Thomas Jefferson Papers

Caesar A. Rodney to Thomas Jefferson, 30 March 1811

From Caesar A. Rodney

Washington March 30th 1811.

Honored & Dear Sir,

If you recollect just before you retired from office, I ventured to give you an opinion, on a case stated by Mr Wilberforce, in direct opposition to those he had obtained in England. It was natural that I should distrust my own judgment, when put in competition with that of able & eminent civilians perfectly conversant with the laws & practice of courts of admiralty. But the slave trade having been prohibited by act of parliament, & cases arising under it, made cognizable before the admiralty tribunals, all the rules of prize courts, succeeded, of course, as a commentary to the text, to direct the course of proceeding in the exercise of this branch of their jurisdiction. Agreeably to the usual practice therefore the onus probandi would, in these cases, be imposed on the claimant. Without violating the principle which prohibits one nation from executing or even noticing the penal laws of another, I conceived it would be competent in examining the pretensions for restitution to look into the right or title of a claimant to the property And it would seem to me, a solecism, if a right could exist in a citizen of the U. States in the face of the offended laws of his own country. No title I thought1 could flow from such an impure source. Under these impressions I gave the opinion which has since been confirmed in various cases by the high cou[rt] of admiralty. And I am now happy to find the question put at rest, by a solemn decision before the Lords Commissioners of appeals in prize causes. A breif sketch of the case is contained in the enclosed paper. You will receive pleasure and satisfaction from its perusal. The determination will have a happy influence, and will contribute greatly to aid the cause of humanity in which you have so successfully laboured. With every sentiment of esteem, affection and gratitude I remain Dr Sir,

Yours Truly

C. A. Rodney

RC (DLC); edge chipped; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received from Wilmington on 14 Apr. 1811 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure not found.

William Wilberforce, Great Britain’s leading antislavery advocate, had written urging that the United States agree with Britain mutually to enforce each other’s bans on the transatlantic slave trade. He expressed concern that in the case of the seizure by the British navy of slave ships sailing under the American flag, legal opinions had been obtained suggesting that the slaves might have to be returned to their American owners (Wilberforce to TJ, Sept. 1808 [NN]). Rodney ventured his opinion of Wilberforce’s letter on 28 Feb. 1809 (DLC), arguing that while a British court could not apply American criminal law to the slave traders, it could and should deny claimants the restoration of property forfeited under the American law abolishing the slave trade. On 28 July 1810 the British lords commissioners of appeals in prize causes let stand a vice-admiralty decision confiscating and freeing a cargo of slaves from the American vessel Amedie and awarding the ship to its captors, because carrying such a cargo violated both British and American bans on international slave trading (Thomas Harman Acton, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined Before the Most Noble and Right Honourable The Lords Commissioners of Appeals in Prize Causes: Also on Appeal to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council [London, 1811], 1:240–51).

1Preceding two words interlined.

Index Entries

  • Acton, Thomas Harman; Reports of Cases Argued and Determined search
  • Amedie (ship) search
  • antislavery; and W. Wilberforce search
  • Great Britain; and prize cases search
  • Great Britain; and slave trade search
  • Great Britain; Courts of Admiralty search
  • Great Britain; High Court of Admiralty search
  • Reports of Cases Argued and Determined (Acton) search
  • Rodney, Caesar Augustus; legal opinion of search
  • Rodney, Caesar Augustus; letters from search
  • slave trade; and Great Britain search
  • Wilberforce, William; and antislavery search