hovering on the coast thereof, having on board any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, for the purpose of selling them as slaves, or with intent to land the same, in any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, contrary to the prohibition of this act, every such ship or vessel, together with her tackle, apparel, and furniture, and the goods or effects which shall be found on board the same, shall be forfeited to the use of the United States, and may be seized, prosecuted, and condemned, in any court of the United States, having jurisdiction thereof.” [2 US Stat at Large 428]
Essentially, Chief Justice Marshall created a legal loophole for slave traders to be able to keep their vessels after being captured. With judges and justices sympathetic to slavery, enslaved people had the deck stacked against them, even though the law as written was clear. The slave trade may have been illegal, but American judges and justices were making it easy to violate the law without serious consequences.