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United States Supreme Court

26 U.S. 343

Lessee of Spratt  v.  Spratt

ERROR to the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, for the county of Washington.

This was an action of ejectment, brought by the plaintiff in error to recover several messuages, which he claimed by virtue of several demises made to him by Thomas Spratt, and others; the messuages all lying and being in the county of Washington, in the District of Columbia; against Sarah Spratt, the defendant in error, who was the widow of James Spratt, and who was in possession of the premises.

The following facts were agreed in the Court below:

James Spratt, before the time of the demise laid in the plaintiff's declaration, died seised in fee simple, of the premises, mentioned in the said declaration; that the lessors of the plaintiff are the legitimate brothers and sisters of the whole blood of the said James Spratt; and that the defendant was the lawful wife of said James Spratt, at the time of his death, and, as his widow, id still living. [*] Also, that the lessors of the plaintiff made a peaceable entry into the said premises, and executed to the plaintiff the lease mentioned in the said declaration upon the premises, and that the plaintiff, being in possession of said premises by virtue of that lease, was therefore ousted by the defendant. That the said James Spratt, and the defendant his wife, were natives of Ireland, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and came to the United States of America in the year eighteen hundred and twelve, and before the eighteenth day of June, in that year; and continued to reside therein, and to cohabit as man and wife, to the time of his death; which took place on the fourth day of March, eighteen hundred and twenty-four. That the said James Spratt, on the eleventh day of October, in the year 1821, was duly admitted, and naturalized as a citizen of the United States, in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, and received a certificate of such naturalization in due form, according to the directions and conditions of the several Acts of Congress, in such case provided; the said defendant then and there being his lawful wife, and as such, cohabiting with him as aforesaid. That the defendant, Sarah Spratt, did not, in her own person, comply with any of the directions or conditions required by the said Acts of Congress, or any of them, or become in any manner admitted or naturalized as a citizen of the United States, otherwise than by the admission and naturalization of her said husband. That the lessors of the plaintiff are all natives of Ireland, and native born subjects of the King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; that only two of them, to wit, Thomas Spratt, and Pierce Spratt, ever came to the United States; both of whom came to the United States, and resided therein some years before the death of James Spratt, and that none of them were admitted or naturalized citizens of the United States. That James Spratt was not in any manner seised of, or entitled to any of the messuages or tenements, in the declaration mentioned, at any time before his said naturalization, except of the lot No. ___ in Square, _____ which was duly bargained, sold, and conveyed, by one Isaac S. Middleton, to the said James Spratt, in fee simple, on the 11th day of January, 1821; and that all the rest and residue of the said messuages and tenements were purchased by the said James Spratt, and to him duly bargained, sold and conveyed, in fee simple, at various times in the year 1822 and 1823, after his said naturalization.

Upon this statement of facts, the question of law which arose was as to the true construction of a statute of the state of Maryland, entitled 'An Act concerning the territory of Columbia, and the City of Washington,' passed the 19th of December, 1791; by the 6th section of which it is provided as follows, to wit: 'That any foreigner may, by deed or will to be hereafter made, take and hold lands within that part of the said territory which lies within this state, in the same manner as if he was a citizen of this state; and the same lands may be conveyed by him, and transmitted to, and be inherited by his heirs or relations, as if he and they were citizens of this state: Provided, that no foreigner shall, in virtue hereof, be entitled to any further or other privilege of a citizen.'

It was contended, on the part of the plaintiff, that, according to the true construction of that statute, his lessors, who were the heirs and relations of the deceased, James Spratt, inherited all the lands and tenements of which he died seised in fee; and that the circumstance of James Spratt, who was a foreigner, having been naturalized before his death, could not alter the state of their right of inheritance, whether the lands were acquired before or after his act of naturalization.

Mr. Cox, for the plaintiff in error.

The term 'foreigner,' used in the law of Maryland, is not a technical word, nor has it received a technical definition; and in this respect, it differs from 'alien.' Its true signification must therefore be ascertained by its use, and by a reference to the statute by which it is introduced.

It is probably derived from the Latin, foris, and origo, the Spanish, foranio, or the French, forain; and always refers to birth or origin. Alien is obtained from the Latin, alienus, and always refers to the present time. One may cease to be an alien, but can never cease to be a foreigner.

In this sense it is employed in various Acts of Congress, in the most precise and formal writings, and in ordinary parlance. This is the proper mode of ascertaining its meaning. 6 Bacon's Abr. 382, Stat. 3. Referred to Acts of Congress, April 10, 1806. (Story's Laws, 100. 6.) Act of 1793, ch. 49. (Ibid. 282,) August 2, 1813, ch. 567. (Ibid. 1370,) 23d December, 1814. (Ibid. 1448-9.)

It has also another signification, equally distinct from alien. Ministers from abroad are called 'foreign ministers,' in the Act of Congress relative to their compensation. The foreign trade and commerce of the United States, are, in such terms, the subject of legislation. When applied to persons, it is the correlative of native. Naturalized foreigner is also in use.

The policy of the Act was to encourage persons from abroad to purchase and settle in the District, and an opposite construction of the Act, from that claimed by the plaintiff, would be in opposition to the purposes of the statute.

The right of every one from abroad, to purchase and transmit 'to his heirs or relations,' the real estate he may acquire, is conferred by positive statutes; it is absolute and vested, and not to be taken away by implication and inference. As to the construction of statutes. Cited 6 Bacon's Abr. 6. 380. 386. 388. 389.

