Williams v. Bruffy

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Williams v. Bruffy by Stephen Johnson Field
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

96 U.S. 176

Williams  v.  Bruffy

ERROR to the Supreme Court of Appeals of the State of Virginia.

This was an action of assumpsit for certain goods sold by the plaintiffs in March, 1861, to George Bruffy, since deceased, brought against the administrator of his estate in the Circuit Court of Rockingham County, Virginia. The plaintiffs at the time of the sale were and still are residents of the State of Pennsylvania; and the deceased was then, and until his death, which occurred during the war, continued to be, a resident of the State of Virginia.

The defendant pleaded the general issue, and two special pleas, in one of which he averred, in substance, that Pennsylvania was one of the United States, and that Virginia was one of the States which had formed a confederation known as the Confederate States; that from some time in 1861 until some time in 1865 the government of the United States was at war with the government of the Confederate States; that on the 30th of August, 1861, the Confederate States enacted a law sequestrating the lands, tenements, goods, chattels, rights, and credits within the Confederate States, and every right and interest therein, held by or for any alien enemy since the 21st of May, 1861, excepting such debts as may have been paid into the treasury of one of the Confederate States prior to the passage of the law, and making it the duty of every attorney, agent, former partner, trustee, or other person holding or controlling any such property or interest, to inform the receiver of the Confederate States of the fact, and to render an account thereof, and, so far as practicable, to place the same in the hands of the receiver, and declaring that thereafter such person should be acquitted of all responsibility for the property thus turned over, and that any person failing to give the information mentioned should be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor; that on the 1st of January, 1862, this law being in force, the defendant's intestate paid over to the receiver of the Confederate States the amount claimed by the plaintiffs, and that by virtue of such payment he is discharged from the debt. The second special plea is substantially like the first, with the further averment that the debt due to the plaintiffs was sequestrated by the decree of a Confederate district court in Virginia, upon the petition of the receiver, who afterwards collected it with interest.

The plaintiffs demurred to these pleas; but the demurrers were overruled. The case was then submitted to the court upon certain depositions and an agreed statement of facts. They established the sale and delivery of the goods, the residence of the plaintiffs and of the deceased during the war, and the payment by the latter of the debt in suit to the sequestrator of the Confederate government under a judgment of a Confederate district court. The court below gave judgment for the defendant; and the subsequent application of the plaintiffs to the Supreme Court of Appeals for a supersedeas was denied, that court being of opinion that the judgment was plainly right. Such a denial is deemed equivalent to an affirmance of the judgment, so far as to authorize a writ of error from this court to the Court of Appeals.

Mr. Timothy O. Howe and Mr. Enoch Totten for the plaintiffs in error.

1. In the decision in this cause there was drawn in question the validity of a statute of, or an authority exercised under, Virginia, on the ground that it was repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, and the decision was in favor of such validity. If she had not violated the Constitution by entering into an 'agreement or compact' with other States, the debtor of the plaintiffs would not have been within the so-called Confederacy. The efficacy of the sequestration law, so far as it operated upon their rights and privileges, was imparted to it by Virginia, through her unlawful acts and combinations with other States.

2. The decision below was adverse to the title, right, privilege, and immunity under the Constitution of the United States, which the plaintiffs specially claimed.

The Constitution declares that 'the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States;' and that 'no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.'

As citizens of Pennsylvania, the plaintiffs, under these provisions, had a right to pass through or reside in Virginia; to take, hold, and dispose of property within her borders; to institute and maintain actions in her courts, and to have the same rules of law enforced in the determination of them as would govern in suits between her citizens. Corfield v. Coryell, 4 Wash. 371; Ward v. Maryland, 12 Wall. 418. They were entitled to every privilege or immunity allowed to her most favored class of citizens. Tenn. v. Ambrose, 1 Meigs, 331; Paul v. Virginia, 8 Wall. 168; Slaughter-House Cases, 16 id. 75. The courts of Virginia, in a suit between her own citizens, could not have recognized as valid the defence set up below. This confiscation law which she enforced applies exclusively 'to alien enemies,' or, in other words, to citizens of the loyal States, and there can be no question that it impaired the obligation of this contract, and withheld from these plaintiffs the privileges and immunities to which they were undoubtedly entitled.

Mr. Henry W. Garnett and Mr. Thomas J. Miller for the defendant in error.

1. This court has no jurisdiction. No question arose touching the validity of a statute of any State, or of an authority exercised under it. 'The Confederate States of America,' so called, was an entirely different thing from the State of Virginia. Nor was there a decision against any title, right, privilege, or immunity, claimed under the Constitution, or any treaty, statute of, or commission held or authority exercised under, the United States.

If, on other grounds, the judgment below impaired or failed to give effect to the contract sued on, there is no authority here to review it. Knox v. Exchange Bank, 12 Wall. 379.

2. The Confederate government was a government in fact, exercising supreme authority over the people of the States composing it, and its acts controlling their conduct must be their legal vindication. The accepted writers on public law establish these propositions.

(a.) That a de facto government, enjoying belligerent rights, has control over the territory it holds, and its laws are binding on all persons residing within its actual jurisdiction, in connection with all things situate there or owing to an alier enemy.

(b.) That the test of such de facto government is the number of the population adhering to it; the armies it organizes in the field; the power it manifests in its resistance to the enemy; the facts recognized or repudiated by the enemy, such as interchanging prisoners of war, establishing blockades, &c.

We refer to the conclusions of law as contained in Wheaton's International Treatise, p. 23, Dana's note, on the recognition of belligerency. The Confederate government did comprehend, in its influence and authority, every thing constituting belligerency, and the de facto power entitling it to such rights as grow out of this condition of civil war. Mauran v. Insurance Company, 6 Wall. 1; Thorington v. Smith 8 id. 1.

If the belligerent government enacts a law of confiscation or sequestration, and a debt is paid under its authority, the alien creditor can never hold the debtor to a second liability. The debt is extinguished just as if it had been paid to the creditor. Ware v. Hylton, 3 Dall. 227; Vattel, c. 3, pp. 8, 138, c. 9, sect. 161; Brown v. United States, 8 Cranch, 126, 129; Kent Com. 1, 59; Halleck, 365; Woolsey, 118.

The right of the government to confiscate and sequestrate does not depend upon its being de jure. If it be de facto, and possessed of belligerent rights, nothing more is required. It is not the party, but the individual, who lives within its territory; and he is relieved, because it was not possible for him legally to avoid the payment of the debt to a power which he could not resist. It has been deemed better for society that an alien enemy should lose his debt, than that his debtor should be made twice to pay what he once has paid, according to the established rules of war and of nations. The government de facto may fail to be a government de jure, but the individual who holds the property of another may rightfully surrender it at the demands and coercion of that government.

We respectfully refer to the elaborate argument of Mr. Green, in the case of Keppel's Administrators v. Petersburg Railroad Co. (Chase's Decisions, pp. 174-203), and to Prize Cases (2 Black, 635); Thorington v. Smith, supra, and to Vattel, p. 425; Wheaton, sect. 296; and to Halleck, on the rights of belligerents, and the authority of de facto governments.

MR. JUSTICE FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).