Captain George Little served with distinction in the United States Navy. So, after obeying the order of his Commander-in-Chief, he never expected to find himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit, liable for damages in the commission of his duty.
In 1799, war between the United States and France appeared inevitable. In preparation, Congress passed a law allowing President John Adams to seize any vessels bound for French ports. However, Adams took this power a step further, ordering the seizure of vessels heading to and from France. Captain Little, commanding the USS Boston, captured the “Flying Fish,” a Danish ship, as it arrived in St. Thomas from France. And he carried out his orders to the letter. After all, refusing to do so would certainly have him court-martialed, perhaps even executed.
So how could he have been liable for civil damages for carrying out a clear order from the President? The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that “instructions cannot change the nature of the transaction, or legalize an act which, without those instructions, would have been a plain trespass.” In other words, orders from a superior officer—even the Commander-in-Chief—do not release a person from his responsibility to do what is right.
Chief Justice Marshall admitted his personal conflict with this decision. He sympathized with Captain Little, who merely acted in good faith, and he worried that the ruling might undermine the integrity of the military, which depends upon the implicit obedience of its members. But, in the final analysis, much more would have been lost if he ruled in favor of the hapless skipper. Continue reading “A Command Is a Command”