Shortridge et al v. Macon

The citation for this case is 22 Fed. Cas. 20, Case No. 12,812. The case is from June, 1867 in the Circuit Court for the District of North Carolina, with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding.

Shortridge and his co-plaintiffs were citizens of Pennsylvania who loaned money to Macon, a citizen of North Carolina. In the meantime, North Carolina joined the rebellion and the confederacy passed a sequestration act that mandated the debts of all confederate state citizens owed to citizens in the loyal states had to be paid to the confederate treasury. According to Chief Justice Chase, “There is no question of the liability of the defendant to the demand of the plaintiffs, unless he is excused by coerced payment of the note sued upon, under an act of the self-styled Confederate Congress, passed August 30, 1861, entitled ‘An act for the sequestration of the estates of alien enemies,’ and an amendatory act passed February 15, 1862.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 21] The counsel for the defendant claimed the confederate government was a de facto government, the sequestration acts were valid acts, and therefore the defendant was relieved of the obligation of repaying the debt to the plaintiffs.

According to Chase, “To maintain these propositions, the counsel for the defendant rely upon the decisions of the supreme court of the United States, to the effect that the late rebellion was a civil war, in the prosecution of which belligerent rights were exercised by the national government, and accorded to the armed forces of the rebel Confederacy; and upon the decisions of the state courts, during and after the close of the American war for independence, which affirmed the validity of confiscations and sequestrations decreed against the property of non-resident British subjects and the inhabitants of colonies or states hostile to the United Colonies or United States.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 21]

Chase said that these cited precedents don’t support the defense’s claims. He said there is no doubt North Carolina claimed its connection to the United States was severed, and there is no doubt they claimed to have joined another country and joined a war against the United States, and he said there isn’t any doubt the practical relations with the United States were suspended. But, according to Chase, “these acts did not effect, even for a moment, the separation of North Carolina from the Union, any more than the acts of an individual who commits grave offenses against the state by resisting its officers and defying its authority, separate him from the state. Such acts may subject the offender even to outlawry, but can discharge him from no duty and can relieve him from no responsibility.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 21]

Chase next says in no uncertain terms that the confederates were traitors. “The national constitution declares that ‘treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.’ The word ‘only’ was used to exclude from the criminal jurisprudence of the new republic the odious doctrines of constructive treason. Its use, however, while limiting the definition to plain overt acts, brings these acts into conspicuous relief as being always and in essence treasonable. War, therefore, levied against the United States by citizens of the republic, under the pretended authority of the new state government of North Carolina, or of the so-called Confederate government which assumed the title of the ‘Confederate States,’ was treason against the United States.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 21]

Chase says those who claim that the act of secession made it impossible for the confederates to have committed treason against the United States are dead wrong. “It has been supposed, and by some strenuously maintained, that the North Carolina ordinance of 1861, which purported to repeal the North Carolina ordinance of 1789, by which the constitution of the United States was ratified, and to repeal also all subsequent acts by which the assent of North Carolina was given to amendments of the constitution,—did in fact repeal that ordinance and those acts, and thereby absolved the people of the state from all obligations as citizens of the United States, and, made it impossible to commit treason by levying war against the national government. No elaborate discussion of the theoretical question thus presented seems now to be necessary. The question as a practical one is at rest, and is not likely to be revived. It is enough to say here that, in our judgment, the answer which it has received from events is that which the soundest construction of the constitution warrants and requires.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 21]