In reply to Mr. Key and Mr. Jones, Mr. Cox argued:

In regard to the etymology, alien is derived directly from the Latin alienus, and has in common parlance the same signification-foreigner is a modern word, derived either mediately or directly from fores and origo; whenever properly used, it refers to the origin, and not to any present relation. One of the authorities cited, employs the expression, 'a foreigner who has been naturalized, and has become a denizen.' It would be a solecism in language, to use the phrase 'an alien who has been naturalized;' to be equalled only by the language employed in one of the Maryland statutes which has been referred to, which in express terms, calls foreigners who have been naturalized, 'natural born subjects.'

It is admitted as a general rule, that the naturalization refers back, and confirms a title previously acquired; but that is only when necessary to give validity to it. It can never relate back so as to preclude the party from appealing to the statute, as conferring upon him, originally, a valid title.

The conclusion which has been pressed, that the construction contended for would give to alien heirs, privileges, superior to those of natural born heirs, can derive no support from the law. They are only relieved from the disabilities incident to their alienage. A remote alien heir is not preferred to a nearer native heir.

It has been contended, that inasmuch as the party, by his naturalization lost his privilege of inheriting from them, the disability should be reciprocal. Such, however, is not the legal effect of becoming a citizen. An individual becoming naturalized under our laws, thereby loses no privilege of a foreign subject; he acquires no privileges, but loses none formerly possessed.

The law of Maryland merely preserves and legalizes inheritable blood, between a citizen and a foreigner; and enables the child or heir, not naturalized, to inherit as if he were. The construction contended for, makes it immaterial when the party became a citizen.

The policy of the two Acts of the legislature, and the naturalization laws, are harmonious and consistent. That if the latter is to induce aliens to become citizens, that of the former is to induce foreigners to purchase and reside in the district. The laws for naturalization ought not to be so construed, as by remote reference to involve as a consequence the abrogation and annihilation of privileges, vested in the latter as the proprietor of the land.

It is immaterial whether the privilege be considered as one annexed to the person, or attached to the land; the person can only have it as the proprietor of the land, and the land can only have it as being so held.

Mr. Key and Mr. Jones, for the defendant in error. The construction contended for cannot be given to the Maryland statute: and 2d. If it could, it does not affect the case. There is no real distinction between the term 'foreigner' and 'alien.' Their derivation is from words of the same import, and they are used synonymously, by writers of all descriptions. The rule of construction stated on the other side, is a correct one, viz: looking at other laws in pari materia, and seeing how the term in controversy is understood in them. This rule has been applied on the other side, by looking to the laws of the Congress of the United States, where the word 'alien' is generally used as opposed to 'citizen.' But this does not aid us in endeavouring to understand what the Maryland Legislature meant by the expression. For this purpose, we must look to laws passed by the same legislature.

Look then to the Maryland laws of naturalization. These cases are evidently meant only to apply to such persons as the counsel for the appellant contends, are properly called 'aliens.' Such persons as are not citizens, but are to be made so. Yet the word used in all these laws, is the same word we find in the statute; we are now considering it is 'foreigner.'

We come at the meaning of the expression by considering the object of the law. It is to enable foreigners to take and hold and transmit lands, who were under disability to do so. Who were they? not 'foreigners,' as understood on the other side; who, though born in a foreign country, might have become citizens here, and be under no disability-but 'foreigners,' as understood by the legislature, who had not become citizens, and who were under the disability.

In the section in controversy, the word is used in plain opposition to 'citizen.' The persons it intended to provide for, are to take as if they were 'citizens.' By this construction of the word, the law is made to operate in cases where its operation is necessary. The contrary construction makes it operate where its operation is unnecessary.

2d. What has this law to do with the case?

James Spratt becomes naturalized, becomes to all intents and purposes an American citizen. He purchases lands-how is he entitled to hold them? By virtue of his citizenship. In the case before the Court, it is true he purchased one of the lots in question before his naturalization; it is well settled, that his naturalization relates back and protects his title. It is contended he takes the land not as a citizen, which he is, but as a foreigner, which he is not. That is, a law made for a man who could not take without the law, is to give right to him who had it without the law. A citizen shall not take as a citizen, but under a law made for foreigners. If he could take by either, (and that is all that can be asked) yet must he not be held to take by the higher and better right?-by the privilege acquired by his citizenship, as the heir at law takes by descent where he is devisee? It is said this is taking away a privilege from him; what privilege? it is said-that of transmitting to his alien heirs; that by the Maryland laws, he had the right of holding lands and so transmitting them-and that it is taking away this right, to make him take as a citizen. But it is plain, that if he takes and transmits the land as a foreigner, under the Maryland law, notwithstanding his naturalization, that he must then transmit it to his foreign heirs to the exclusion of his own children, born here. This must be the case according to all decisions upon the subject, for a citizen cannot inherit to a foreigner, nor a foreigner to a citizen. If he holds as a foreigner; foreigners, by this Maryland law, will inherit. Citizens, though his own children, can by no law inherit if he holds as a foreigner. Here then would be the case of a citizen; and his own children, though citizens, are not to inherit to him. Can a citizen hold, in any other way than as a citizen? If he is a citizen, how can he take, why should he take, as a foreigner?-only for the sake of these foreign relations-surely not for his own. They show this Maryland law, and want him to take by that, though he chose to take by citizenship. They show a law, saying a man may take and transmit as a foreigner-but he may also choose to take by a better right, by citizenship-and he becomes naturalized. They ought to show a law, saying he must take and transmit as a foreigner.

Mr. Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.


^*  The Act of Assembly of Maryland, No. 1786, ch. 45, entitled 'An Act to direct descents,' provides; 'If there be no descendants or kindred of the intestate to take the estate, then the same shall go to the husband or wife, as the case may be.'

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).