The Schooner Exchange v. M'Faddon

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The Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Decided February 24, 1812
Full case name The Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon & Others
Citations 11 U.S. 116 (more)
7 Cranch 116; 3 L. Ed. 287
Prior history McFadden v. the Exchange, 16 F. Cas. 85 (C.C.D. Pa. 1811)
American courts do not have jurisdiction over a friendly nation's military vessel that enters an American port.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Marshall
Associate Justices
Bushrod Washington · William Johnson
Henry B. Livingston · Thomas Todd
Gabriel Duvall · Joseph Story
Case opinions
Majority Marshall, joined by unanimous

The Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 116 (1812), is a United States Supreme Court case concerning the Federal courts' jurisdiction over a claim against a friendly foreign military vessel visiting an American port. The court, interpreting customary international law, determined that there was no jurisdiction.


The schooner Exchange, owned by John McFaddon and William Greetham, sailed from Baltimore, Maryland, on October 27, 1809, for San Sebastián, Spain, on December 30, 1810, the Exchange was seized by order of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Exchange was then armed and commissioned as a French warship under the name of Balaou. When the vessel later docked in Philadelphia due to storm damage, McFaddon and Greetham filed an action in the district court to seize the vessel, claiming that it had been taken illegally, the district court found that it did not have jurisdiction over the dispute. On appeal, the circuit court reversed the decision of the district court, and ordered the district court to proceed to the merits of the case,[1] the Supreme Court reversed the circuit court's decision, and affirmed the district court's dismissal of the action.

Supreme Court decision[edit]

Chief Justice Marshall delivered the opinion of the court. He noted that by the definition of sovereignty, a state has absolute and exclusive jurisdiction within its own territory, but that it could also by implied or express consent waive jurisdiction.[2] Moreover, Marshall also noted that under international custom jurisdiction was presumed to be waived in a number of situations, for instance, a foreign sovereign and his diplomatic representatives were generally free from the jurisdiction of domestic courts when visiting.[3] Similarly, if a state granted permission for a foreign army free passage across its territory, it generally implied a waiver of jurisdiction over that army,[4] this custom was firmly enough established and necessary for international relations that it would be wrongful for a country to violate it without prior notice.[5]

Marshall further noted that while the right of free passage by an army need usually be explicitly granted (likely because such passage inevitably involves physical damage of some sort), by maritime custom a nation's ports were presumptively open to all friendly ships. While a nation could close its ports to the warships of another country, it would have to issue some form of declaration to do so. Without such a declaration, a friendly foreign warship could enter a nation's port with its implied consent.[6] Marshall further distinguished the difference between private merchant ships and citizens (who are subject to a nation's jurisdiction when they enter its ports with the nation's implied consent), and military ships. Namely, private ships do not carry with them the sovereign status of military ships, with the privileges that accompany it,[7] from this, Marshall arrived at the conclusion that, by customary international law, a friendly warship that enters a nation's open port are exempted from that nation's jurisdiction.[8]

Applying this analysis to the facts at hand, Marshall found that the courts did not have jurisdiction over the case.[9]


The decision is regarded as the "first definitive statement of the doctrine of foreign state immunity"[10][11] Additionally, the unwillingness of the Court to find jurisdiction without action by the political branches of government, along with some explicit dicta,[12] led to a tradition of great deference by the courts to official and individual determinations of immunity by the State Department,[13] this system was only revised in favor of judicial interpretations with the passage of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in 1976.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ McFadden v. the Exch., 16 F. Cas. 85, 88 (C.C.D. Pa. 1811) rev'd sum nom. The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 3 L. Ed. 287 (1812)
  2. ^ The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 136 (1812)
  3. ^ The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 137 (1812)
  4. ^ The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 139 (1812)
  5. ^ "A nation would justly be considered as violating its faith, although that faith might not be expressly plighted, which should suddenly and without previous notice, exercise its territorial powers in a manner not consonant to the usages and received obligations of the civilized world." The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 137 (1812)
  6. ^ The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 141 (1812)
  7. ^ The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 144-45 (1812)
  8. ^ The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 145-46 (1812)
  9. ^ ". . . the Exchange, being a public armed ship, in the service of a foreign sovereign, with whom the government of the United States is at peace, and having entered an American port open for her reception, on the terms on which ships of war are generally permitted to enter the ports of a friendly power, must be considered as having come into the American territory, under an implied promise, that while necessarily within it, and demeaning herself in a friendly manner, she should be exempt from the jurisdiction of the country." The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 146 (1812)
  10. ^ Caplan, Lee M. State Immunity, Human Rights, and Jus Cogens: A Critique of the Normative Hierarchy Theory, 97 Am. J. Int'l L. 741, 745 (2003)
  11. ^ Ved P. Nanda, David K. Pansius. Litigation of International Disputes in U.S. Courts, §3.2 "Origin of Immunity," 2012.
  12. ^ ". . . the sovereign power of the nation is alone competent to avenge wrongs committed by a sovereign, that the questions to which such wrongs give birth are rather questions of policy than of law, [] they are for diplomatic, rather than legal discussion" The Schooner Exch. v. McFaddon, 11 U.S. 116, 146 (1812)
  13. ^ 25 A.L.R.3d 322 (Originally published 1969)

External links[edit]