Secretary of State John Quincy Adams Writes President James Monroe, Making the U.S. Argument in the Landmark Case of The Ship Apollon

In this key case, the Marshall Court ultimately held that the municipal laws of one nation do not extend beyond its own territory, except regarding its own citizens

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The Ship Apollon sailed from France, bound to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1820. But at the time there was a trade war building, and concern that a proposed tonnage duty on French vessels might be passed by the U.S. Congress, and enforced by customs officials at U.S. ports. So an alternative destination,...

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Secretary of State John Quincy Adams Writes President James Monroe, Making the U.S. Argument in the Landmark Case of The Ship Apollon

In this key case, the Marshall Court ultimately held that the municipal laws of one nation do not extend beyond its own territory, except regarding its own citizens

The Ship Apollon sailed from France, bound to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1820. But at the time there was a trade war building, and concern that a proposed tonnage duty on French vessels might be passed by the U.S. Congress, and enforced by customs officials at U.S. ports. So an alternative destination, to use if necessary, in northern Florida was selected, as Florida then belonged to Spain. The object of this ruse being to ultimately land her cargo in the United States, and to take a return cargo of American cotton to France. Upon her arrival off the port of Charleston, the master ascertained that the French tonnage duty act had passed, (Act of 15th of May, 1820) and, the Apollon therefore declined entering the port. Having obtained information from the collector that Amelia Island in Florida was not deemed an American territory, he sailed for that place; and there the ship lay for a considerable time, while the master proceeded to St. Augustine to set up a system to be used now and in the future. This would enable French ships to have a convenient depot for the purpose of carrying on, as American officials maintained, an illicit trade, in fraud of the revenue and navigation laws of the United States. In the midst of this program, as the ship and cargo lay in the St. Mary’s River in Spanish waters, it was seized by the United States, condemned as a prize, and its cargo sold. The master of the French ship brought suit for damages against the U.S. customs collector, and the U.S. government considered what course to take.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams believed that U.S. officials had acted properly and wanted to make that case in court. He brought that opinion to President James Monroe.

Letter signed, Washington, July 17, 1821, to President Monroe, filled with advice on his opinion and recommendations on what course to follow. “I have the honor of enclosing for your revision the draft of a letter to the Baron de Neuville [a French diplomat] concerning the case of the Apollon. As there are passages in it which would appear intemperate but for those which provoked, them I enclose translations of his letter of 4 April and of his note of the 9th instant requesting of you to examine them particularly with reference to the reply and if anything deserving of notice in his letter is omitted in the reply that you would have the goodness to point it out that I may make the necessary additions.

“I am satisfied in my own mind of the legality of the seizure of the Apollon both by the laws of the United States and the laws of nations. The latter rest upon the principle of natural and unquestionable justice. The former seem to me strongly fortified by the 14th section of the collection law which expressly includes the river St Mary’s not limited to the middle of the river within the U.S. revenue district. The principle that the jurisdiction of a nation for the execution of its revenue laws extends much beyond its territorial jurisdiction properly so called, I take to be settled by universal usage. And the question in this case appears to be of such magnitude as a question of existing authority in the government that I would suggest to your consideration whether it would not be expedient to instruct the District Attorney in Georgia to defend the action against the collector brought by Captain Edou and if it should turn upon the point of legality of the seizure to have the cause, in case the decision should be against the collector, brought up to the Supreme Court for a solemn decision by them. As Mr Roth is on the point of departure for France I must beg the favor that the draft may be returned to me as soon as will suit your convenience. The enclosed letter from Mr Forbes at Buenos Ayres is the only important communication received at this Department since I had the honor of last writing to you.”

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1824 Mr. Justice Story wrote the opinion of the Court finding against Adams’s position. He held that the municipal laws of one nation do not extend beyond its own territory, except regarding its own citizens. The U.S. could not seize a ship with a French crew moored in Spanish waters, just because they were trying to circumvent American laws from the outside. The case is considered one of the milestone decisions of the Marshall Court, as it defined jurisdiction and reduced one area of potential international tension. It was also a rare legal loss for Adams.

Letters from one president to another are uncommon, and this is our first between Adams and Monroe.

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