State Documents on Federal Relations/23n

Pennsylvania and the Federal Judiciary.

The Olmstead Case.


The following resolutions present the final phase in a conflict, of more than thirty years duration, between the United States and the State of Pennsylvania over their respective jurisdictions. This conflict grew out of the appeal of Gideon Olmstead from the judgment of the Pennsylvania Court of Admiralty, in regard to the distribution of the prize money in the case of the sloop "Active," in 1778, to the Committee of Appeals of Congress.[1] This Committee reversed the decision, but their jurisdiction was denied by the Legislature and the other State authorities, and the enforcement of the decree was successfully withstood by the State until 1808. In that year the dispute was revived by the application of the Attorney General to the Supreme Court, in behalf of Olmstead, for a writ of mandamus commanding Judge Peters of the District Court to enforce the judgment previously given (1779). The application was granted by Chief Justice Marshall, February 23, 1809, in one of his most characteristic and important opinions, in which he solemnly declared, "If the legislatures of the several States may, at will, annul the judgments of the Courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery; and the nation is deprived of the means of enforcing its laws by the instrumentality of its own tribunals." (U. S. v. Peters, 5 Cranch, 136.) Judge Peters issued the writ, but the attempt of the United States Marshal to serve it was resisted by a brigade of the State militia, under the command of General Bright, which had been called out by Governor Snyder, February 27, 1809. The Marshal thereupon summoned a posse-comitatus of two thousand men, but in order to avoid bloodshed, fixed the day for the service of the warrant to three weeks ahead. In the mean time the Governor's appeal to President Madison to intervene was firmly declined. The Legislature, however, in justification of the action of the State, adopted an elaborate state rights report and the subjoined resolutions. The doctrines underlying these resolutions had been maintained by the Courts of the State in the opinions of Chief Justice McKean in 1792 in the case of Ross et al. v. Rittenhouse (2 Dallas, 160), a case growing out of the Olmstead case, and in 1798 in the case of Res Publica v. Cobbett (3 Dallas, 473, 474). When these resolutions were presented to Congress, June 9, 1809, the House of Representatives refused to print them by vote of 63 to 50. (Annals, 258–260.) For the action of the States on this proposal, see No. 24. The Legislature, however, at the same time, opened a way for retreat by placing at the disposal of the Governor a sum of money, equal to that in dispute, to be used as "might appear advisable and proper." On the 15th of April, the Marshal, eluding the vigilance of the militia, succeeded in executing his process, and two days later Chief Justice Tilghman, of the State Supreme Court, after presenting a forcible exposition of the rights of the State and of the United States (Brightly's Reports, Penna., 14, 15; Amer. Reg. 1809, 171), issued the writ of habeas corpus, and the sum in dispute was finally turned over by the State authorities. Subsequently General Bright and others were tried for obstructing the process of the United States District Court in the Circuit Court, and were finally convicted and sentenced to fine and imprisonment, but were pardoned by the President on the ground that "they had acted under a mistaken sense of duty." A Committee of the State Senate, March 3, 1810, reported in favor of a bill donating a tract of two hundred acres of land to each of the condemned, "in consideration of their services and sufferings," but the measure failed. (Journal of the Senate of Penna. (1809–10), 382).

References: Sources. For message of Gov. Snyder, Report of the Committee and Resolutions, cf. Journal of the Senate of Penna., 1808–09, 268, 269, 295–307; Journal of the House, 615–629, 692–697, 786–798; Resolutions and correspondence given in Annals of Cong., II Cong., 2 Sess., Pt. II, 2253–2269; Resolutions in Pamphlet Laws of Penna., 1808–09, 200; Amer. State Papers, Misc. II, 2–7; Annual Register, 1809, 150–175, 168–174; Niles' Register, XLIII, Sup. 24. Two contemporary pamphlets: The whole Proceedings in the Case of Olmstead v. Rittenhouse, by Richard Peters, Jr. (Phila., 1809); The Trial of General Bright in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Pennsylvania. (Phila., 1809.) General accounts: H. L. Carson in Penna. Mag. XVI, 385–393; also in The Green Bag, VII, 17; Hildreth, VI, 155–164; McMaster, V, 403–406. Early history of the case set forth in U. S. v. Peters, 5 Cranch, 115. Davis in 131 U. S. Reports, Appx. XXIX–XXXIV; Jameson in Essays in Const. History, 17–23.

  1. For action of New Hampshire in a similar case, cf. ante, pp. 11–15.