57 U.S. 635 (____)

16 How. 635


Supreme Court of United States.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Upon this exception, the case came up to this court, and was argued by Mr. Mayer, and Mr. Johnson for the plaintiff in error, and by Mr. Cushing (Attorney-General) for the defendant.

Mr. Chief Justice TANEY delivered the opinion of the court.

This controversy has arisen out of the treaty with Spain by which Florida was ceded to the United States.

The suit is brought by the plaintiff in error against the defendant to recover certain lands in the State of Florida. It is an action of ejectment. And the plaintiff claims title under a grant from the King of Spain to the Duke of Alagon. This is the foundation of his title. And if this grant is null and void by the laws of the United States, the action cannot be maintained.

The treaty in question was negotiated at Washington, by Mr. Adams, then Secretary of State, and Don Louis De Onis, the Spanish Minister. It was signed on the 22d of February, 1819; and by its terms the ratifications were to be exchanged within six months from its date.

It appears, from the treaty, that the negotiations commenced on the 24th of January, 1818, by a proposition from the Spanish government to cede the Floridas to the United States. The grant to the Duke of Alagon bears date February 6th, in the same year, and consequently was made after the King of Spain had authorized his minister to negotiate a treaty for the cession of the territory, and after the negotiation had actually commenced. It embraces ten or twelve millions of acres.

The fact that this grant had been made came to the knowledge of the secretary, pending the negotiation; and he also learned that two other grants — one to the Count of Puñonrostro, and the other to Don Pedro de Vargas, each containing some millions of acres, had also been made under like circumstances. These three grants covered all or nearly all of the public domain in the territory proposed to be ceded. And the secretary naturally and justly considered that grants of this description made while the negotiation was pending, and without the knowledge or consent of the United States, were acts of bad faith on the part of Spain, and would be highly injurious to the interests of the United States, if Florida became a part of their territory. For the possession and ownership of such vast tracts of country by three individuals would be altogether inconsistent with the principles and policy on which this government is founded. It would have greatly retarded its settlement, and diminished its value to the citizens of the United States. For no one could have become a landholder in this new territory without the permission of these individuals, and upon such conditions and at such prices as they might choose to exact.

Acting upon these considerations, the secretary insisted that if the negotiations resulted in a treaty of cession, an article should be inserted by which these three grants, and any others made under similar circumstances, should be annulled by the Spanish government.

The demand was so obviously just, and the conduct of Spain in this respect so evidently indefensible, that after much hesitation it was acceded to, and the 8th article introduced into the treaty to accomplish the object. By this article "all grants made since the 24th of January, 1818, when the first proposal on the part of his Catholic Majesty for the cession of the Floridas was made, are thereby declared and agreed to be null and void;" and all grants made before that day, are confirmed.

With this provision in it, the treaty was submitted to the Senate, who advised and consented to its ratification on the 24th of February, 1819, and it was accordingly ratified by the President.

Before, however, the ratifications were exchanged, the Secretary of State was informed that the Duke of Alagon intended to rely on a royal order, of December 17, 1817, (which is recited in the grant hereinbefore mentioned,) as sufficient to convey to him the land from that date; and upon that ground claimed that his title was confirmed and not annulled by the treaty.

The secretary, it appears, was satisfied that this royal order conveyed no interest to the Duke of Alagon; and that the grant in the sense in which that word is used in the treaty, was not made until the instrument, dated the 6th of February, 1818, was executed.

But as a claim of this character, however unfounded, would cast a cloud upon the proprietary title of the United States, and as claims might also be set up under similar pretexts under the grants to the Count of Puñonrostro and Vargas, the secretary deemed it his duty to place the matter beyond all controversy before the ratifications were exchanged. He therefore requested and received from Don Louis de Onis a written admission that these three grants were understood by both of them to have been annulled by the 8th article of the treaty; and that it was negotiated and signed under that mutual understanding between the negotiators. And having obtained this admission, he notified the Spanish minister that he would present a declaration to that effect, upon the exchange of ratifications, and expect a similar one from the Spanish government to be annexed to the treaty.

But the King of Spain for a long time refused to make the declaration required, or to ratify the treaty with the declaration of the American government attached to it. And a great deal of irritating correspondence upon the subject took place between the two governments. Finally, however, the King of Spain ratified it on the 21st of October, 1820, and admitted, in his written ratification annexed to the treaty, in explicit terms, that it was the positive understanding of the negotiators on both sides when the treaty was signed, that these three grants were thereby annulled; and declared also that they had remained and did remain entirely annulled and invalid; and that neither of the three individuals mentioned, nor those who might have title or interest through them, could avail themselves of the grants at any time or in any manner.

