A Command Is a Command

32 - Salute (iStock_000005426456XSmall)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.”[1] 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”

Uncle “Red Beans” and Me

22 - RB with BlackieMy uncle R.B. was one of those winsome old men who draw kids like honey draws flies—an incorrigible teaser with a permanent, mischievous twinkle in his eye. He almost had me convinced that R.B. stood for “red beans,” which he had with dinner seven nights a week. This salty west-Texan did his time in a General Dynamics factory and savored retirement like it was his parole. He worked to live, not the other way around. He was my playmate, the closest thing I had to a grandfather, and easily one of the greatest influences on my life. Much of what I understand about manhood came from him. And when I think of a mentor, I immediately recall his sun-parched face and this story.

Uncle R.B. considered the dimple-C ranch in Duffau, TX his true home—several hundred acres of grassy pasture, Mesquite trees, a few dozen head of cattle, and an old, black farm truck from the Hoover administration. By the time I was tall enough to reach the floorboard starter button, I had mastered the art of driving. And, despite the sloppy manual gear stick and wobbly steering, I could proudly declare that I had never so much as scratched anything with it. Other, less responsible family members (I won’t embarrass them—they know who they are) had plowed into trees or torn a giant gash in the barn. But not me. At the ripe, old age of eleven, I boasted a spotless driving record. Continue reading “Uncle “Red Beans” and Me”