Legal Papers of John Adams, volume 2

Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

The courts of Vice Admiralty in the colonies had been established by the Crown in 1697 primarily to provide a forum for enforcement of the Acts of Trade and Navigation, with which England sought to control colonial commerce for the benefit of the Mother Country. The courts were, of course, open for the trial of ordinary civil maritime cases, but in Massachusetts it took the earliest royal Admiralty judges nearly twenty years to overcome hostility aroused by the establishment, and unfamiliarity with the new process. Thus, although by 1720 the Admiralty had a sizable civil business, there had developed a solidly established tradition of common-law competence in maritime matters, which kept the court from realizing its full potential. The court was further hampered by the common-law power to issue writs of prohibition, with which any respondent in a case that did not actually arise on the seas, or concern the wages and discipline of seamen, could stay the Admiralty proceedings. By this means, virtually all contracts for maritime services (other than seamen's wages), as well as torts occurring within a harbor, could be excluded from the jurisdiction.1

Thus, even in its busiest years, the Massachusetts Vice Admiralty Court had had few cases that did not involve seamen, or other matters traditionally within its competence. The bulk of maritime torts and contracts were sued upon at common law. After 1764, when Parliament expanded and strengthened Admiralty jurisdiction of violations of the Acts of Trade, the court's business declined to fifteen or twenty cases a year. Most of these were civil in nature, but the passage of the Townshend duties in 1767 and the heightened enforcement activities of the new American Board of Customs Commissioners beginning in 1768, which sharply increased the number of revenue cases in the court, reduced its civil business to about six or eight cases a year, and, after 1770, to one or two.2


As far as can be determined, Adams had no case of any kind in the Court of Vice Admiralty before 1768.3 This may well be explained by the fact that the business of the court was so slight and the cases so un-remunerative that there was no room for another advocate at its bar. He had originally brought Doane v. Gage, his first known Admiralty case, at common law, but decided to proceed in Admiralty, apparently for convenience. Probably because of the decline in such business he seems never to have had another civil Admiralty case.

This dispute over the ownership of a whale taken at sea shows that the civil side of the Vice Admiralty Court was not altogether defunct in the 1760's, but the case is chiefly of interest for its wealth of detail on the techniques of whaling. The whale fishery was a major industry in 18th-century Massachusetts. Vessels from Nantucket, Dartmouth, Cape Cod, and Boston had by 1775 ranged the Atlantic from Baffin Bay and Greenland in the north, eastward to the Azores and the coast of Africa, and south to Brazil and the Falkland Islands, producing an annual catch worth about £200,000.4

In 1765 nearly a hundred Massachusetts vessels fished the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Straits of Belle Isle, which lie between Newfoundland and Labrador. In the fleet were a number of Cape Cod whalers, including ships captained by Joseph Doane of Chatham and Lot Gage of Harwich.5 On 21 June the hunting was good in the Straits; a sizable number of boats from several vessels were in the water, and numerous whales had been sighted. One whale in particular had succeeded in eluding capture, until Asa Nickerson, commanding one of Doane's boats, drove his “iron” into it. The whale sounded with the line. At some point thereafter, Gage himself struck the same whale and Nickerson's line came free. Gage was able to maintain control over the whale, supervise the kill, and bring its marketable parts aboard ship.


At once a dispute arose between Doane and Gage as to the ownership of the whale. There was much uncertainty as to whether Nickerson had struck it at all, and if he had, whether he had still been “fast” at the time that Gage had struck. The Cape Codders all took sides, some on the basis of long-standing political and social rivalries, others because of financial interest engendered by the flexible and temporary sharing of labor and profit among vessels known as “mateship.”6 Gage remained steadfast in the claim that the whale was entirely his, however, and some time after the return of the fleet to home waters Doane brought action against him.

