James Madison Papers

From James Madison to Louis-André Pichon, 14 May 1804 (Abstract)

§ To Louis-André Pichon

14 May 1804, Department of State. Acknowledges Pichon’s letter of 9 May. Not having access at that moment to the circumstances and proceedings of the legal action in Charleston against Mr. Sachs, limits his remarks to the information Pichon has received that the judge’s decision turned on the nature of the captured ship and not on the commission under which Sachs was authorized by the French government to take prizes. Assuming the information was correct, observes that it does not follow at all that any of the immunities that could belong to the officer according to the law of nations have been denied him in this instance. On the contrary, the legal action was dismissed without mention of these immunities; they remain intact. It is not unusual when several strong arguments support a judge’s decision to see him rely on one without using the others. It could also be that the court was obliged to stress the point emphasized by Sachs’s lawyers rather than the one Pichon would have preferred. If, however, this court had entirely denied these privileges, the case could have been appealed to a superior court in order to correct the error. Reminds Pichon of a case of the same kind brought in 1795 in the U.S. Supreme Court against Samuel Davis, lieutenant of a French ship.1 The printed report of the trial shows that the case was dropped in accord with principles of respect for the commissions of foreign officers and the rights of belligerent nations, especially those of the French republic.

Tr (AAE: Political Correspondence, U.S., 57:112). 2 pp.; in French. Enclosed in Pichon to Talleyrand, 21 Prairial an XII (10 June 1804) (ibid., 57:108–10).

1The case to which JM referred, U.S. v. Peters, involved a motion for a prohibition to the district court of Pennsylvania, headed by Richard Peters, where a libel had been filed by James Yard against Samuel B. Davis, commander of the French privateer Cassius. The Cassius had captured Yard’s merchant ship William Lindsey and its cargo on 20 May 1795 on its way to Saint-Domingue, and Davis had taken the ship to Port de Paix to be condemned. Davis was subsequently arrested in Philadelphia. The case turned on the point “whether the District Court could sustain a libel for damages, in the case of a capture, as prize, made by a belligerent power, on the high seas, when the vessel captured was not brought within the jurisdiction of the United States.” The U.S. Supreme Court issued the prohibition, ruling that duly authorized French warships and “the officers commanding the same” could not be arrested in U.S. ports at the instance of individuals for captures made in international waters (James Brown Scott, Prize Cases Decided in the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1918 [3 vols.; Oxford, 1923], 1:81–92).

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