United States v. Morrison

The citation for this case is 26 Fed. Cas. 1349, Case No. 15,817. This is from the June, 1869 term of the District Court for South Carolina, and Chief Justice Salmon Chase was the circuit judge presiding. This case is like the Huger case discussed a couple of days ago. Morrison was the US postmaster in Winnsboro, South Carolina. “His accounts were settled by the United States post office department up to May 31, 1861, on which day after allowing him his legal commissions & c., he was found indebted to the United States in the sum of seven hundred and seventy two dollars and twenty seven cents. In 1867, the United States brought suit against him for this sum, and the cause came on before a jury.” [26 Fed. Cas. 1349] Morrison testified he had been ordered to send all United States stamped envelopes to Richmond, by the confederate post office department, which he did. He retained the United States postage stamps and kept them in his house, but he claimed that soldiers from William T. Sherman’s army had broken into his house and destroyed the stamps. He claimed a credit to his account for the stamped envelopes and the destroyed stamps.

In his charge to the jury, Justice Chase wrote, “The policy of the government of the United States, in respect to the business of the post office department, requires that principals and sureties upon the bonds of postmasters shall be held liable at all events. The decisions of the courts have constantly affirmed this doctrine. Neither robbery, nor theft, nor misadventure of any kind, except perhaps, when caused by the action of the government itself, will excuse a postmaster or his sureties.” [26 Fed. Cas. 1349, 1350] Regarding the actions of the confederate government, which is the portion of particular interest to us, he wrote, “No relief could arise under any authority of the Confederate government. That government was founded in an attempt to throw off the authority of the United States and establish an independent government. If that attempt had succeeded, all transactions authorized by the Confederate government must doubtless have been recognized as lawful. But in the absence of success, that government was itself unlawful. Its whole existence was a continued rebellion against the lawful government of the United States. No one could be protected in any action by the sanction of its authority. The only exception to this are acts o war. The National government, in its exercise of a sound discretion, conceded belligerent rights to the armies of the insurgent states during the late civil war; and acts of a strictly military character, performed under military authority, may be protected by this concession. this, however, has nothing to do with the present case.” [Ibid.]

In his charge to the jury, Chase referenced actions by Congress: “But the congress of the United States, sensible of the hardships which must attend the vigorous enforcement of the rule to which we have adverted, against postmasters for defaults occasioned by the late civil war, has thought fit to afford them a certain measure of relief. The act of 1864 [13 Stat. 62] authorizes the postmaster-general to credit postmasters for certain losses occasioned by the Confederate forces or Rebel guerrillas. This relief is confined to loyal postmasters. The act of 1865 [Id. 505] extends the same relief to cases where the losses are occasioned by armed forces other than those of the so-called Confederate States. If you find, therefore, that part of the loss in the present case was occasioned by armed forces other than those of the Confederate States, at the place where this post office was established, that is to say, at Winnsboro, you will deduct the amount of such loss from the whole amount of the account stated.” [Ibid.]

Clearly, according to Chase, the confederacy was an illegal government, and it could only be so if unilateral state secession was an illegal act. The confederacy could only be made a legal government if, by military force, it overthrew United States law.

Due to a juror falling ill and the remaining jurors being unable to agree on a verdict, Chase declared a mistrial in the case and discharged the jury.

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