MVB Senate speech on Florida wreckers, 11 January 1826
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 11, 1826.
The Senate then proceeded to consider, as in Committee of the Whole, the bill “to annul an act concerning wreckers and wrecked property, passed by the Governor and Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida."
Mr. VAN BUREN moved to strike out so much of the bill as deferred the period of its going into operation, until the first day of March next. He observed, that, as the provision of the bill was a matter of considerable interest, he would state briefly as the subject would admit of, the reasons which had induced the Committee on the Judiciary to report it. He said, that, by an established principle of maritime law, a reasonable compensation is allowed to every person who saves property wrecked on the high seas. The salvor has a lien on the property for his salvage, and his remedy in the District Court of the United States, to ascertain its amount and enforce payment. By the established practice of that Court, appropriate proceedings are prescribed, which enable it to do justice to all concerned, by securing to the owners of the wreck the best practical notice, by making order for the security of the property during the progress of the claim, and by instituting an examination into the circumstances of each case, and settling such rate of salvage as is just and equitable; which, in the absence of treaty stipulations between the Governments of the salvor and owner was left entirely to the discretion of the Court; and, finally, by making disposition of the residue, after deducting the salvage allowed, including the right of adjudicating upon contested claims thereto, if any such existed. Such, he said, had been the result of this mode of proceeding, that there did not now exist a Legislative provision upon the subject as it respects civil salvage, nor had any, to his knowledge or belief, been thought necessary since the establishment of the Government. By the act establishing a Territorial Government in Florida, the Judicial power was vested in two Superior Courts, and those Courts are clothed with all the powers of the District Courts of the United States, including exclusive original Admiralty and Maritime jurisdiction. It is made the duty of the Courts, respectively, to hold their terms at Pensacola and St. Augustine: thus affording to the wreckers on that coast, all the advantages for the recovery of their salvage, and to the owner, all the security for their property which, by the law of the land, was extended to the citizens of the United States in general.
It appears that the inhabitants and Legislative Council of Florida are not content with the law as it stood, and have passed the act proposed to be annulled by the bill under consideration. The act, he said, had been read, and would be found to contain many provisions of extraordinary and highly exceptionable character. By it, the wrecker, instead of libelling the property in the Superior Court, and subjecting it and its future disposition to the order of that Court, is directed to report it to a Justice of the Peace or Notary Public, who is authorized to summon a jury of five men; who of whom to be selected by the wreckers, two by the owner, and one by the Justice or Notary: or, in the absence of the owner, (a cause doubtless of common occurrence,) the other three Jurors to be selected by the Justice or Notary. To the award of this jury, is submitted the whole interest in question; including not only the rate of salvage, but the disposition of the wreck; and the Clerk of the Territory is charged with the execution of the award. Notice of it is to be published, for twelve months, in a paper published in the Territory, and, if not claimed within that time, the whole property to belong to the salvors; if not claimed, the Territory to have 10 per cent. on the value of the property; if claimed, 5 per cent. on the surplus, and, in all cases, 3 per cent. on the whole value of their property-the Justice, Notary, and Clerk, have, also their per centum, and the Jury a per diem allowance. The circumstances under which the law was to be executed, he said, left little doubt that its execution, for the most part, devolved on men who had personal interests in the subject, and would, of course, lead to gross perversions of justice. That such had been the result, the committee, he said, entertained no doubt. From the general statements which had been made, and which the committee thought entitled to credit, it appeared that the greatest abuses had been practised under the act in question-by omission to provide for the safety of the property during the time allowed for ransom, by improper conversion of the fund, and by the allowance of unexampled rates of salvage from 75 to 90, and, in one instance, as high as 94 per centum. The case of the brig Hercules had been particularly stated to the committee. From the documents on the table, it appeared that this vessel had been carried into Key West, having received but little injury, at least in comparison with the amount of salvage allowed. The underwriters in New York, on receiving information of the fact, sent their agent to the spot. On his arrival, he found a great part of the cargo already on board of a vessel for Havana, and other vessels ready to take the residue to different places, where it would have been impossible for the owners to have followed it, the packages broken, the marks effaced, and a salvage allowed by the Jury, which induced him to pay $72,500 for the ransom of the brig and cargo. This sum he paid, and submitted, moreover, to the most vexatious and oppressive impositions by the wreckers and their friends and abettors. But there was, he said, one view of the subject which superseded the necessity of further observation on the provision of the act in question, or the abuses which had been practised under it, and that was, that the Legislative Council had no authority to pass it. By the act establishing the Territorial Government, a limit is put upon the Legislative authority, that they shall pass no law inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States. By the same act, the Superior Courts of the Territory are vested with exclusion Admiralty and Maritime jurisdiction. The act proposed to be annulled, gives to Justices of the Peace Admiralty and Maritime jurisdiction, in palpable violation of the fundamental law of the Territory.
Mr. V.B. said, that he had been informed, since the report of the committee, that the Superior Courts had decided that the law in question was unauthorized and void. He had not learnt on what grounds that decision was made, but presumed it was, as well it might be, on the plain principle he had stated. It was on that account that he wished the bill amended, so that it might go into operation immediately, and that the assent of Congress might in no way be given to its validity, which would be the case if the bill passed as it now stands.
The amendment was agreed to, and the bill ordered to be engrossed for a third reading.