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Murray v. The Schooner Charming Betsy - 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 64 (1804)

Rule:

An act of Congress ought never to be construed to violate the law of nations if any other possible construction remains, and consequently can never be construed to violate neutral rights, or to affect neutral commerce, further than is warranted by the law of nations as understood in this country. 

Facts:

The Charming Betsy was an American built vessel belonging to citizens of the United States. It sailed from Baltimore, under the name of the Jane, on the 10th of April, 1800, with a cargo of flour, to St. Bartholomew's. She was sent out for the purpose of being sold. The cargo was disposed of at St. Bartholomew's, but finding it impossible to sell the vessel at that place, the captain proceeded with her to the island of St. Thomas, where the vessel was sold to Jared Shattuck, who changed the vessel’s name to that of the Charming Betsy. Having put on board a cargo consisting of American produce, he then cleared the vessel out as a Danish vessel for the island of Guadaloupe. On the vessel’s voyage, it was captured by a French privateer, and eight hands were put on board the vessel for the purpose of taking it into Guadaloupe as a prize. It was afterwards recaptured by Captain Alexander Murray, commander of the Constellation frigate, and carried into Martinique. Considering Jared Shattuck as an American citizen who was violating the law prohibiting all intercourse between the United States and France or its dependencies, or the sale of the vessel as a mere cover to evade that law, Captain Murray sold the cargo of the Charming Betsy, which consisted of American produce, in Martinique, and brought the vessel into the port of Philadelphia, where it was libeled under what is termed the non-intercourse law. The vessel and cargo were claimed by the consul of Denmark as being the bona fide property of a Danish subject. Thereafter, Shattuck brought an action to recover for the erroneous forfeiture of a vessel and sale of cargo. The judge for the district of Pennsylvania declared the seizure to be illegal, and that the vessel ought to be restored and the proceeds of the cargo paid to Shattuck. Captain Murray appealed.

Issue:

Was the seizure of the vessel, The Charming Betsy, illegal, thereby entitling Shattuck to damages?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court held that Shattuck was entitled to restitution for a cargo and vessel, and costs because Captain Murray was not entitled to confiscate Shattuck’s vessel and cargo under an act suspending the commercial intercourse between the United States and France. The Court held that the forfeiture was erroneous because, although Shattuck was an American citizen, he acquired commercial privileges that were attached to domicile in a foreign country.

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