Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 (Citizenship)

Document 13

The Case of Isaac Williams

27 Feb. 1797St. George Tucker, Blackstone's Commentaries 1:App. 436--38 1803

On the trial of Isaac Williams, in the district court of Connecticut, February 27, 1797, for accepting a commission under the French Republic, and under the authority thereof committing acts of hostility against Great-Britain, the defendant alledged, and offered to prove that he had expatriated himself from the United States, and become a French citizen before the commencement of the war between France and England. This produced a question as to the right of expatriation; when Judge Ellsworth, then chief justice of the United States, is said to have delivered an opinion nearly to the following effect.

"The common law of this country remains the same as it was before the revolution. The present question is to be decided by two great principles; one is, that all the members of a civil community are bound to each other by compact; the other is, that one of the parties to this compact cannot dissolve it by his own act. The compact between our community and it's members is, that the community shall protect it's members, and on the part of the members, that they will at all times be obedient to the laws of the community, and faithful in it's defence. It necessarily results that the member cannot dissolve this compact, without the consent or default of the community. There has been no consent .... no default. Express consent is not claimed; but it is argued that the consent of the community is implied, by it's policy .... it's conditions .... and it's acts. In countries so crouded with inhabitants, that the means of subsistence are difficult to be obtained, it is reason and policy to permit emigration; but our policy is different; for our country is but scarcely settled, and we have no inhabitants to spare.

"Consent has been argued from the condition of the country, because we were in a state of peace. But though we were in peace, the war had commenced in Europe. We wished to have nothing to do with the war; but the war would have something to do with us. It has been extremely difficult for us to keep out of this war; the progress of it has threatened to involve us. It has been necessary for our government to be vigilant in restraining our own citizens from those acts which would involve us in hostilities. The most visionary writers on this subject do not contend for the principle in the unlimited extent, that a citizen may, at any, and at all times, renounce his own, and join himself to a foreign country.

"Consent has been argued from the acts of our government permitting the naturalization of foreigners. When a foreigner presents himself here, we do not inquire what his relation is to his own country; we have not the means of knowing, and the inquiry would be indelicate; we leave him to judge of that. If he embarrasses himself by contracting contradictory obligations, the fault and folly are his own; but this implies no consent of the government that our own citizens should also expatriate themselves. . . . . It is, therefore, my opinion, that these facts which the prisoner offers to prove, in his defence, are totally irrelevant," &c. The prisoner was accordingly found guilty, fined and imprisoned.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4 (Citizenship), Document 13
The University of Chicago Press

Tucker, St. George. Blackstone's Commentaries: With Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia. 5 vols. Philadelphia, 1803. Reprint. South Hackensack, N.J.: Rothman Reprints, 1969.

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