With this ratification attached to the treaty, it was again submitted by the President to the Senate, who on the 19th February, 1821, advised and consented to its ratification. It was ratified, accordingly, by the President, and the ratifications exchanged on the 22d of February, 1821. And Florida, on that day, became a part of the territory of the United States, under and according to the stipulations of treaty — the rights of the United States relating back to the day on which it was signed

We have made this statement in relation to the negotiations and correspondence between the two governments for the purpose of showing the circumstances which occasioned the introduction of the 8th article, confirming Spanish grants made before the 24th of January, 1818, and annulling those made afterwards; and also for the purpose of showing how it happened that the three large grants by name were declared to be annulled in the ratification, and not by a stipulation in the body of the treaty. But the statement is in no other respect material. For it is too plain for argument that where one of the parties to a treaty, at the time of its ratification annexes a written declaration explaining ambiguous language in the instrument or adding a new and distinct stipulation, and the treaty is afterwards ratified by the other party with the declaration attached to it, and the ratifications duly exchanged — the declaration thus annexed is a part of the treaty and as binding and obligatory as if it were inserted in the body of the instrument. The intention of the parties is to be gathered from the whole instrument, as it stood when the ratifications were exchanged.

It is not material, therefore, to inquire whether the title of the Duke of Alagon takes date from the royal order of December 17th, 1817, or from the grant subsequently made on the 6th of February, 1818. In either case the treaty by name declares it to be annulled.

It is said, however, that the King of Spain, by the constitution under which he was then acting and administering the government, had not the power to annul it by treaty or otherwise; that if the power existed anywhere in the Spanish government it resided in the cortes; and that it does not appear, in the ratification, that it was annulled by that body or by its authority or consent.

But these are political questions and not judicial. They belong exclusively to the political department of the government.

By the Constitution of the United States, the President has the power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties provided two thirds of the Senators present concur. And he is authorized to appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and to receive them from foreign nations; and is thereby enabled to obtain accurate information of the political condition of the nation with which he treats; who exercises over it the powers of sovereignty, and under what limitations; and how far the party who ratifies the treaty is authorized, by its form of government, to bind the nation and persons and things within its territory and dominion, by treaty stipulations. And the Constitution declares that all treaties made under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land.

The treaty is therefore a law made by the proper authority, and the courts of justice have no right to annul or disregard any of its provisions, unless they violate the Constitution of the United States. It is their duty to interpret it and administer it according to its terms. And it would be impossible for the executive department of the government to conduct our foreign relations with any advantage to the country, and fulfil the duties which the Constitution has imposed upon it, if every court in the country was authorized to inquire and decide whether the person who ratified the treaty on behalf of a foreign nation had the power, by its constitution and laws, to make the engagements into which he entered.

In this case the King of Spain has by the treaty stipulated that the grant to the Duke of Alagon, previously made by him, had been and remained annulled, and that neither the Duke of Alagon nor any person claiming under him could avail himself of this grant. It was for the President and Senate to determine whether the king, by the constitution and laws of Spain, was authorized to make this stipulation and to ratify a treaty containing it. They have recognized his power by accepting this stipulation as a part of the compact, and ratifying the treaty which contains it. The constituted and legitimate authority of the United States, therefore, has acquired and received this land as public property. In that character it became a part of the United States, and subject to and governed by their laws. And as the treaty is by the constitution the supreme law, and that law declared it public domain when it came to the possession of the United States, the courts of justice are bound so to regard it and treat it, and cannot sanction any title not derived from the United States.

Nor can the plaintiff's claim be supported unless he can maintain that a court of justice may inquire whether the President and Senate were not mistaken as to the authority of the Spanish monarch in this respect; or knowingly sanctioned an act of injustice committed by him upon an individual in violation of the laws of Spain. But it is evident that such a proposition can find no support in the Constitution of the United States; nor in the jurisprudence of any country where the judicial and political powers are separated and placed in different hands. Certainly no judicial tribunal in the United States ever claimed it, or supposed it possessed it.

The plaintiff seems to suppose that he has a stronger title than that of the Duke of Alagon. It is alleged that the Duke of Alagon, on the 29th of May, 1819, conveyed the greater part of the land granted to him by the King of Spain to Richard S. Hackley, a citizen of the United States. This deed to Hackley was after the signature of the treaty and before the exchange of ratifications, and the plaintiff claims through Hackley, and contends that this American citizenship protected his title.

But if the deed from the Duke of Alagon to a citizen of the United States was valid by the laws of Spain, and vested the Spanish title in Hackley; yet the land in his hands remained subject to the Spanish law and the authority and power of the Spanish government as fully as if it had continued the property of the original grantee. Hackley derived no title from the United States, nor were his rights in the land, if he had any, regulated by the laws of the United States, nor under their protection. It was a part of the territory of Spain, and in her possession and under her government, until the ratifications of the treaty were exchanged. And until that time the rights of the individual owner, and the extent of authority which the government might lawfully exercise over it, depended altogether upon the laws of Spain. And whatever rights he may have had under the deed of the Duke of Alagon, they were extinguished by the government from which he held them while the land remained a part of its territory and subject to its laws. It was public domain when it came to the possession of the United States, and he had then no rights in it.

In this view of the case it is not necessary to examine the other questions which appear in the exception or have been raised in the argument. The treaty is the supreme law, and the stipulations in it dispose of the case. The judgment of the District Court must therefore be affirmed.


This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Florida, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered and adjudged by this court that the judgment of the said District Court in this cause be, and the same is hereby affirmed, with costs.


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