Chase next takes on those who wrongly claim that the size of the conflict relieved confederates of being traitors to the United States. “Nor can we agree with some persons, distinguished by abilities and virtues, who insist that when rebellion attains the proportions and assumes the character of civil war, it is purged of its treasonable character, and can only be punished by the defeat of its armies, the disappointment of its hopes, and the calamities incident to unsuccessful war. Courts have no policy and can exercise no political powers. They can only declare the law. On what sound principle, then, can we say judicially that the levying of war ceases to be treason when the war becomes formidable? that war, levied by ten men or ten hundred, is certainly treason, but is no longer such when levied by ten thousand or ten hundred thousand? that the armed attempts of a few, attended by no serious danger to the Union, and suppressed by slight exertions of the public force, come, unquestionably, within the constitutional definition, but attempts by a vast combination, controlling several states, putting great armies in the field, menacing with imminent peril the life of the republic, and demanding immense efforts and immense expenditures of treasure and blood for their defeat and suppression, swell beyond the boundaries of the definition and become innocent in proportion to their enormity. But it is said that this is the doctrine of the supreme court. We think otherwise.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 21-22]

Next, the Chief Justice addresses those who are confused and believe conferring belligerent rights on rebels means they aren’t traitors. “In modern times it is the usual practice of civilized governments attacked by organized and formidable rebellion, to exercise and to concede belligerent rights. Under such circumstances, instead of punishing rebels when made prisoners in war as criminals, they agree in cartels for exchange, and make other mutually beneficial arrangements; and, instead of insisting upon offensive terms and designations, in intercourse with the civil or military chiefs, treat them, as far as possible without surrender of essential principles, like foreign foes engaged in regular warfare. But these are concessions made by the legislative and executive departments of government in the exercise of political discretion and in the interest of humanity, to mitigate vindictive passions inflamed by civil conflicts, and prevent the frightful evils of mutual reprisals and retaliations. They established no rights except during war.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 22]

Chase also addresses those who wrongly think lack of convictions for treason means no one committed treason. “It is also true, that when war ceased, and the authority of the regular government is fully re-established, the penalties of violated law are seldom inflicted upon many. Wise governments never forget that the criminality of individuals is not always or often equal that of the acts committed by the organization with which they are connected. Many are carried into rebellion by sincere though mistaken convictions; or hurried along by excitements due to social and state sympathies, and even by the compulsion of a public opinion not their own. When the strife of arms is over, and such governments, therefore, exercising still their political discretion, address themselves mainly to the work of conciliation and restoration, and exert the prerogative of mercy, rather than that of justice, complete remission is usually extended to large classes by amnesty or other exercise of legislative or executive authority, and individuals not included in these classes, with some exceptions of the greatest offenders, are absolved by pardon either absolutely or upon conditions prescribed by the government. These principles, common to all civilized nations, are those which regulated the action of the government of the United States during the war of the rebellion, and have regulated its actions since rebellion laid down its arms. In some respects the forbearance and liberality of the nation exceed all example. While hostilities were yet flagrant, one act of congress practically abolished the death penalty for treason subsequently committed, and another provided a mode in which citizens of rebel states, maintaining a loyal adhesion to the Union, could recover after war the value of their captured or abandoned property. The national government has steadily sought to facilitate restoration with adequate guaranties of union, order, and equal rights. On no occasion, however, and by no act, have the United States ever renounced their constitutional jurisdiction over the whole territory or over all the citizens of the republic, or conceded to citizens in arms against their country the character of alien enemies, or admitted the existence of any government de facto, hostile to itself within the boundaries of the Union. In the Prize Cases the supreme court simply assented the right of the United States to treat the insurgents as belligerents, and to claim from foreign nations the performance of neutral duties under the penalties known to international law. These decisions recognized, also, the fact of the exercise and concession of belligerent rights, and affirmed, as a necessary consequence, the proposition that during the war all the inhabitants of the country controlled by the rebellion, and all the inhabitants of the country loyal to the Union, were enemies reciprocally each of the other. But there is nothing in that opinion which gives countenance to the doctrine which counsel endeavor to deduce from it, that the insurgent states, by the act of rebellion, and by levying war against the nation, became foreign states, and their inhabitants alien enemies. This proposition being denied, it must result that in compelling debtors to pay to receivers, for the support of the rebellion, debts due to any citizen of the United States, the insurgent authorities committed an illegal violence, by which no obligation of debtors to creditors could be cancelled or in any respect affected.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 22]