Suit was commenced at law in the Inferior Court at Barnstable, where an entry in John Adams' docket dated June 1766 records that he was “spoke to,” that is, asked to serve as counsel.7 Numerous depositions were taken, but the case was not disposed of at this stage. It is possible that the common-law court declined to hear a matter so obviously within the Admiralty jurisdiction, but it seems more likely that some practical consideration, such as the desire to avoid a biased local jury, led Adams to withdraw the action at Barnstable in order to proceed in Admiralty.8 In any event, on 6 January 1768 the case of “Joseph Doane v. Lot Gage, rela. a Whale” was entered by Adams on the docket of the Vice Admiralty Court.9 James Otis represented the Gage interests, which apparently included his father, Col. James Otis of Barnstable.10 Adams and Otis agreed that depositions taken for the trial in Barnstable might be used in Admiralty and that further depositions might be taken, but the case was continued from time to time.1171Finally, Robert Treat Paine, once briefly a whaler himself,12 joined Otis on Gage's side, and on 22 April 1769 the parties agreed to submit the matter to arbitrators.13 Since no notation to this effect appears in the Vice Admiralty Minute Book, it may be that the agreement was to discontinue and to arrange the arbitration privately rather than under a rule of court.

After a day of hearings in June and a further postponement in August, proceedings before the arbitrators commenced in earnest on 19 October 1769 at Brackett's tavern, with Adams arguing first.14 The chief legal issue was the nature of the right of possession in whales, a question of vital concern to the whaling industry throughout the 19th century and to most first-year law students today. At some point before the hearing Adams had made a series of extracts of civil-law authorities standing for the proposition that property in wild animals is acquired when they are taken into possession, but lost if the animals escape from possession and regain their natural liberty. While civil-law authorities have always been of great weight at common law in such questions, the fact that this was an Admiralty proceeding probably accounts for the exclusive reliance upon them here.15

In the first portion of the arbitration proceedings Adams concentrated on the application of these principles to the practices of the whale fishery. His witnesses to the customary law of whaling testified that a boat was considered in possession of a whale when it was “fast” to it, that is, when its iron was still seated in the whale and the line was still in the boat's control.

A second boat striking the whale while the first was fast was entitled to a one-eighth share if it had come in at a “call” from the first; if the fast boat had not requested assistance the second striker took nothing, even though the whale ultimately cast the first iron.16 If the whale became “loose” without having been struck a second time, the first striker lost possession and 72all claim to the whale, and a subsequent striker had full possession. Except for the grant of an eighth to the second striker, these rules are similar to the code epitomized by Melville in Moby Dick and observed by British and American courts dealing with the Greenland whale fishery then and for a century afterward. Adams' further argument that the adoption of custom strengthened rules designed to prevent disputes has also been followed in the courts.17

The real problems in the case were factual. Adams' evidence tended to show that Nickerson had been fast to the whale when Gage struck, thus giving Doane possession under the rules to which earlier witnesses had testified. Adams also introduced testimony which struck at the validity of Gage's evidence, suggesting physical impossibilities, inconsistencies, and dubious motives. Paine followed Adams, first attacking Doane's case, then putting in evidence to support Gage's theory that he had struck only after Nickerson had lost the whale and was hauling in his iron. When the evidence was in, Otis summed up the testimony presented.

Altogether there had been at least 74 witnesses—34 for Doane and 40 for Gage. Whether in deference to the civil-law procedure followed in the High Court of Admiralty in England, or for convenience in a hearing four years after the event, all of the testimony seems to have been in written form—either depositions or answers to interrogatories, which each side had served upon witnesses whose depositions showed their testimony to be crucial.18 Adams and Paine read these documents, or paraphrases of relevant portions of them, before the arbitrators, embellishing the reading with comments and arguments when appropriate. According to Paine's diary, 73six days were required for the hearing. Finally on 27 October he noted simply, “Whale case finished.”19 No record of the result has been found.

The materials that follow include Adams' notes of authorities (Document I) and his extensive minutes of the arbitration proceedings (Document II), as well as copies of the interrogatories prepared by both sides (Documents III, IV). The latter are of particular interest, because they show the crucial factual issues upon which counsel concentrated at the last stages of a long litigation. On the basis of these documents the reader may be able to form his own judgment as to who was entitled to the whale.


For a summary of the development of the jurisdiction in Massachusetts and of the common-law restrictions, see Wroth, “The Massachusetts Vice Admiralty Court,” in George A. Billias, ed., Law and Authority in Colonial America: Selected Essays (Barre, Mass., in press).


Complete figures on the court are not available for the years 1745–1765, because virtually all of its records for that period were destroyed in the Stamp Act riot, 1765. See Wroth, “The Massachusetts Vice Admiralty Court,” 6 Am. Jour. Legal Hist. 263–264 (1962). The business of the court, 1765–1772, can be estimated from the Minute Book for those years in the Office of the Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, Boston. See p. 102–104, notes 17, 22, 24 below. Development of the court's revenue jurisdiction is summarized at p. 98–106 below.


