Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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McLEOD CASE, The (IN U. S. HISTORY). In 1837, after the suppression of the Canadian rebellion, or patriot war, a number of Canadian refugees and Americans, using New York state as a base of operations, seized Navy island, in the Niagara river, about two miles above the falls and within British jurisdiction, in order to keep the war alive. Col. McNab, commanding the Canadian militia, sent a party, on the night of Dec. 29, 1837, to capture the steamer Caroline, which carried supplies to Navy island. The attacking party found her at a wharf on the American side of the river, captured her, after a conflict in which one American, Amos Durfee, was killed, and sent her over the falls in flames. In January, 1838, the British government, in an official communication to the government of the United States, assumed the entire responsibility for the burning of the Caroline.


—In November, 1840, Alexander McLeod, while in New York state on business, aroused intense feeling among the people there by boasting of his exploits in the attack on the Caroline. He was arrested, lodged in jail in Lockport, and indicted in February, 1841, for murder. At first, bail was accepted, but this increased the excitement, and he was remanded to jail. The British minister demanded his release, in a note to the secretary of state, for the reasons that McLeod was acting under orders in an enterprise planned, executed and avowed by his superiors; that the question was one of international law, to be settled by the two national governments; that the courts of New York had not the means to judge or the right to decide such a question; and that the British government could not recognize the state jurisdiction of the case, but must hold the government of the United States responsible for McLeod.


—The new president, Harrison, and his cabinet were unanimous in considering the British claim just; but the minister was informed that it was an impossibility to release a person confined under judicial process, except by operation of law. At first the administration hoped that Gov. Seward, of New York, would order the prosecuting officer of the state to enter a nolle prosequi. The governor, however, refused to interfere, but directed that the trial, March 22, 1841, should take place before the chief justice of the state. The president then directed the attorney general of the United States to proceed to Lockport, see that McLeod had skillful counsel, furnish them with the evidence of the British government's official avowal of the burning of the Caroline, and take steps to transfer the case to the supreme court by writ of error, if McLeod's defense should be overruled.


—McLeod was brought before the court on writ of habeas corpus, and his discharge was asked on the grounds assigned above. The court, how ever, held that its jurisdiction over the case was complete; that there was no war in existence at the time in any form; that the burning of the Caroline was not an act of magistracy on the part of the Canadian authorities, since it was committed out of Canadian jurisdiction; that all the persons concerned in the affair were "individuals proceeding on their own responsibility," and liable either for arson or for murder; and that the indictment precluded McLeod's discharge upon habeas corpus. The opinion of the court was not satisfactory to other and able lawyers. It was adversely reviewed in a pamphlet by Judge D. B. Talmadge, of New York; and Webster, in the senate, April 6-7, 1848, used in regard to it the following strong language: "On the peril and at the risk of my professional reputation I now say that the opinion of the court of New York in that case is not a respectable opinion, either on account of the result at which it arrives or the reasoning on which it proceeds."


—The case finally came to nothing. McLeod, who seems to have been a liar as well as a braggart, proved an alibi in October 1841, and was acquitted; and congress, by act of Aug. 29, 1842, provided that if such cases should thereafter arise they should be transferred to the United States courts by writ of habeas corpus (See HABEAS CORPUS.) The British government July 28, 1842, apologized for the violation of Territory, and regretted that "explanation and apology was not immediately made"; the American government declared its satisfaction; and the case was ended.


—See 3 Spencer's United States. 411, 417; 5 Webster's Works, 116, and 6:247, 300; Edwards' Courts and Lawyers of New York, 305, the case, with the diplomatic correspondence in full, is in 25 Wendell's Reports, 483; see also 26 ib., Appendix, 663 (Talmadge's review); but see, contra, 3 Hill's Reports, 635, and 10 Democratic Review, 487; Gould's Trial of McLeod (1841); 5 Stat. at Large, 539 (Act of Aug. 29, 1842).


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