U.S. Timeline - The 1800s
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1809 DetailFebruary 20, 1809 - The Supreme Court of the United States rules that the power of the Federal Government is greater than the power of any individual state.
It was the case of the United States vs. Peters, Case 9 U.S. 115, and it would change the relationship and power structure between the states and the Federal government forever by ruling that a state legislature could not annul a ruling of a federal court.
It was a case whose tenants began in the American Revolution, stemming from the Continental Congress, who knew that during the conflict there would be disagreements on who would own captured prizes of the war. In 1777, they set up a national Committee of Appeals to adjudicate those cases. US v Peters challenged that authority.
In 1778, a British ship, the Active, carrying supplies to British soldiers was also transporting prisoners from Connecticutt who were forced to work the ship. This included Gideon Olmstead. Off the coast of New Jersey, Olmstead and his mates overtook the ship and headed for New Jersey. They were overtaken by the Pennsylvania ship Convention, whose captain took it to Philadelphia and claimed it as a prize of war, which Olmstead also claimed. A Pennsylvania court gave 3/4 of the ship's value, which had been sold, to the crew of the Convention and another ship who'd been in pursuit, but only 1/4 to Olmstead.
Olmstead was not pleased, petitioned Congress, and in the Court of Appeals, the decision was overturned, giving all of the proceeds to Olmstead. Back in state court, the Judge refused to pay the award to either party and the harangue continued for two dozen years until 1803 when Judge Peters of the District Court, now adjudicating the Estate of former State Treasurer David Rittenhouse, who had been given responsibility for the money, stated that the money should go to Olmstead. But the state legislature disagreed, claimed the money for the state, and told the governor, Simon Snyder, a Jeffersonian Democrat, to resist by force, if necessary.
The case reached the Supreme Court of the United States in 1808, a court order stating that Peters must release the money to Olmstead. Pennsylvania began to marshall 1,400 state militia; the federal government a posse of 2,000 federal marshals, in the disagreement.
It would be a unanimous decision against Governor Snyder and the state of Pennsylvania with Supreme Court Chief Justice John W. Marshall stating in his ruling, ...
"If the legislatures of the several states may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery; and the nation is deprived of the means of enforcing its laws by the instrumentality of its own tribunals."
In the aftermath of the ruling, Simon Synder would not immediately concur. He threatened to use that state militia, with the state legislature's approval, against the federal government. The Governor expected support in his state's rights stance, asking for assistance from President James Madison, but got none. Madison affirmed the decision of the Supreme Court in a letter to Snyder on April 13, 1809, and the President's obligation to enforce it. With that, the Pennsylvania legislature voted to withdraw the militia.
Photo above: A lithograph painting of the North Wing of the Capitol Building in 1800 by William Russell Birch. The Supreme Court was located in the Old Supreme Court Chamber on the ground floor of the North Wing from 1810 to 1835. The Supreme Court had moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800 from Philadelphia where they met in Old City Hall on 5th and Chestnut Streets. During the period of 1800-1809, the Supreme Court met at various locations in Washington, D.C. The current building of the U.S. Supreme Court was completed on April 4, 1935 at the cost of $9,395,566. Photo source: Library of Congress via Wikipedia Commons.
Other Sources: Legallegacy.wordpress.com. United States, vs. Peters, Historic Supreme Court Decisions, McDougal Littell. Architect of the Capitol, History of the Supreme Court.
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