JA first mentioned being at the Admiralty Court in a diary entry of 30 Jan. 1768, which was after the commencement of Doane v. Gage there. 1 JA, Diary and Autobiography 337–338; see text at note 9 below.


See Edouard Stackpole, The Sea-Hunters 30–65 (Phila., 1953); Alexander Starbuck, History of the American Whale Fishery 19–77 (Waltham, Mass., 1878). For the market value, see Thomas Jefferson, “Memoranda,” Oct. 1788, 14 Jefferson, Papers, ed. Boyd, 226–234; Thomas Jefferson, “Report to the House on the Cod and Whale Fisheries,” 1 Feb. 1791, in H.R. Misc. Doc. No. 32, 42d Cong., 2d sess. (1872); Obed Macy, The History of Nantucket 70–72, 233 (Boston, 1835). JA was also concerned with the American whaling industry during his diplomatic career. See 3 JA, Diary and Autobiography 83–84.


See Boston News-Letter, 8 Aug. 1765, p. 3, col. 1. Doane (c. 1720–1778) held a variety of public offices in Chatham, kept a public house there “of great benefit to the fishery,” and found time to participate in the annual whaling voyages. See Alfred A. Doane, The Doane Family 136 (Boston, 1902); 17 A&R 552; 18 A&R 453, 675. He was also involved in two later JA cases, No. 57 and No. 58. Lot Gage was an incorporator of the Second Parish of Harwich in 1746. Frederick Freeman, The History of Cape Cod, 2:513 (Boston, 1869).


See Stackpole, Sea-Hunters 42, 51. See also notes 3, 7, 19 29, 33, 45 , below.


JA, Docket, June 1764–Oct. 1767. Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 182. The entry, which is nearly illegible, may read “Jonathan” Doane, but if that reading is correct, it is probably an error on JA's part. That the case was first entered in the Barnstable court is established by the agreement regarding depositions from that court in note 11 below.


Other whale cases in the Superior Court files are inconclusive on the jurisdictional point. Dyer v. Doane, SF 144072, SCJ Rec. 1757–1759, fol. 325 (Barnstable, 1758), was an action of trover for a whale allegedly struck by the plaintiff in Cape Cod Harbor and taken up on shore by the defendant, who won the verdict. In Bassett v. Jenkins, SF 144166, SCJ Rec. 1763–1764, fol. 245 (Barnstable, 1764), trover for a whale struck in the St. Lawrence, the defendant prevailed on a motion in arrest of judgment, apparently on a pleading defect unrelated to the jurisdictional question. The problem of location could be avoided in any event by alleging a fictitious venue within the Province, which was done in Bassett v. Jenkins.


Vice Adm. Min. Bk., 6 Jan. 1768.


As to Otis, see note 5 31 below.


The agreement, dating from March 1768, provides “That Each Party shall have Liberty to use the Depositions heretofore taken to Be used in the Inferior Court of Common Pleas at Barnstable and all the Evidences heretofore Taken In Perpetuam Reis Memoriam: and to Take any others that may Be Wanted In the same Manner: and that all such Depositions shall be Considered as having the same Weight as If the Deponants were Dead Gone to Sea &c. and were Regularly taken.” A supplement, dated “In Court,” 15 Dec. 1768, provided that any further depositions thought necessary should be taken before two Justices of the Peace in Barnstable, “whether taken in Perpetuam or in the Common form, the Adverse Party to be notified.” MHi:Waterston Collection. See note 2 84 below. For a discussion of the statutory rules for taking depositions, see p. xlvii above. The continuances through 28 Nov. 1768 appear in Vice Adm. Min. Bk., 6 Jan., 28 Nov. 1768. Paine notes that in Jan. 1769 the court, sitting to hear the case, adjourned until April. Paine Diary, 23 Jan. 1769.


On a voyage to Greenland in 1754. See 12 Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates 465.


Paine Diary, 19 Jan., 22 April 1769.


