United States v. Burns

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United States v. Burns by Stephen Johnson Field
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United States Supreme Court

79 U.S. 246

UNITED STATES  v.  BURNS

APPEAL from the Court of Claims, in which court the petitioner claimed against the United States the amount due on a contract authorizing them to make and use a certain tent known as the Sibley tent.

The facts found by the Court below were thus:

1st. On the 22d of April, 1856, letters-patent were issued to Major H. H. Sibley for an improved tent, since known as the Sibley tent.

2d. On the 6th of February, 1858, General Thomas, assistant quartermaster-general at Philadelphia, in a letter addressed to W. E. Jones, 'agent for the Sibley patent tent,' stated that he had received information from the quartermaster-general that the tent might be adopted into the service, provided a satisfactory arrangement could be made for the use of the patent, or for the tents, at a reasonable rate, and proposed that the department should pay him the sum of $5 for each tent made for the use of the army, as long as the agreement might be confirmed by the War Department, and asking a reply to the proposition. To this letter Mr. Jones replied that he was willing to enter into a temporary arrangement of that nature, and to authorize the assistant quartermaster to make as many of the tents as the government might require, by paying him $5 for each tent; the arrangement to hold good until the 1st of January, 1859, and longer, unless notified to the contrary by him.

On the 18th of February, 1858, the terms proposed in the letter of Mr. Jones were approved by the Secretary of War, and a contract was made accordingly, between the United States and Jones, as the agent of the Sibley tent patent, by which the United States were authorized to make and procure as many of the tents as the government might require by paying $5 for each tent, and this arrangement was to hold good until the 1st of January, 1859, and longer, unless the United States were notified to the contrary. And the tent was adopted as one of the tents of the army by the army regulations.

On the 16th of April, 1858, Sibley assigned to Major W. W. Burns, another officer in the army of the United States, 'the one-half interest in all the benefits and net profits arising from and belonging to the invention of a certain improved conical tent, known as the Sibley tent, from and after the 22d of February, 1856, forever.'

Soon after hostilities commenced between the United States and the Confederates, Major Sibley resigned his commission in the army of the United States and joined the Confederates. Major Burns remained true to his allegiance and served in the army of the Union.

On the 22d of August, 1861, General Meigs, quartermaster-general, instructed General Thomas, assistant quartermaster-general at Philadelphia, under whose directions Sibley tents were made and contracted for the United States, that the case of the claim of Major Burns to the royalty of the Sibley tent having been examined by the department, it was considered that he was entitled to one-half of the royalty as originally fixed between the government and Major Sibley, the inventor. It was accordingly directed that General Thomas should pay Major Burns $2.50 on each such tent manufactured by the government, and that the other half of the original royalty, formerly paid to Sibley, would for the future be withheld, as well as all that might be due him; for that in consequence of the defection of that officer, it was considered that all his right and title thereto had reverted to the government.

Burns was accordingly, for some time afterwards, paid $2.50 on each tent under the contract.

On the 26th of October, 1861, Major Meigs, quartermaster-general, in a communication to the Secretary of War, submitted the question whether the contract in respect to the royalty allowed Burns was or was not in violation of paragraph 1002 of Revised Regulations for the Army. The paragraph is in these words:

'No officer or agent in the military service shall purchase from any other person in the military service, or make any contract with any such person to furnish supplies or services, or make any purchase or contract in which such person shall be admitted to any share or part, or to any benefit to arise therefrom.'

Upon this communication, the government at this time having made 38,158 tents, Mr. Cameron, the Secretary of War, on the 26th December, 1861, indorsed as follows:

'No further payments will be made to Major W. W. Burns on account of royalty on the Sibley tent.'

This order was communicated to officers of the War Department, though not communicated to the petitioner or the patentee, Major Sibley, but from its date no payments on account of the royalty were made. The last payment on account of the royalty was on the 3d of September, 1861. Notwithstanding the order, however, the government continued to make and use the tents. The petition of Burns asked for payment from the government of one-half the royalty, or $2.50, for those tents which it had made and not paid him for.

On the 3d March, 1863, Congress passed an act amending the act establishing the Court of Claims, the twelfth section of which amendatory act provides:

'That in order to authorize the said court to render a judgment in favor of any claimant, if a citizen of the United States, it shall be set forth in the petition that the claimant . . . has at all times borne true allegiance to the government of the United States, and . . . has not in any way voluntarily aided, abetted, or given encouragement to rebellion against the said government, which allegation may be traversed by the government; and if on the trial such issue shall be decided against the claimant his petition shall be dismissed.' [1]

The original act establishing the Court of Claims gives the court jurisdiction—

'To hear and determine all claims founded upon by law of Congress, or upon any regulation of an executive department, or upon any contract, express or implied, with the government of the United States, that may be suggested to it by a petition filed therein, &c.' [2]

The Court of Claims entered a judgment in favor of the petitioner for one-half of the royalty, or $2.50 on each of 40,497 tents (the number which, as a fact, it found has been made), amounting to the sum of $101,242.50.

From this judgment the United States appealed.


Mr. B. H. Bristow, Solicitor-General, and Mr. C. H. Hill, Assistant Attorney-General, for the United States:


We do not ourselves make, as a point, the question submitted on the 26th of October, 1861, by Quartermaster Meigs to the Secretary of War; though of course the court is free to consider it as one which has occurred to others. The judgment, however, was perhaps erroneous on other grounds.

The contract gave the War Department a right to determine the contract. The department did determine it when Secretary Cameron indorsed on the note of Quartermaster Meigs that 'no further payments will be made to Major W. W. Burns on account of royalty on the Sibley tent.' Stoppage of payment was the most effective form of notice to Burns. It was, perhaps, previously (on the 1st January, 1859), determined by the efflux of the time for which it was to run; Sibley not having notified to the government a contrary wish on his part. The contract being determined, if not on the 1st January, 1859, certainly on the 26th December, 1861, no suit lies in the Court of Claims. The government may have acted tortiously in making tents under the patent when it had no right by contract to do so. But for relief against such action, Congress is the body to address.

Sibley assigned to Burns no interest in the patent by the agreement of April 15th, 1858. The assignment was made after Sibley's contract with the United States. It could give Burns no right as against the United States; or anything but a right to call Sibley to account with him for moneys which Sibley might receive under the contract. Burns's right was thus but an equitable right, on which no suit lies in the Court of Claims. [3]

By Sibley's becoming a rebel, perhaps his whole right under the patent became forfeit. If not, certainly by being a public enemy his partnership with Burns was dissolved, and his own right under the patent suspended. What rights then has Burns, who was no party to the contract, and who claims but under Sibley?


Messrs. Carpenter, Hughes, Denver, and Peck, contra


Mr. Justice FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.

Notes[edit]

^1  12 Stat. at Large, 767.

^2  10 Id. 612.

^3  Bonner v. United States, 9 Wallace, 156.

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).