Chief Justice Chase then looks at the attempt of the defense to use actions from the American Revolution as a precedent. “Nor can the defense in this case derive more support from the decisions affirming the validity of confiscations during the war for American independence. That war began, doubtless, like the recent civil war—in rebellion. Had it terminated unsuccessfully, and had English tribunals subsequently affirmed the validity of colonial confiscation and sequestration of British property and of debts due to British subjects, those decisions would be in point. No student of international law or of history needs to be informed how impossible it is that such decisions could have been. Had the recent rebellion proved successful, and had the validity of the confiscations and sequestrations actually enforced by the insurgent authorities, been afterwards questioned in Confederate courts, it is not improbable that the decision of the state courts made during and after the revolutionary war, might have been cited with approval. But it hardly needs remark that those decisions were made under circumstances widely differing from those which now exist. They were made by the courts of states which had succeeded in their attempt to sever their colonial connection with Great Britain, and sanctioned acts which depended for their validity wholly upon success; and can have no application to acts of a rebel self-styled government, seeking the severance of constitutional relations of states to the Union, but defeated in the attempt, and itself broken up and destroyed.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 22-23]

Regarding the debt, then, Chief Justice Chase said, “Those who engage in rebellion must consider the consequences. If they succeed, rebellion becomes revolution, and the new government will justify its founders. If they fail, all their acts hostile to the rightful government are violations of law, and originate no rights which can be recognized by the courts of the nation whose authority and existence have been alike assailed. We hold, therefore, that compulsory payment under the sequestration acts to the rebel receiver of the debt due to the plaintiffs from the defendant, was no discharge.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 23] As to the interest due, Chief Justice Chase continued, “It is claimed, however, that whatever may be the right of the plaintiffs to recover the principal debt from the defendant, they can not recover interest for the time during which war prevented all communication between the states in which they respectively resided. We can not think so. Interest is the lawful fruit of principal. There are, indeed, some authorities to the point that interest which has accrued during war between independent nations can not be afterwards recovered, though the debt, with other interest, may be. But that rule, in our judgment, is applicable only to such wars. We perceive nothing in the act of July 13, 1861, which suspended for a time all pacific intercourse between the loyal and insurgent portions of the country, that requires or justifies the application of that rule to the case before us. Legal rights could neither be originated nor defeated by the action of the central authorities of the late rebellion.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 23]

Chief Justice Chase ruled that the debt and all interest accrued were owed to the plaintiffs. A note follows the case report, reading, “In the case of Bigler v. Waller [Case No. 1,404], decided at the May term, 1870, of the circuit court of the United States for the district of Virginia, the chief justice held that, under the special circumstances of that case, interest was suspended during the civil war; and intimated a doubt as to the correctness of the above ruling.” [22 Fed. Cas. 20, 23]

 

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6 comments

  1. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    Chase kind of has the final word on some subjects related to the Civil War doesn’t he? He was pretty definitive and left nothing open to interpretation.

    1. It seems that way, Jimmy, though his opinion on secession in Texas v. White could have been put together a lot better.

  2. What is “constructive treason?”

    That is the first time I have read it put that way; that NC’s secession vote was to “repeal the North Carolina ordinance of 1789, by which the constitution of the United States was ratified.” Chase says, no, and makes reference to another case. On the surface, voting to rescind your ratification ordinance sounds a little more valid than the declarations of secession other Confederate states passed. I assume the other case he referenced addresses that?

    I think what Chase wrote in your eighth and ninth paragraphs was rather eloquent, and further addresses something I raised a while ago about that. For his faults as a cabinet member, he was an erudite Chief Justice.

    1. Constructive Treason would be an extension of the treason statute by a judicial ruling.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructive_treason

      1. Got it! Now I understand. Thanks, Al.

        1. Glad to help, Bert.

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