Paine Diary, 20, 21 June, 10 Aug., 19 Oct. 1769. In his own diary under the last date, JA noted, “The morning at Brackett's upon the Case of the Whale.” 1 JA, Diary and Autobiography 344. “Brackett's” was undoubtedly the Cromwell's Head, an inn on School Street in Boston kept by Joshua Bracket, where such proceedings were commonly held. See Rowe, Letters and Diary 127; Thwing, Crooked and Narrow Streets 109; Drake, History and Antiquities of Boston 807. JA apparently had the assistance of an unidentified lawyer, whose notes on the case are found with his. See note 1 27 below.


The common-law position on wild animals is typified by Kent, Commentaries *348–350. As to the Admiralty as a civil-law jurisdiction, see JA's argument in No. 46. From the beginning of his legal career he had read extensively in the civil law. See 1 JA, Diary and Autobiography 44, 55–57, 173–174.


The statement in 1 JA, Diary and Autobiography 344 note, that Doane as first striker would be entitled only to an eighth upon losing the whale is thus erroneous.


Melville's formulation was:

“But though no other nation [except Holland] has ever had any written whaling law, yet the American fishermen have been their own legislators and lawyers in this matter. They have provided a system which for terse comprehensiveness surpasses Justinian's Pandects and the By-laws of the Chinese Society for the Suppression of Meddling with other People's Business. . . .

“I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.

“II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 88) 393–394 (N.Y., 1950).

See also William Scoresby, An Account of the Arctic Regions, 2:318–328 (Edinburgh, 1820). Compare Aberdeen Arctic Co. v. Sutter, 4 Macq. 355 (H.L. 1862); Addison v. Row, 3 Paton App. 334 (H.L. 1794). Different whaling areas had local customs differing from those of the Greenland fishery, but the courts have applied them on the theory enunciated by JA. See Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Common Law 167–168 (Cambridge, Mass., ed. Mark DeWolfe Howe, 1963), and cases there cited. See also note 6 32 below.


For the English Admiralty practice, see No. 46, notes 35, 63. Depositions were apparently taken both during the common law proceeding and after, under the agreements cited, note 11 above. See notes 7-9 33–35 below. The interrogatories were presumably prepared during the pendency of the Admiralty proceeding and were administered to at least one witness some time during 1769. See note 33 59 below. In the Suffolk files are two fragments in the hand of James Otis, containing questions to be put to various witnesses. These are probably questions submitted by Otis to whoever was taking depositions in the case, to be asked of the deponent. They are set out in note 39 65 below.


Paine Diary, 27 Oct. 1769.

Adams’ Notes of Authorities<a xmlns="" href="#LJA02d029n1" class="note" id="LJA02d029n1a">1</a>: Court of Vice Admiralty, Boston, 1768 JA


Adams’ Notes of Authorities: Court of Vice Admiralty, Boston, 1768 Adams, John
Adams' Notes of Authorities1
Court of Vice Admiralty, Boston, 1768
Doane's Whale.

Grotius B. 2, Chap. 8, §. 2. How long Beasts Birds and Fishes, may be said to be no Body's, admits of some Dispute.2

§. 3. “The Roman Lawyers say, We lose our Property in wild Beasts, as soon as ever they recover their natural Liberty: But in all other Things the Property acquired by Possession does not cease with the Loss of Possession. Nay it gives us a Right even to claim and recover our Possession. And Whether they be taken away from us by another, or get away of themselves, as a fugitive slave, it is all one.”3

Inst. Lib. 2, Tit. 1, §. 12. “De rerum divisione et de adquirendo ipsarum dominio. Ferae igitur Bestiae et Volucres, et Pisces, et omnia animalia, quae mari, Coelo, et Terra nascuntur: simulatque ab aliquo capta fuerint, jure gentium, statim illius esse incipiunt. Quod enim ante nullius est, id, naturali Ratione, occupanti conceditur. Quicquid autem eorum ceperis, eousque tuum esse intelligitur, donec tua custodia coercetur. Cum vero tuam evaserit Custodiam, et in Libertatem naturalem sese receperit, tuum esse definit, et rursus occupantis fit. Naturalem autem Libertatem recipere intelligitur, cum vel occulos 74tuos effugerit vel ita sit in Conspectu tuo ut difficilis sit ejus Persecutio.”4

§. 13. “Illud quaesitum est, an si Fera Bestia ita vulnerata sit, ut capi possit, statim tua esse intelligatur. Et, quibusdam placuit, statim esse tuam et eousque tuam videri donec eam persequaris. Quod si defieris persequi: definere esse tuam, et rursus fieri occupantis. Alii vero putaverant non aliter tuam esse quam si eam ceperis. Sed posteriorem sententiam nos confirmamus, quod multa evidere soleant ut eam non capias.”5

