United States v. Stark et al.

The citation for this case is 27 Fed. Cas. 1293, Case No. 16,378. The case comes to us from the District Court for the District of Georgia and was decided on November 27, 1871. Circuit Judge William B. Woods and District Judge John Erskine presided over the case.

On May 7, 1861, William H. Stark and others imported 266 hogsheads and 41 barrels of molasses, a total of $3,996 worth of goods, into Savannah. This was after Georgia had claimed to secede from the United States and the US Collector of Customs, John Boston, had resigned his position with the United States and had become the confederate collector. The importers paid duties to the confederate government. The defendants claimed that since the confederacy had belligerent rights and had captured this territory from the United States they had sovereignty over that territory and thus the port of Savannah was not a port of the United States at that time. To support their claim, they cited the Federal Case of US v. Hayward, Case No. 15,336, and the Supreme Court Case of US v. Rice, 17 US 247. Both cases arose out of the War of 1812 after the port of Castine, Maine was captured by the British.

In his charge to the jury, Judge Woods said, “The circuit court of the United States in the first case, and the supreme court of the United States in the other held that the goods imported were not liable to pay duties to the United States. The ground upon which these decisions were based is stated by the court in the case of cite U. S. v. Hayward in these words: ‘By the conquest and occupation of Castine, that territory passed under the allegiance and sovereignty of the enemy. The sovereignty of the United States over the territory was of course suspended, and the laws of the United States could no longer be rightfully enforced or be obligatory upon the inhabitants who remained and submitted to the conquerors. Castine, therefore, could not strictly be deemed a port of the United States, for its sovereignty no longer extended over the place.’ So in U. S. v. Rice [supra], the supreme court of the United States says: ‘Under the circumstances we are all of opinion that the claim for duties cannot be sustained. By the conquest and military occupation, the enemy acquired that firm possession which enabled him to exercise the fullest rights of sovereignty over that place. The sovereignty of the United States over the territory was of course suspended, and the laws of the United States could no longer be rightfully enforced there, or be obligatory upon the inhabitants who remained and submitted to the conquerors. By the surrender, the inhabitants passed under a temporary allegiance to the British government, and were bound by such laws, and such only as it chose to recognize and impose From the nature of the case no other laws could be obligatory upon them, for where there is no protection or allegiance or sovereignty, there can be no claim to obedience. Castine was, therefore, during this period so far as respected our revenue laws to be deemed a foreign port.’ It is clear from the extract just quoted that the decision in those cases was placed on the ground that Great Britain had acquired the sovereignty of Castine, and that the inhabitants owed the British government allegiance.” [27 Fed. Cas. 1293, 1294]

The question was, though, did this apply to the confederate takeover of Savannah. If the confederacy was a sovereign power, then the principle outlined in those cases would apply. “But the Confederate States as a sovereign power never had an existence. It was never recognized as such by any department of the government of the United States, or by any other nation on the globe. There was never a moment when any human being owed it allegiance; on the contrary, allegiance was due the United States and to their laws from all the inhabitants of the territory held by the military power of the Confederate States, and any violation of the laws of the United States was punishable by the authority of the United States. The government of the United States might prosecute for violation of its laws during the Rebellion. It has assumed to pardon those guilty of offences against its statutes, and a large number of prominent citizens of the late insurgent states now hold the pardon of the president for offences against the laws of the country, committed during the Rebellion, within the territory held by the military power of the Confederate States. Can we say then that a rebellion which never had a government which was recognized as such, was a sovereign, that it acquired sovereignty over territory held by force of its arms, and that the people of the territory controlled by it owed allegiance to a government which never had an existence? Clearly not.” [27 Fed. Cas. 1293, 1294]

Judge Woods says clearly, “The Confederate States were not a sovereignty; its inhabitants did not owe it allegiance, were not bound by its laws. On the contrary, the authority of the United States extended over them at all times. Their duty of allegiance and obedience to its laws was continuous and unbroken. All the laws of the United States, the act levying duties on imports included, were in force at all times and in all places within the territory of the United States, as much in Savannah as in New York; and all the citizens of the United States, whether within or without the insurrectionary districts, owed them obedience. If, as held by Mr. Chief Justice Chase, the laws of the United States against treason were in force over the inhabitants of the insurgent states, clearly the revenue laws were also in force.” [27 Fed. Cas. 1293, 1295]

Judge Woods next discusses whether the fact the confederates had belligerent rights impacted on the status of the port. “But it is claimed for defendants that the Confederate States were belligerents, and that belligerent occupation gave them the right to revenues of the port or country occupied. We cannot concur in this view. It is difficult to conceive of a more dangerous and pernicious doctrine. It would place in the hands of insurgents, to whom, out of humane motives belligerent rights had been conceded, those rights which are only accorded to a sovereign power, and hold out the hope of plunder as a motive and incentive to rebellion. The concession of belligerent rights to insurgents does not render them any less insurgents. It clothes them with no attributes of sovereignty, among the highest of which is the right to levy taxes and impost. It gave the insurgents no more right to collect duties than the granting of belligerent rights to the insurgent inhabitants of a county in the state of Georgia would confer upon them the right to enforce the collection of the taxes due the state. This precise point was decided by Mr. Chief Justice Chase in Shortridge v. Macon, already cited. He says: ‘There is nothing in that opinion (the Prize Cases) which gives countenance to the doctrine 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 receivers for the support of the Rebellion debts due to any city of the United States, the insurgent authorities committed illegal violence by which no obligation of debtors to creditors could be conceded or in any way respect affected.’ ” [27 Fed. Cas. 1293, 1295]

The defendants also claimed Lincoln’s proclamation of a blockade had suspended the revenue laws. Judge Woods disposes of that claim: “We do not understand that the president has authority to suspend the laws of the United States, nor can we suppose that this was the purpose of the proclamation of the blockade. The preamble recites as one of the reasons for the blockade the fact that by reason of the insurrection the laws of the United States for the collection of the revenue could not be effectually executed in the states named conformably to that provision of the constitution which requires duties to be uniform throughout the United States. One purpose of the blockade was, therefore, to secure the uniform collection of duties. The way not to accomplish this would be to allow all vessels which might succeed in eluding the blockade to discharge their cargoes duty free. If we adopt the view of defendants, one great purpose for which the blockade was established would be defeated. The laws of the United States required all goods imported from a foreign country to pay duties. The president’s proclamation closed certain ports. Can it be claimed, with any fair show of reason, that because a vessel had defied the proclamation and entered a blockaded port, that that fact relieves her cargo from the payment of duties?” [27 Fed. Cas. 1293, 1295-1296]

Judge Woods then summarizes his ruling: “Our view, then, of this case is this: The law of congress gives the national government a right to collect duties on all foreign goods imported into any port of the United States. Notwithstanding the Rebellion, the authority and laws of the United States extend over the insurgent territory. The port of Savannah was at all times a port of the United States. The Confederate States was not a sovereignty. The laws of its congress were absolute nullities. They had no right to collect duties, to levy taxes, or in any way to exercise the functions of a government The people of the insurgent states were not bound to obey their laws, so far as they attempted to interfere with the rights of the United States, but, on the contrary, owed allegiance to the United States and obedience to their laws. And it follows that the United States are entitled to the duties on goods imported into the insurgent districts during the Rebellion.” [27 Fed. Cas, 1293, 1296] He directed the jury to find against the defendants, with interest from May 7, 1861.

This is yet another case where unilateral secession is shown to be an illegal act, because if it had been legal the confederacy would have had sovereignty. The fact they didn’t shows conclusively unilateral secession was illegal.


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