Hickman v. Jones Et Al

The citation for this case is 76 US [9 Wallace] 197.

James Hickman lived in Northern Alabama and was an ardent proconfederate. US troops occupied the area for a time, and after the confederates regained control his fellow citizens accused him of changing to be a Unionist. He was tried in a confederate court for treason against the confederacy and acquitted. “When the war came to a close and the judicial system of the United States was reinstated, Hickman still remembered vividly his suffering as a prisoner in the Confederate jail. The fact that he was acquitted did not ease his pain or salve his conscience. He reasoned that if the Confederate government had never been recognized by the United States or any other nation as a true government, then the court system created by that government could not possibly have been a valid court system. That being the case, his arrest and imprisonment were without foundation, and the individuals who participated in his arrest and imprisonment were guilty of committing malicious acts toward him.” [Robert Bruce Murray, Legal Cases of the Civil War, p. 86] He brought suit against William Jones, who was the confederate judge in his case, Moore, who was the court clerk, Regan, who was the prosecutor in his case, Robert Coltart, the deputy marshal, the members of the grand jury who indicted him, and J. W. Clay, a newspaper who Hickman claimed incited his prosecution.

“The trial court was concerned with whether Hickman actually participated in the Rebellion on the side of the Confederacy. Evidence apparently was introduced at the trial that seemed to indicate that Hickman was a genuine Confederate sympathizer. The judge at the trial instructed the jury that if the acts of Hickman that reflected his complicity with the Confederacy were performed because he honestly believed that if he did not perform them his life and property would be in danger, and further, if other credible evidence revealed that Hickman was always at heart truly loyal to the Union, the jury should find for Hickman. If the jury suspected anything short of this, however the jury should find for the defendants. The judge also instructed the jury that it was their duty to acquit two of the defendants, one of whom was Clay, the newspaper editor and publisher. Following these instructions, the jury found for all of the defendants. Upset with the trial court’s judgement, Hickman then appealed to the US Supreme Court.” [Ibid., p. 87]

The case was argued on November 22, 1869. On January 24, 1870, Justice Noah Swayne delivered the opinion of the Court. Justice Swayne wrote, “The rebellion out of which the war grew was without any legal sanction. In the eye of the law, it had the same properties as if it had been the insurrection of a county or smaller municipal territory against the state to which it belonged. The proportions and duration of the struggle did not affect its character. Nor was there a rebel government de facto in such a sense as to give any legal efficacy to its acts. It was not recognized by the national nor by any foreign government. It was not at any time in possession of the capital of the nation. It did not for a moment displace the rightful government. That government was always in existence, always in the regular discharge of its functions, and constantly exercising all its military power to put down the resistance to its authority in the insurrectionary states. The union of the states, for all the purposes of the Constitution, is as perfect and indissoluble as the union of the integral parts of the states themselves, and nothing but revolutionary violence can in either case destroy the ties which hold the parts together. For the sake of humanity, certain belligerent rights were conceded to the insurgents in arms. But the recognition did not extend to the pretended government of the Confederacy. The intercourse was confined to its military authorities. In no instance was there intercourse otherwise than of this character. The rebellion was simply an armed resistance to the rightful authority of the sovereign.” [76 US 197, 200] Swayne reversed the ruling of the lower court and ordered it to retry the case.

This is yet another instance of the Supreme Court declaring the confederacy to be illegal, and it couldn’t do that if unilateral state secession was legal. Swayne says clearly that the Union is indissoluble, which means unilateral state secession is illegal.


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