Historical Charming Betsy and the Law of Nations
In Murray v. Schooner Charming Betsy 6 U.S.64, 2 L.Ed.208 (1804), Chief Justice John Marshall stated that “an act of Congress ought never to be construed to violate the law of nations if any other possible construction remains.” This early Supreme Court decision creates authority for a rule of statutory construction encouraging American Courts to interpret U.S. law consistent with international law where appropriate.
The Facts in Charming Betsy
The Charming Betsey, an American merchant vessel, set sail from Baltimore on April 10, 1800, under the name of The Jane. Upon arrival in St. Thomas, the vessel was sold to Jared Shattuck, who was born in the United States and moved to St. Thomas as a child. He later worked as a merchant, married there, and, in 1797, took an oath of allegiance to Denmark.
Jared Shattuck put a cargo on board of the schooner, calling her The Charming Betsey. In Guadeloupe, the vessel was captured by a French privateer and taken as a prize. The American frigate Constellation subsequently recaptured the ship. Its commander, Captain Murray, sold the cargo and brought the vessel to the United States. There, Shattuck was charged with violating a U.S. law prohibiting commercial intercourse between the United States and France. The Non-intercourse Act prohibited trade “between any person or persons resident within the United States or under their protection, and any person or persons resident within the territories of the French Republic, or any of the dependencies thereof.”
The consul of Denmark claimed that vessel and the cargo were the bona fide property of a Danish subject. The trial court and Circuit Court agreed, ordering that the vessel be restored and the proceeds of the cargo paid to Shattuck.
The Court’s Decision in Charming Betsy
The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the recapture was illegal. It specifically held that “the Charming Betsy with her cargo, being at the time of her recapture the bona fide property of a Danish burgher, is not forfeitable in consequence of her being employed in carrying on trade and commerce with a French island.”
In reaching its decision, the Court held that federal statutes should be interpreted in harmony with international law, which discouraged the capture of neutral nations and their citizens in a declared war.
As Chief Justice Marshall explained: “An act of Congress ought never to be construed to violate the law of nations if any other possible construction remains, and consequently can never be construed to violate neutral rights or to affect neutral commerce further than is warranted by the law of nations as understood in this country.”
While Chief Justice Marshall did not cite any specific legal authority in support of the holding, it continues to influence international law more than two centuries later. The cannon of statutory interpretation is referred to as the Charming Betsy cannon.
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