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1820, Piracy, General Piracy, “Law of Nations, ” Privateer, Pardon


During the February 1820 Term, the Supreme Court of the United States decided four significant piracy cases, beginning with United States v. Klintock. Political, economic, and social pressures enhanced the problem of piracy affecting the interests of the United States. Responding to the criticism of his decision in United States v. Palmer and the passage of the Act of 1819 state Congressional intent for defining piracy by the “law of nations,” Marshall authored the decision in Klintock distinguishing Palmer and, upon reconsideration, interpreting the Act of 1790 to include general piracy as defined by the “law of nations.” With a broader interpretation, federal courts had the jurisdiction to consider cases of general piracy regardless of the character of the vessel or nationality of the offender if the vessel operated under the flag of an unacknowledged foreign entity and if an American interest was at issue. While serving as the foundation for the final three piracy cases to endure broad enforcement authority over piracy, the story of Klintock did not end with the decision. An internal controversy over missing evidence in the case due to an alleged conspiracy implicated other parties in the piracy and demonstrated the internal policies and political considerations Monroe administration in the aftermath of the piracy cases. Following an investigation, internal correspondence, lobbying efforts on behalf of Ralph Clintock, and other outside pressures, the Monroe administration was not convinced that Clintock was innocent, but did find that the totality of the circumstances favored a pardon for Clintock.


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