Bas v. Tingy (1800)

Bas v. Tingy (1800) 4 U.S. 37(4 Dall.) arose on a claim for salvage for retaking an American ship which had been taken by the French. It was necessary to find that the ship had been taken by an "enemy," to justify a salvage award. Justice Washington acknowledged that France was nowhere described as an "enemy," but held that there was "war of the imperfect kind." (p. 41). He distinguished between a "solemn" or "perfect" war, declared as such, and a limited or "imperfect" war. (p. 40). In the first case all members of one nation are at war with all members of the other nation; in the second case, those who are authorized to commit hostilities act "under special authority." (ibid.) Justice Chase pointed out that the popular "prepossessions" in favor of France led Congress not to want to declare a "solemn" war. Although Congress had not used the word "war," all the Justices agreed that there was a situation of war (Justice Moore, p. 39), albeit "a limited, partial war" (Justice Chase, p. 43), or an "imperfect war" (Justice Paterson, p. 45). In that case, the question whether there was a "war" was only relevant to determining whether France was an "enemy" within the meaning of a prize statute. See id. at 37 ("The argument turned, principally, upon two inquiries: 1st. Whether the Act of March 1799, applied only to the event of a future general war? 2d. Whether France was an enemy of the United States, within the meaning of the law?"). The Supreme Court noted that hostilities may subsist between two nations on a limited basis, which would be properly termed imperfect war, in our era to be called undeclared war. Justice Washington in the Bas decision went on to note that the true definition of war is an external contention by force, between some of the members of the two nations, authorised by the legitimate powers, even if it is not a perfect declared war. (Id. at 40-41.) In his concurring opinion in Bas v. Tingy, 4 Dall. 37, recognizing France as a public enemy, Mr. Justice Washington recognized war as of two kinds: "If it be declared in form, it is called solemn, and is of the perfect kind; because one whole nation is at war with another whole nation, and all the members of the nation declaring war, are authorized to commit hostilities against all the members of the other, in every place and under every circumstance. In such a war all the members act under the general authority, and all the rights and consequences of war attach to their condition. But hostilities may subsist between two nations, more confined in its nature and extent, being limited as to places, persons and things; and this is more properly termed imperfect war, because not solemn, and because those who are authorized to commit hostilities, act under special authority, and can go no farther than to the extent of their commission. Still, however, it is public war, because it is an external contention by force between some of the members of the two nations, authorized by the legitimate powers." Justice Washington's opinion in that case suggests that whether there was a war in the constitutional sense was irrelevant. See id. at 42 ("Besides, it may be asked, why should the rate of salvage be different in such a war as the present, from the salvage in a war more solemn i.e. a declared war or general?").