SPROTT V. UNITED STATES, 87 U. S. 459 (1874)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Sprott v. United States, 87 U.S. 20 Wall. 459 459 (1874)

Sprott v. United States

87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 459


1. A purchaser of cotton from the Confederate states, who knew that the money he paid for it went to sustain the rebellion, cannot in the Court of Claims recover the proceeds when it has been captured and sold under the Captured and Abandoned Property Act.

2. The moral turpitude of the transaction forbids that in a court of law he should be permitted to establish his title by proof of such a transaction.

3. The acts of the states in rebellion, in the ordinary course of administration of law, must be upheld in the interest of civil society, to which such a government was a necessity.

4. But the government of the Confederacy had no existence except as organized treason. Its purpose while it lasted was to overthrow the lawful government, and its statutes, its decrees, its authority can give no validity to any act done in its service or in aid of its purpose.

The act known as the Captured and Abandoned Property Act, passed March 12, 1863, [Footnote 1] providing for "the collection

Page 87 U. S. 460

of abandoned property &c., in the insurrectionary districts within the United States," enacts that any person claiming to have been the owner of any such abandoned or captured property may, within a time specified in the act, prefer his claim to the proceeds thereof in the Court of Claims, and on proof to the satisfaction of the court: (1) of his ownership, (2) of his right to the proceeds thereof, and (3) that he has never given any aid or comfort to the rebellion, receive the residue of such proceeds, after deducting any purchase money which may have been paid &c.

Under this act, one Sprott, a resident of Claiborne County, Mississippi, filed a claim in the Court of Claims to the proceeds of certain cotton. That court made the following finding of facts:

At different times during the years 1864 and 1865, large quantities of cotton were purchased by the agents of the Confederate states for the treasonable purpose of maintaining the war of the rebellion against the government of the United States. Of cotton thus purchased by various agents in Claiborne County, Mississippi, three hundred bales were sold to the claimant by one agent in March, 1865, for ten cents a pound, in the currency of the United States. The sale was made by the agent as of cotton belonging to the Confederate states, and it was understood by the claimant at the time of the purchase to be the property of the rebel government, and was purchased as such. The agent had been specially instructed by the Confederate government "to sell any and all cotton he could for the purpose of raising money to purchase munitions of war and supplies for the Confederate army," but the purpose of the sale was not disclosed to the claimant, whose purpose was not to aid the Confederate states, buying the cotton at its market value and regarding it as a mere business transaction of "cotton for cash." The cotton was delivered to him at the time when the money was paid, he then being a resident of Claiborne County, within the Confederate lines.

The cotton was captured in May, 1865, and the proceeds or some portion thereof are in the Treasury.

Page 87 U. S. 461

And upon these facts, the Court of Claims found, as conclusions of law:

1. That the government of the Confederate states was an unlawful assemblage, without corporate power to take, hold, or convey a valid title to property, real or personal.

2. That the claimant was chargeable with notice of the treasonable intent of the sale by the Confederate government, and that the transaction was forbidden by the laws of the United States and wholly void, so that the claimant acquired no title to the property which was the subject of suit.

The court therefore decreed against the claimant, and from its decree he brought the case here.

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