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United States Supreme Court

53 U.S. 79

Harris  v.  Runnels

THIS case was brought up, by writ of error, from the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of Mississippi.

The action was originally brought by Rowan & Harris upon the following note. Rowan having died during the suit, it was prosecuted by Harris, the surviving partner. It will be perceived that the action was by the indorsees against the indorser.

Dollars 8,671.33 1/3.

On or before the first day of March, eighteen hundred and forty, I promise to pay H. G. Runnels, or order, eighty-six hundred and seventy-one 33 1/3 dollars, negotiable and payable at the Planters' Bank, Natchez, Miss., value received, this 7th December, 1837.

G. W. ADAMS. (Indorsed.)

For value received, I transfer and assign over to Rowan & Harris the within note of $8,671.33 1/3; said note is secured by mortgage on lands, of record in Bolivar county, Miss., and I vest in said Rowan & Harris the right to control said mortgage.

Given under my hand this 22d July, 1838.

H. G. RUNNELS.

Rowan & Harris.

Before stating the pleas of the defendant, it is proper to refer to a statute of Mississippi, passed in 1852. (Howard & Hutch. Dig., 155.)

Sec. 1, Describes who are slaves; such as are brought in pursuant to law, &c.

Sec. 2. Slaves may be brought in, except convicts.

Sec. 3. No person shall bring in or hold convicts.

Sec. 4. Slaves not to be brought in without a previous certificate, signed by two respectable freeholders in the county and state from which the slaves were brought, and signed and acknowledged before the clerk of said county, and certified by the clerk that the persons whose signatures were affixed thereto were respectable freeholders of the county and neighborhood where they resided, containing a particular description of the stature and complexion of such slaves, together with the names, ages, and sex of the same; and furthermore, that the slaves therein mentioned and described had not been guilty or convicted of murder, burglary, or arson, or felony, within the knowledge or belief of such freeholders.

Sec. 5. The seller shall register the certificate in the Orphans' Court, and swear that he believes it to be true.

Sec. 6. Seller or purchaser, contrary to this act, shall pay one hundred dollars for every slave so sold or purchased.

To the declaration of the plaintiff, Runnels plead three pleas, viz., the general issue of non assumpsit and two special pleas. The conclusion of one of these pleas will show the nature of both. 'And the defendant avers, that the said plaintiffs had not, previously to the importation of the slaves, sold as aforesaid to the said defendant, and had not previously to, nor at the time when the said slaves were sold to this defendant, obtained a certificate signed by two respectable freeholders in the county of the state of Virginia, from which said slaves were brought, and signed or acknowledged before the clerk of said county, in the state of Virginia, and certified by said clerk, that the persons whose signatures were affixed thereto were respectable freeholders of the county and neighborhood where they resided, containing a particular description of the stature and complexion of such slaves, together with the names, ages, and sex of the same; and furthermore, that the slaves therein mentioned and described had not been guilty or convicted of murder, burglary, or arson, or felony, within the knowledge or belief of such freeholders, in the said state of Virginia; and so this defendant says, that the sale of said slaves to him was illegal and void, and the transfer and indorsement made by him of the note in the declaration was also illegal and void, and this he is ready to verify; wherefore, &c.'

The plaintiff joined issue upon the first plea, and demurred to the two special pleas. Upon the trial, the court below overruled the demurrers, and gave judgment for the defendant. Whereupon, the plaintiff brought the case up to this court by writ of error.

It was argued by Mr. Nelson, for the plaintiff in error, and by Mr. Howard for the defendant.

Mr. Nelson contended that the Statute of Mississippi was a mere police regulation, the non-observance of which did not avoid the contract, and cited the following cases: Faikney v. Reynous, 4 Burr., 2069; Petrie v. Hannay, 3 T. R., 418; Farmer v. Russell and another, 1 Bos. & P., 296; Simpson v. Bloss, 7 Taunt., 246; Johnson and others v. Hudson, 11 East, 180; Armstrong v. Toler, 11 Wheat., 259; Graves v. Slaughter, 15 Pet., 449; and Story Confl. of Laws, pp. 205-209. The act of Mississippi of the 18th June, 1822, How. & Hutch. Dig., 156; Hutch. Miss. Code, 513.

Mr. Howard contended, that contracts contrary to laws or public policy are void and will not be enforced.

Craig v. State of Missouri, 4 Pet., 426; Hunt v. Knickerbacker, 5 Johns. (N. Y.), 327; Sharp v. Teese, 4 Halst. (N. J.), 352; Marchant v. Evans, 8 Taunt. 142; Stephens v. Robinson, 2 Cromp. & J., 209; Spurgeen v. McElwain, 6 Ohio, 442; Belding v. Pitkin, 2 Cai. (N. Y.), 147; Fales v. Mayberry, 2 Gall., 560; Griswold v. Waddington, 15 Johns. (N. Y.), 37; 16 Id., 438.

They are void whether so declared by the statute or not. It is sufficient that they are forbidden, or contrary to law or public policy. Yates v. Williams, 5 Ark., 684; Eberman v. Reitzel, 1 Watts & S. (Pa.), 181.

Where a thing is not absolutely prohibited, but permitted to be done in a particular manner, and prohibited in any other, contracts are not valid made in violation of the prescribed method. This was settled in the celebrated case of Law v. Hodson, 11 East, 300, which was an action to recover the price of brick which did not conform to the size prescribed by the statute. Like the Mississippi law of 1822, it did not declare contracts void, but contained a prohibition under penalty. To the same effect is Little v. Poole, 9 Barn. & C., 192; Forster v. Taylor, 5 Barn. & Ad., 887; Tyson v. Thomas, 1 McCl. & Y., 119; Langton v. Hughes, 1 Mau. & Sel., 593; Bank U.S. v. Owens, 2 Pet., 537.

It was decided in Massachusetts, that 'no action lies on a promissory note, the consideration whereof was the sale of shingles, not of the size prescribed by the statute.' Wheeler v. Russell, 17 Mass., 258.

No action can be maintained for leather not stamped as required by law; Elkins v. Parkhurst, 17 Vt., 105; DeBegnis v. Armistead, 10 Bing., 107; Cope v. Rowland, 2 Mees. & W., 149. The last case decides, that business by a broker without license is illegal, and that he cannot recover for his services.

Mr. Justice WAYNE delivered the opinion of the court.

NotesEdit

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).