Reeside v. United States

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Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

75 U.S. 38

Reeside  v.  United States

APPEAL from the Court of Claims, the case being thus:

In 1859, and subsequently, Reeside made certain contracts with the Postmaster-General to carry the mail until 30th June, 1862, over certain parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Each contract contained a provision that the Postmaster-General might discontinue or curtail the service, in whole or in part, whenever the public interests required it he allowing one month's pay on the amount of the service dispensed with. Early in 1861, as is known, the late rebellion in the Southern States broke out; the States above particularly mentioned, joining in it. In view of the condition of things, Congress enacted, [1] on the 28th February, 1861:

'That whenever, in the opinion of the Postmaster-General, the postal service cannot be safely continued, or the post-office revenues collected, or the postal laws maintained on any post route, by reason of any cause whatever, the Postmaster-General is hereby authorized to discontinue the postal service on such route, or any part thereof, and any post-offices thereon, till the same can be safely restored,' and shall report his action to Congress.

And it was part of the case, as found by the court below, that on the 15th April following, 'a state of actual war' existed between the United States and the States in which the contracts were to be executed.

On the 27th of May, 1861, the Postmaster-General issued an order suspending the service on all the routes till further order, from and after May 31st. Reeside requested the Postmaster-General, instead of suspending the service, to annul the contracts. But this the Postmaster-General refused to do, and Reeside was informed that he would be held responsible under the contracts and be ordered to renew the service whenever, in the opinion of the Postmaster-General, it would be safe to do so.

No special notice of the discontinuance was ever served on him.

On the 13th July, 1861, Congress authorized the President, under certain circumstances which it set forth, to issue a proclamation declaring any one of several Southern States, which it named (and which included the three through which Reeside's contract called on him to carry the mail), or any part of it, to be in insurrection against the United States, and enacted that thereupon all intercourse should cease between the same and the citizens thereof and the citizens of the rest of the United States. On the 16th of August following, the President did issue such a proclamation, and declared these three States, along with some others, to be in insurrection, and prohibited the intercourse.

Reeside resided in Washington, and the case showed that it would have taken him twenty days to have gone to Arkansas, and to have disposed of his property on his several routes. No part of his stage property was removed from them.

Reeside, who had been paid up but to the 1st of June, 1861, and whom the Postmaster-General considered entitled to nothing more, now filed a petition in the court below, setting forth that taking into consideration the distance from the seat of government (where, as already said, he resided) to the place of service, he was entitled to receive a reasonable notice before suspending the mail service on the several routes where he was the contractor, and that he was entitled, at all events, to his mail pay for one month.

The court below dismissed the claim; and hence this appeal.

Messrs. Fuller and Carlisle, for the appellant:

The contracts had a term of thirteen months to run, when their further execution was suspended by order of the Postmaster-General. And the question is, whether the claimant is entitled to compensation, and if so, the measure of it?

Under the act of February 28th, 1861, the Postmaster-General might have discontinued the service, or under the contract, he might have annulled the service, and put an end to the contract. But he did neither. He simply suspended the service for the time being, leaving the contract unimpaired and in full force. For he notified to the claimant that he would be held responsible, and be ordered to renew the same whenever, in the opinion of the Postmaster-General, it should be safe to do so.

Hence, we submit that Reeside is not bound to accept one month's extra pay, which his petition asks for, as the measure of his arrearages, but is entitled to ask his full contract price for the thirteen months. [2]

The Postmaster-General must have regarded the disturbed condition of the country, at the date of his order, as temporary; and thought that within the thirteen months the condition of public affairs would be such that the postal service would be resumed on the routes, else he would not have declined, upon the request of Reeside, to terminate the contract.

But if not entitled to pay for the thirteen months, Reeside may certainly claim pay till the 16th August, 1861; for the execution of the contract did not become impossible until the sovereign power declared all intercourse between the loyal and disloyal States illegal, which was this said 16th of August.

If, however, the contract continued neither for the whole term, nor until the sovereign power prohibited intercourse, then it must be because it was discontinued under the clause of the contract giving power to discontinue. This is the worst view for the appellant; but even under it, the right of one month's pay is clear.

Mr. Hoar, Attorney-General, and Mr. Talbot, contra:

The case shows, that from the 15th day of April, 1861, six weeks before the date of the order complained of, 'a state of actual was' existed between the United States and the States in which those contracts were to be executed.

The execution of the contract had become impossible by acts of the public enemies, owing to the ouster of the United States from its actual sovereignty over the territory through which the claimant's mail routes ran; and it had become so on the 16th of April, 1861, while the appellant was paid to the 1st of June of that year.

The order of suspension was a mere recognition on the part of the Post-Office Department of this state of war.

The suspension, caused by the war, cannot be held to be a suspension by the Postmaster-General, such as would give rise to a claim for one month's pay. Whether or not this suspension may of itself have operated as a final release of the contractor from his obligation to complete his contract, was not the duty of the Postmaster-General finally to determine. It was proper for that officer to decline to decide that question against his principal, the United States, as he did, by refusing formally to release the contractor from the obligations of his contracts.


The finding by the court below of 'a state of actual war' on the 15th of April, is less a fact than an inference of law from the general history of the times. This court can take notice of this history and draw conclusions, as well as the court below.

Mr. Justice NELSON delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  12 Stat. at Large, 177.

^2  Clark v. Marsiglia, 1 Denio, 317.

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).