United States v. Smith

The citation for this case is 27 Fed. Cas. 1138, Case No. 16,320. It’s an 1855 case from the Circuit Court of the Southern District of New York, decided on February 24, 1855 and presided over by Justice Samuel Nelson and Federal Judge Samuel R. Betts.

James Smith was charged with being a slave trader, in violation of the May 15, 1820 Act of Congress [3 SAL 600] popularly known as the Slave Trade Act. That act “provides, that any citizen of the United States, being of the crew or ship’s company of any foreign ship engaged in the slave trade, or any person whatever, being of the crew or ship’s company of any ship owned in whole or in part, or navigated for, or in behalf of, any citizen or citizens of the United States, who shall be engaged in the slave trade, in the manner and with the intent specified in the fourth and fifth sections of the act, shall be adjudged a pirate, and, on conviction of the offence, shall suffer death.” [27 Fed. Cas. 1138] Smith was charged with being part of the ship’s company of the brig Julia Moulton, which took five hundred African captives aboard and transported them to Cuba. After he was convicted of the crime, Smith moved for a new trial.

Justice Nelson tells us, “On the trial, evidence was given, on behalf of the government, of the purchase of the brig Julia Moulton by the prisoner, at Boston, from her American owners, previous to her equipment and fitting out at the port of New York for the voyage to the coast of Africa.” [27 Fed. Cas. 1138] He also tells us evidence was given that Smith had taken a custom-house oath that he was a citizen of the United States on purchase of the vessel. Justice Nelson continues, “The evidence was full, that the prisoner, as master of the vessel, sailed from the port of New York to the coast of Africa, took in a cargo of negroes, and thence sailed to the island of Cuba, where the cargo was landed and the ship burned by his orders.” [27 Fed. Cas. 1138]

Smith, however, produced evidence that he was a subject of the Kingdom of Hanover, which was his birthplace. The judge’s instructions to the jury at trial were that “the government must prove, either that the prisoner, at the time he was engaged in the illegal traffic, was a citizen of the United States, or that the vessel which he commanded was owned, in whole or in part, by a citizen or citizens of the United States, in order to justify them in finding him guilty. And these two questions were accordingly left to the jury for their finding.” [27 Fed. Cas. 1138, 1138-1139]

Smith’s lawyer raised a technical objection in his appeal for a new trial. “The prisoner’s counsel now moves for a new trial, upon the ground, among others, that he was taken by surprise in the direction given to the case by the charge of the court, in submitting to the jury the question as to the national character of the vessel; or, to be more particular, the question whether the interest of the American owners in the vessel had passed to the prisoner by the purchase of her at Boston. The argument of the counsel is, that the purchase of the vessel by the prisoner had been proved on behalf of the government; that, assuming, therefore, that it was not to be made a matter of controversy in the progress of the trial, but was to be taken as an admitted fact, he had omitted to examine witnesses and to produce evidence, which, if his attention had been turned to the point, or he had deemed it material, would have placed the fact beyond all reasonable doubt; and that, having taken it for granted, from the course of the trial, that the purchase and transfer of the vessel from the American owners passed from them and vested in the prisoner a complete title to the vessel, the counsel supposed that the only question in controversy, left in this part of the case, was the question of citizenship.” [27 Fed. Cas. 1138, 1139]

Justice Nelson and Judge Betts, after reviewing the case, agreed with the defense attorney and ordered a new trial.

This case shows a couple of things. First, the United States did attempt to pursue, prosecute, and punish American citizens engaged in the slave trade. Second, it shows how difficult it was to gain a conviction in order to punish Americans participating in the slave trade. This was a problem many countries had, and points up the difficulty in prosecuting individuals engaged in the slave trade.


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