Historical Talbot v. Seeman: The Power to Declare War
In Talbot v. Seeman, 5 U.S. 1 (1801), the U.S. Supreme Court considered the circumstances under which salvage rights attach to a neutral vessel, captured by enemy forces, and then recaptured by the United States Navy. The Court’s decision, which was authored by Chief Justice John Marshall, also addressed Congress’ power to declare war.
The Facts of Talbot v. Seeman
Silas Talbot, Esq., on behalf of himself and the officers and crew of the Constitution, a U.S. vessel, brought a libel for salvage against the ship Amelia, the property of merchant citizens of Hamburg. The vessel was recaptured on the high seas by the Constitution on September 15, 1799, after being captured nine days prior by a French corvette, while on her voyage from Calcutta to Hamburg. The captors placed a prize master and men on board of the Amelia, and ordered her to St. Domingo. On her re-capture, by Captain Talbot, she was sent to New York. The district court allowed salvage to the libellants, and the circuit court reversed the decree.
The vessel’s owner, Hans Frederick Seeman, maintained that Captain Talbot had no right to interfere with the Amelia because she was a neutral vessel and not liable to condemnation by the laws of nations. Seeman further argued that salvage is only due when a benefit has been conferred, and here none was received.
The Legal Background
The question before the Supreme Court was whether Talbot was entitled to salvage. Salvage is the compensation paid to persons by whose voluntary assistance a ship at sea or her cargo or both have been saved in whole or in part from impending sea peril or in recovering such property from actual peril or loss, as in cases of shipwreck, derelict, or recapture. The three required elements of a salvage claim are: 1. A marine peril; 2. Service voluntarily rendered when not required as an existing duty or from a special contract; 3. Success in whole or in part, or that the service rendered contributed to such success.
The taking must also be lawful. As explained by Chief Justice Marshall:
On a recapture, therefore, made by a neutral power, no claim for salvage can arise, because the act of retaking is a hostile act, not justified by the situation of the nation to which the vessel making the recapture belongs, in relation to that from the possession of which such recaptured vessel was taken.
The Court’s Decision
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the recapture was lawful and ordered salvage be paid to Talbot. Chief Justice John Marshall authored the Court’s opinion, which for the first time was labeled “The Opinion of the Court,” thereby officially ending the practice of the justices all writing separate opinions.
The Court first addressed whether the recapture was legal, given that the Amelia was owned by citizens of Hamburg, which was not involved in the Franco-American Naval Conflict of 1798-1800. The Court also addressed the situation between the United States and France at the date of the recapture, given that no official war was declared.
With regard to the war powers granted by the Constitution, Chief Justice Marshall stated:
The whole powers of war being, by the constitution of the United States, vested in congress, the acts of that body can alone be resorted to as our guides in this inquiry. It is not denied, nor in the course of the argument has it been denied, that congress may authorize general hostilities, in which case the general laws of war apply to our situation; or partial hostilities, in which case the laws of war, so far as they actually apply to our situation.
In this case, the Court found that Congress had authorized the military seizure of French ships. The Court further concluded that because the Amelia was an armed vessel commanded and manned by Frenchmen, there was probable cause to bring her in for adjudication. Accordingly, the recapture was lawful.
The Court further held that Captain Talbot and his men had saved the vessel from the French and, therefore, should be paid salvage in the amount of one sixth of the vessel’s value. “The captured vessel was of such description that the law by which she was to be tried, condemned her as good prize to the captor, the Chief Justice explained. “Her danger then was real and imminent. The service rendered her was an essential service, and the court is therefore of opinion that the recaptor is entitled to salvage.”
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