Talbot v. Janson: Supreme Court Recognizes Dual Citizenship in 1795Historical
In Talbot v. Janson, 3 U.S. 133 (1795), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the jurisdiction of the court extended to the seas. The Court also held that Americans who gain citizenship of another country do not waive their U.S. citizenship status.
The Facts of the Case
The case involved a libel suit against Edward Ballard, the captain of an armed vessel, which was transporting cargo on behalf of the Netherlands. On May 16, 1794, the ship and its cargo were usurped by the L’Ami de la Point at Petre, which was commanded by Captain William Talbot. He claimed to take her as the property of an enemy of the French Republic, under whose authority the capture was alleged to be made.
The owner of the captured Dutch vessel alleged that Ballard was a native of Virginia and a United States citizen. The suit further maintained that Ballard did not legally have any commission to capture Dutch vessels or property, and, therefore, the capture directly violated a treaty between the U.S. and Holland. Because a capture without a commission, or as pirates, could not divest the property of the original, bona fide owners, the ship owner sought restitution for the cargo.
In his defense, Ballard stated that he had become a citizen of the French Republic and received a commission as a privateer under the authority of the French Republic, which was at war with Holland. Thus, the central issue in the case was the citizenship of Talbot and Ballard, as well as whether the seized Dutch ship and its cargo were property of the United States.
The Court’s Decision
The Court first held that its jurisdiction extended beyond the territorial land and into the open seas. Comparing piracy and plunder to an act of trespass, Justice James Iredell wrote:
This is so palpable a violation of our own law (I mean the common law, of which the law of nations is a part, as it subsisted either before the act of Congress on the subject, or since that has provided a particular manner of enforcing it,) as well as of the law of nations generally; that I cannot entertain the slightest doubt, but that upon the case of the libel, prima facie, the District Court had jurisdiction.
The Court also recognized that dual-citizenship is possible, rejecting the argument that Ballard and Talbot were no longer American citizens. In reaching this decision, the Court held that an act of expatriation must be bona fide. “I do not think that merely taking such an oath, and being admitted a citizen there, in itself, is evidence of a bona fide expatriation, or completely discharges the obligations he owes to his own country,” Justice Iredell explained in his opinion.
With regard to the confusion that might arise regarding the citizenship of an individual, Justice Iredell suggested:
If the Legislature had prescribed a mode, everyone would know, whether it had or had not been pursued, and all rights, private as well as public, would be equally guarded; but upon the present doctrine, no rights are secured, but those of the expatriator himself.
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
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