"This Practice Against Law" reconstructs the little-known story of the Butterfly and the Catharine, two slave ships from Havana seized by the British Navy off the African coast in 1839. These ships were tendered to the federal government for forfeiture proceedings and their captains prosecuted in the Southern District of New York and the Supreme Court of the United States. At the same time Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney conducted proceedings against the Catharine's builders in the Circuit Court in Baltimore. Based on the original case files in the National Archives and British Parliamentary publications, this in-depth review refutes the criticism of the federal judiciary in the prior scholarly assessment of these cases and demonstrates that in fact the performance of the federal judges compares favorably with other branches of the American government.Writes Christian G. Fritz, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of New Mexico:
John Gordan marvelously and meticulously reconstructs two slave ship cases, litigated in the Southern District of New York, after the 1839 British seizure of the Catharine and the Butterfly. While both ships were built in Baltimore and flew the American flag, authorities rightly suspected that the ships were intended for use in the Cuban-African slave trade conducted by foreign nationals. Gordan's insightful tracing of the proceedings regarding these two little-known vessels provides an instructive contrast to the more famous events unfolding in the near-contemporaneous journey of the Amistad through the federal courts.
This book presents an excellent overview of the international slave trade in light of the American cases. In addition, Gordan's extraordinary legal historical sleuthing provides a fuller picture of the legal machinations and complications of the American approach to the slave trade. Central to his analysis are the new legal sources Gordan draws upon, such as the unreported opinion (usefully included in the book's appendix) of U.S. District Judge Samuel Betts, who initially heard the legal issues raised by the Catharine and the Butterfly.
Gordan's first-rate documentary detective work and insightful scholarship shed new and important light on the legal and political conditions of the Cuban slave trade in the 19th century. It is the latest gem from a leading authority of the history of the federal courts.