Talbot v. Seeman
Error to the Circuit Court of the District of New York
Salvage is a compensation for actual services rendered to the property charged with it, and is demandable of right for vessels saved from the enemy or from pirates.
There must be a meritorious service rendered, and the taking must be lawful.
Congress may authorize general hostilities, and in such case the general laws of war will apply, or partial hostilities, when the laws of war, so far, as they are applicable, will be in force.
A neutral vessel captured by a French vessel of war and armed and manned by the captors was liable to capture by the armed vessels of the United States, under the Act of Congress of 28 May, 1798, but such a vessel, after capture, could not be considered as a French vessel and liable to condemnation.
When there is probable cause to believe a vessel met with at sea is in the condition of one liable to capture, it is lawful to take her for examination and adjudication.
A legislative act founded on a mistaken opinion of what was law does not change the actual state of the law as to preexisting cases.
It is not required, in order to authorize a claim to salvage, that the sole view of the recaptor was the saving of the vessel.
It is an established principle of the law of nations that a neutral merchant vessel which shall be recaptured from a belligerent shall be discharged without salvage, as it is presumed that she would have been discharged by the tribunals of the captors. But if the laws and practices of a particular belligerent subject all neutral vessels captured by her cruisers to condemnation, the general usage and laws of nations do not apply.
The decrees and laws of France subsequent to the revolution were such as rendered the condemnation of a neutral captured by her armed vessels extremely probable, and the recapture of a neutral from the French captors was a meritorious service, and entitled the recaptors to salvage.
The laws of foreign nations are not to be noticed by the courts of other countries unless proved as facts. Those laws, when promulgated by the executive of the government of the United States, may be read as authenticated copies of such laws.
It is to be presumed that the courts of every country will regard their own laws and that their judicial decisions will conform to them.
A violation of the laws of nations by one country does not justify their violation by another; but if, after remonstrance against injuries committed by one nation to another and redress refused or withheld, hostilities are authorized, this is in conformity with the laws of nations.
The hostilities between the United States and France having authorized the recapture of a neutral vessel, the claim for salvage will depend upon the services rendered to the recaptured vessel.
A mere speculative danger will not be sufficient to authorize a claim to salvage. It is not necessary that the danger be such as that escape from it by any other means was inevitable, but the peril must be imminent.
The laws of the United States ought not to be construed, if it can be avoided, so as to infract the common principles and usages of nations or the general doctrines of national law.
Salvage will be apportioned on a just estimate of the damages from which the vessel was recaptured and of the risk attending the retaking vessel.
[Page 5 U. S. 2]
This was a libel for salvage filed in the District Court of New York, by Silas Talbot, Esq., for himself and the officers and crew of the Constitution, a vessel of the United States, against the ship Amelia, the property of merchant citizens of Hamburgh, she having been recaptured on the high seas by the Constitution on 15 September, 1799, after her capture on 6 September by a French corvette while on her voyage from Calcutta to Hamburgh. The captors placed a prize master and men on board of the Amelia and ordered her to St. Domingo. On her recapture by captain Talbot, she was sent to New York. The district court allowed salvage to the libellants, and the circuit court reversed the decree. The case came up by writ of error to the circuit court on the part of the libellants.
For the respondents the points made were
- That captain Talbot had no right to interfere with the Amelia, she being a neutral vessel and not liable to condemnation by the laws of nations.
- That salvage is only due when a benefit has been conferred, and here none was received.
- That salvage imports a lawful consideration.
- That to support it, there must be a consideration express or implied.
For the libellants it was claimed
- That the Amelia, under the circumstances in which she was met by the Constitution, was liable to recapture.
- That the libellants saved the property from condemnation in the courts of France.
- That by the laws of nations and the provisions of the act of Congress, the recaptors were entitled to salvage.