Little v. Barreme

6 U.S. 170 (1804)

Background: France and U.S. involved in a Quasi-War. US was allied w/the French during our revolution, then they had their own revolution. Because of turmoil and uncertainty in France, the U.S. negotiated the Jay treaty with Britain for purely economic reasons. France was outraged about this and started going after U.S. ships.

Facts of the Case: The USS Boston captured the Danish ship the Flying-Fish, which was then held in the Port of Boston. The Flying-Fish, which had left the French- controlled Haitian port of Jeremie, was suspected of being an American ship in violation of the United States’ embargo on France. In the embargoes, the President was given the power to instruct the Navy to stop any American ships suspected to be en route to a French port. President John Adams, meanwhile, had issued a letter to the Secretary of the Navy to stop all American ships and ships suspected of being American travelling both to and from French- controlled ports. The federal district court judge freed the Flying-Fish, but did not award damages for its illegal capture. The United States Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and held that George Little, the captain of the Boston should pay damages.

Question: Did the President have the authority to issue the order to capture ships travelling from French ports?

Conclusion: No. In a unanimous decision, the Court affirmed the Court of Appeals. In the opinion, written by Chief Justice John Marshall, the Court held the President did not have “any special authority” to order the seizure of non-American ships and ships departing French ports. Even if the Flying-Fish had been an American ship, it still would not have been subject to seizure. Since Little had illegally seized the ship, he was also liable for damages.

  • When Congress acts the President has to stay within the limitations set by Congress. Congress gave authority to go after ships going to French ports; going after ships coming from French ports is outside the scope.

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