The Olmsted Case: Privateers, Property, and Politics in Pennsylvania, 1778-1810

The Olmsted Case: Privateers, Property, and Politics in Pennsylvania, 1778-1810

The Olmsted Case: Privateers, Property, and Politics in Pennsylvania, 1778-1810

The Olmsted Case: Privateers, Property, and Politics in Pennsylvania, 1778-1810

Synopsis

This is a history of the Olmsted Case. The events of this history began in 1778 when Gideon Olmsted, a Connecticut sea captain held prisoner by the British, overcame his British captors and sailed their ship, the sloop Active, into American waters. He claimed the Active as a prize of war. The state of Pennsylvania also claimed the Active and refused to grant Olmsted his prize. The stubborn sea captain pursued his claim through the state and federal courts for thirty years. In 1809, the United States Supreme Court, in United States v. Peters, ruled in Olmsted's favor. The case was not resolved, however, until after an armed confrontation between the federal government and the state of Pennsylvania.

Excerpt

The following chapters present a history of the Olmsted Case (United States v. Peters, 1809). The Olmsted Case concerned an American sea captain’s thirty-year pursuit of a claim against the state of Pennsylvania for a prize of war captured during the American Revolution. This case illustrates the tensions between state and federal judiciaries as each sought to define their place in the constitutional system. Olmsted is also a window on the contentious and vicious politics of early national Pennsylvania. Anyone who dips into Pennsylvania history learns early on that “politics of personal destruction” is not a modern invention.

By following Gideon Olmsted’s quest for his prize of war we are able to examine the sectional, ethnic, religious, and class divisions that drove Pennsylvania politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Olmsted was there as Pennsylvanians formed and dissolved political alliances. He witnessed the resulting conflicts. The course of Olmsted’s case was affected by conflicts between Philadelphia leaders and Benedict Arnold, conflicts between Federalists and Republicans, and conflicts between Republican factions. Further, as we watch the growth and importance of the political power of the west in Pennsylvania in this era, we have to ask if the western issue of land ownership affected the state’s position in Olmsted? Also at play is the vying for power between ethnic German farmers represented by Governor Simon Snyder and Philadelphia’s Anglo and Irish merchants and mechanics represented by William Duane, the influential editor of the Aurora.

This case is important in the history of the United States Supreme Court and American constitutional history because it is one of the first examples of the Marshall Court’s pursuit of judicial nationalism. The Olmsted Case (1809) is usually presented as a footnote or given a line or two before the details of the really important cases are recited. These ‘important cases” are: Fletcher v. Peck (1810), which dealt with fraudulent land sales in the Yazoo area in . . .

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