Front Page Titles (by Subject) Henfield's Case Case No. 6,360 Circuit Court, D. Pennsylvania 11 F. Cas. 1099 (1793). - Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 1
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Henfield’s Case Case No. 6,360 Circuit Court, D. Pennsylvania 11 F. Cas. 1099 (1793). - James Wilson, Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 1 
Collected Works of James Wilson, edited by Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, with an Introduction by Kermit L. Hall, and a Bibliographical Essay by Mark David Hall, collected by Maynard Garrison (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 1.
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Henfield’s Case Case No. 6,360 Circuit Court, D. Pennsylvania 11 F. Cas. 1099 (1793).
Gideon Henfield seized a French ship and was charged by American prosecutors for engaging in acts hostile to nations at peace with the United States. Although no statute explicitly forbade this action, Wilson contended that Henfield could be charged with violating the common law of federal crimes. Although he was acquitted by the jury, Wilson’s charge contributed to the eventual, though short-lived, acceptance of criminal common law claims by the federal courts.
Judge Wilson (with whom were Judge Iredell and Judge Peters) charged the jury as follows:
This is, gentlemen of the jury, a case of the first importance. Upon your verdict the interests of four millions of your fellow-citizens may be said to depend. But whatever be the consequence, it is your duty, it is our duty, to do only what is right.
(After stating the substance of the charges against the defendant, the learned judge proceeded:)
It has not been contended, on the present occasion, that the defendant has any peculiar exclusive right to take a part in the present war between the European powers, in relation to all whom the United States are in a state of peace and tranquillity. If he has no peculiar or exclusive right, it naturally follows, that what he may do every other citizen of the United States may also do. If one citizen of the United States may take part in the present war, ten thousand may. If they may take part on one side, they may take part on the other; and thus thousands of our fellow-citizens may associate themselves with different belligerent powers, destroying not only those with whom we have no hostility, but destroying each other. In such a case, can we expect peace among their friends who stay behind? And will not a civil war, with all its lamentable train of evil, be the natural effect? Yet what is right must be done, independent of the consequences, which I have only stated, in order to lay before you the necessity of seriously considering the case entrusted to you before you decide upon it.
Two principal questions of fact have arisen, and require your determination. The first is, that the defendant, Gideon Henfield, has committed an act of hostility against the subjects of a power with whom the United States are at peace: this has been clearly established by the testimony. The second object of inquiry is, whether Gideon Henfield was at that time a citizen of the United States. This he explicitly acknowledged to Mr. Baker; and, if he declared true, it was at that time the least of his thoughts to expatriate himself.
The questions of law coming into joint consideration with the facts, it is the duty of the court to explain the law to the jury, and give it to them in direction. It is the joint and unanimous opinion of the court, that the United States, being in a state of neutrality relative to the present war, the acts of hostility committed by Gideon Henfield are an offence against this country, and punishable by its laws. It has been asked by his counsel, in their address to you, against what law has he offended? The answer is, against many and binding laws. As a citizen of the United States, he was bound to act no part which could injure the nation; he was bound to keep the peace in regard to all nations with whom we are at peace. This is the law of nations; not an ex post facto law, but a law that was in existence long before Gideon Henfield existed. There are, also, positive laws, existing previous to the offence committed, and expressly declared to be part of the supreme law of the land. The constitution of the United States has declared that all treaties made, or to be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be part of the supreme law of the land. I will state to you, gentlemen, so much of the several treaties in force between America and any of the powers at war with France, as applies to the present case. The first article of the treaty with the United Netherlands, declares that there shall be a firm, inviolable, and universal peace and sincere friendship between the States General of the United Netherlands and the United States of America, and between the subjects and inhabitants of the said parties. The seventh article of the definitive treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain, declares that there shall be a firm and perpetual peace between his Britannic Majesty and the United States, and between the subjects of the one and the citizens of the other. And the first article of the treaty with Prussia declares that there shall be a firm, inviolable, and universal peace and sincere friendship between his Majesty the King of Prussia and his subjects, on the one part, and the United States of America and their citizens on the other. It may be observed, that the treaty would not be less sufficient in relation to the present question, if “subjects” and “citizens” had not been mentioned. These treaties were in the most public, the most notorious existence, before the act for which the prisoner is indicted was committed. The notoriety may, indeed, be said to have been greater than that of the general acts of congress; since, besides the same mode of publication, they are expressly referred to in the constitution. Much has been said on this occasion, by the defendant’s counsel, in support of the natural right of emigration; but little of it is truly applicable to the present question. Emigration is, undoubtedly, one of the natural rights of man. Yet it does not follow from thence that every act inconsistent with the duty is inconsistent with the state of a citizen. Nothing is more inconsistent with the duty of a citizen than treason; but it is because he still continues a citizen that he is liable to punishment.