Garcia v. Lee by Roger B. Taney
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

37 U.S. 511

Garcia  v.  Lee

ERROR to the district court of the United States for the eastern district of Louisiana.

In the district court of Louisiana, the plaintiff in error, a resident in Cuba, on the 26th January, 1836, filed a petition, stating that on the 1st of September, 1806, he purchased of the Spanish government, for a valuable consideration, and was put into possession of the same, fifteen thousand arpents of land, divided into three tracts or parcels, having such marks and bounds as are laid down in the original plots and surveys annexed to the deed of sale by Juan Ventura Morales, then intendant of the Spanish government, dated the 5th day of September, 1806. Certified copies of the deed of sale, plots, and surveys were annexed to the petition.

The petition stated that Samuel Lee, a resident in the parish of Feliciana, and a citizen of the state, had taken possession of ten thousand arpents, part of the said grant, which is situated in the now state of Louisiana; and refuses to deliver up the same. The petitioner prays to be put in possession of the said land, &c.

On the 17th day of May, 1836, Samuel Lee filed an answer and exception to the plaintiff's petition, in which he denied 'all and singular the allegation in the plaintiff's petition herein exhibited against him, and will, on trial, require strict and legal proof of the same; and especially does he deny any jurisdiction of the Spanish government over the territory in which the land claimed by the plaintiff is situated at the time the grant exhibited by him was made, or at any time subsequent thereto: and strictly denies the right of the said government, or the officers thereof to make grants or sales of land therein.'

On the 27th of February, 1837, the district court of Louisiana entered a judgment in favor of the defendant; and the plaintiff prosecuted this appeal.

At the hearing of this case in the district court, certain documentary evidence was offered by the plaintiff, which was not received by the court; and the plaintiff took an exception to the rejection of the same. This bill of exceptions, containing all the documents offered and rejected in the court below, was sent up with the record.

The case was argued by Mr. M'Caleb and Mr. Southard, for the plaintiff in error; and by Mr. Jones, for the defendant.

The counsel for the plaintiff in error asked a reversal of the judgment of the district court of Louisiana, on the following grounds:

1st. The grant or sale to the plaintiff was made at a period when the territory between the Mississippi and Perdido was in the actual possession, and under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the crown of Spain.

2d. Great Britain was the first nation that exercised authority over the said territory in a sovereign capacity; France asserted pretensions to it until the ratification of the treaty of 1763, by which she finally and forever surrendered them to Great Britain: and consequently, the said territory could not have been, and was never intended to be ceded by France to Spain, by a treaty of the same date, to wit, 1763, as part of Louisiana.

3d. The said territory was never called a part of Louisiana by any nation except France; and after the final relinquishment of all her right and title, it was owned and possessed by Great Britain, as part of her West Florida, until the treaty of 1783; when it was ceded by her as such to Spain as a conquered country.

4th. The said territory formed no part of Louisiana, as retroceded by Spain to France by the treaty of St. Ildefonso, of 1800; nor of Louisiana, as ceded by France to the government of the United States by the treaty of Paris, of 1803.

5th. Spain never finally relinquished her right and title to the said territory until the ratification of the treaty of 1819, which was expressly a treaty for the settlement of all the pretensions of the governments of the United States and Spain; and which expressly confirms all grants made by the Spanish government, prior to the 24th of January, 1818, situated in all the territories to the eastward of the Mississippi, known by the name of East and West Florida.

Mr. Jones, for the defendant, contended that,

The only exception to the decision of the district court is on a point of evidence; namely, the admissibility, as evidence to the jury, of certain papers, seventeen in number.

The only possible tendency of those papers; indeed, the sole and professed object of their introduction, was to expound the meaning, operations, and effect of the treaty concluded at Paris, April 30, 1803, by which France ceded to this country the province of Louisiana.

The particular question which those papers were intended to affect, was one purely of the true construction of the treaty; and that was whether the eastern limit of the ceded territory was bounded by the Mississippi, or extended to the Perdido: a question, in time past, of extensive, animated, and protracted discussion between the governments of Spain and the United States; but practically solved by the latter, who took actual possession of the territory within the disputed limits, as part and parcel of the territory ceded by the treaty; definitively incorporated the whole of it with the territory of the United States, and annexed a part of it to the state of Louisiana: all under the sole authority of that treaty, and with no other title or pretence of title whatever.

We maintain the decision of the district court, ruling out these papers as evidence, upon the following grounds:

1. If this were a question of fact proper to be left to a jury, on extrinsic evidence, the papers in question were not competent evidence of the fact.

2. It is not now, nor was it ever such a question; but was always, so long as it remained open to any sort of controversy, one of construction, completely determinable by the words of the treaty, either taken by itself, or in connection with circumstances of equal notoriety; and equally within the proper sphere of judicial cognizance.

3. Maintaining, as we do, the sufficiency of the reasons upon which the claim to this territory was originally asserted on behalf of the United States, we nevertheless deny that it is, or ever was, a question of judicature; and affirm, that as a question of sovereign right between the two nations, it came originally, and has ever remained within the peculiar province of such departments of the government as are charged with the management of our foreign relations, and with the highest functions of sovereignty in asserting and maintaining national rights against foreign powers: and as such a question, that it has been long age conclusively terminated and settled by a series of public acts, in which the executive and legislative powers of the government have concurred to assert and establish the territorial sovereignty and rights of the nation, by the supreme authority of the nation: an authority which no private rights of property, founded in any conflicting rules of municipal law, can oppose; which is supreme over all the people and all the tribunals of the country; and which this Court has judicially recognised and deferred to, as supreme and incontrovertible.

Mr. Chief Justice TANEY 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).