American Insurance Co. v. Canter
American Insurance Co. v. Canter, 26 U.S. 511 (1828), originated in a libel filed in the District Court of South Carolina, for the possession of 356 bales of cotton, which had been wrecked on the coast of Florida, abandoned to the insurance companies, and subsequently brought to Charleston.
Canter claimed the cotton as bona fide purchaser at a marshal's sale at Key West, by virtue of a decree of a territorial court consisting of a notary and five jurors, proceeding under an act of the governor and legislative council of Florida.
The case turned upon the question whether the sale by that court was effectual to divest the interest of the underwriters.
The District Judge pronounced the proceedings a nullity, and rendered a decree from which both parties appealed to the Circuit Court.
The Circuit Court reversed the decree of the District Court upon the ground that the proceedings of the court at Key West were legal, and transferred the property to Canter, the alleged purchaser.
The opinion of the Circuit Court was delivered by Mr. Justice Johnson of the Supreme Court, and is published in full in a note in Peters' Reports.
It was argued that the Constitution vested the admiralty jurisdiction exclusively in the general government; that the legislature of Florida had exercised an illegal power in organizing this court, and that its decrees were void.
On the other hand, it was insisted that this was a court of separate and distinct jurisdiction from the courts of the United States, and as such its acts were not to be reviewed in a foreign tribunal, such as was the court of South Carolina; "that the District of Florida was not part of the United States, but only an acquisition or dependency, and as such the Constitution per se had no binding effect in or over it."
"It becomes," said the court "indispensable to the solution of these difficulties, that we should conceive a just idea of the relation in which Florida stands to the United States. . . . And, first, it is obvious that there is a material distinction between the territory now under consideration, and that which is acquired from the aborigines (whether by purchase or conquest) within the acknowledged limits of the United States, as also that which is acquired by the establishment of a disputed line. As to both these there can be no question, that the sovereignty of the State or territory within which it lies, and of the United States, immediately attach, producing a complete subjection to all the laws and institutions of the two governments, local and general, unless modified by treaty. The question now to be considered, relates to territories previously subject to the acknowledged jurisdiction of another sovereign, such as was Florida to the crown of Spain. And on this subject, we have the most explicit proof, that the understanding of our public functionaries, is, that the government and laws of the United States do not extend to such territory by the mere act of cession. For, in the act of Congress of March 30, 1822, section nine, we have an enumeration of the acts of Congress, which are to be held in force in the territory; and in the tenth section an enumeration, in the nature of a bill of rights, of privileges and immunities, which could not be denied to the inhabitants of the territory, if they came under the Constitution by the mere act of cession. . . . These States, this territory, and future States to be admitted into the Union are the sole objects of the Constitution; there is no express provision whatever made in the Constitution for the acquisition or government of territories beyond those limits."
He further held that the right of acquiring territory was altogether incidental to the treaty-making power; that their government was left to Congress; that the territory of Florida did "not stand in the relation of a State to the United States;" that the acts establishing a territorial government were the constitution of Florida; that while, under these acts, the territorial legislature could enact nothing inconsistent with what Congress had made inherent and permanent in the territorial government, it had not done so in organizing the court at Key West.
From the decree of the Circuit Court the underwriters appealed to the Supreme Court, and the question was argued whether the Circuit Court was correct in drawing a distinction between territories existing at the date of the Constitution and territories subsequently acquired. The main contention of the appellants was that the Superior Courts of Florida had been vested by Congress with exclusive jurisdiction in all admiralty and maritime cases; that salvage was such a case, and therefore any law of Florida giving jurisdiction in salvage cases to any other court was unconstitutional.
On behalf of the purchaser it was argued that the Constitution and laws of the United States were not per se in force in Florida, nor the inhabitants citizens of the United States; that the Constitution was established by the people of the United States for the United States; that if the Constitution were in force in Florida it was unnecessary to pass an act extending the laws of the United States to Florida. "What is Florida?" said Mr. Webster. "It is no part of the United States. How can it be? How is it represented? Do the laws of the United States reach Florida? Not unless by particular provisions."
In American Ins. Co. v. Canter, 1 Pet. 511, the general doctrine was thus summarized, in the opinion delivered by Mr. Chief Justice Marshall (p. 542):
"If it (conquered territory) be ceded by the treaty, the acquisition is confirmed, and the ceded territory becomes a part of the nation to which it is annexed, either on the terms stipulated in the treaty of cession, or on such as its new master shall impose."
In American Insurance Co. v. Canter, 1 Pet. 511, the court, by Mr. Chief Justice Marshall, said (p. 542): "The Constitution confers absolutely on the government of the Union, the powers of making war, and of making treaties; consequently, that government possesses the power of acquiring territory, either by conquest or by treaty."
In American Insurance Company v. Canter, 1 Pet. 511, 541 Chief Justice Marshall said:
"The course which the argument has taken, will require, that, in deciding this question, the court should take into view the relation in which Florida stands to the United States. The Constitution confers absolutely on the government of the Union, the powers of making war, and of making treaties; consequently, that government possesses the power of acquiring territory, either by conquest or by treaty. The usage of the world is, if a nation be not entirely subdued, to consider the holding of conquered territory as a mere military occupation, until its fate shall be determined at the treaty of peace. If it be ceded by the treaty, the acquisition is confirmed, and the ceded territory becomes a part of the nation to which it is annexed; either on the terms stipulated in the treaty of cession, or on such as its new master shall impose. On such transfer of territory, it has never been held, that the relations of the inhabitants with each other undergo any change. Their relations with their former sovereign are dissolved, and new relations are created between them, and the government which has acquired their territory. The same act which transfers their country, transfers the allegiance of those who remain in it; and the law, which may be denominated political, is necessarily changed, although that which regulates the intercourse, and general conduct of individuals, remains in force, until altered by the newly created power of the State. On the 2d of February, 1819, Spain ceded Florida to the United States. The sixth article of the treaty of cession contains the following provision: `The inhabitants of the territories, which his Catholic Majesty cedes to the United States by this treaty, shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States, as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the Federal Constitution; and admitted to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States.' This treaty is the law of the land, and admits the inhabitants of Florida to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities, of the citizens of the United States. It is unnecessary to inquire, whether this is not their condition, independent of stipulation. They do not, however, participate in political power; they do not share in the government, till Florida shall become a State. In the mean time, Florida continues to be a territory of the United States; governed by virtue of that clause in the Constitution, which empowers Congress `to make all needful rules and regulations, respecting the territory, or other property belonging to the United States.' Perhaps the power of governing a territory belonging to the United States, which has not, by becoming a State, acquired the means of self-government, may result necessarily from the facts, that it is not within the jurisdiction of any particular State, and is within the power and jurisdiction of the United States. The right to govern may be the inevitable consequence of the right to acquire territory. Whichever may be the source, whence the power is derived, the possession of it is unquestioned."