Vid. same Law in same Words: Digest Lib. 41. Tit. 1. “De adquirendo Rerum Dominio.”6

§. 5. “Naturalem &c. illud quaesitum est an fera bestia, quae ita vulnerata sit, ut capi possit statim nostra esse intelligatur. Trebatio placuit statim nostram esse, et eo usque nostram videri donec eam persequamur. Quod si defierimus eam persequi: definere nostram esse, et rursus fieri occupantis. Itaque si per hoc tempus, quo eam persequimur, alius eam ceperit eo animo ut ipse lucrifacerit: furtum videri75nobis eum commisisse. Plerique non aliter putaverunt eam nostram esse, quam si eam ceperimus: quia multa accidere possunt, ut eam non capiamus: quod verius est.”7


In JA's hand. Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 184.


Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace (London, 1738). The passage reads: “And to this Head [the Seizure or Possession of Things that have no Owner], in the first Place, is referred the Catching of Beasts, Birds, and Fish. But how long all these may be said to be no Body's, admits of some Dispute.” Id. at 248. The remainder of the section deals with the question whether the owner of an enclosed forest or lake has a property in the wild animals therein.


Grotius, War and Peace, bk. 2, ch. 8, §3. Quotation marks supplied.


This and the next paragraph are from the Institutes of Justinian, that summa of the Roman law which is the basis of all civilian studies. The edition used by JA cannot be determined, but the fact that he also quoted the Digest, note 6 25 below, indicates that he had access to a copy of the Corpus Juris Civilis, in which all of the works attributed to Justinian are contained. The passages here have been collated with Corpus Juris Civilis (Altenburg, ed. C. H. Freiesleben, 1751). Quotation marks have been supplied. The translation of the passage quoted here follows, with a sentence omitted by JA given in brackets.

“Of the different kinds of things and of acquiring dominion of them. . . . Wild animals, birds, and fish, that is to say all the creatures which the land, the sea, and the sky produce, as soon as they are caught by any one become at once the property of their captor by the law of nations; for natural reason admits the title of the first occupant to that which previously had no owner. [So far as the occupant's title is concerned, it is immaterial whether it is on his own land or on that of another that he catches wild animals or birds, though it is clear that if he goes on another man's land for the sake of hunting or fowling, the latter may forbid him entry if aware of his purpose. An animal thus caught by you is deemed your property so long as it is completely under your control; but so soon as it has escaped from your control, and recovered its natural liberty, it ceases to be yours, and belongs to the first person who subsequently catches it. It is deemed to have recovered its natural liberty when you have lost sight of it, or when, though it is still in your sight, it would be difficult to pursue it.” The Institutes of Justinian 37 (Oxford, transl. J. B. Moyle, 1913).


The translation of bk. 2, tit. 1, §13 of the Institutes is as follows:

“It has been doubted whether a wild animal becomes your property immediately you have wounded it so severely as to be able to catch it. Some have thought that it becomes yours at once, and remains so as long as you pursue it, though it ceases to be yours when you cease the pursuit, and becomes again the property of anyone who catches it: others have been of opinion that it does not belong to you till you have actually caught it. And we confirm this latter view, for it may happen in many ways that you will not capture it.” Institutes, transl. Moyle, 37.


Justinian, Digest, bk. 41, tit. 1, also collated with the text of Freiesleben, note 4 23 above. The first four paragraphs of Title 1 repeat the beginning of §12 of the Institutes quoted by JA, note 4 23 above.


Digest, bk. 41, tit. I, §5. The sentence which JA sums up as “&c.” is the same as the last sentence of §12 of the Institutes, note 4 23 above. The remainder of the paragraph is an elaboration of §13 of the Institutes, note 5 24 above:

“The following question has been asked: when a wild beast is so wounded that it could be taken, does the person [who wounded it] immediately become owner? Trebatius was of opinion that he did immediately, and that he must be held to retain the ownership so long as he kept on following the animal up, but that, if he relinquished the pursuit, his ownership ceased and the animal would once more become the property of whoever took it; so that if, at any moment while the pursuit lasted, some other person should capture it with a view to his own profit, he must be held to have committed a theft on the person first mentioned. A good many authorities hold that the party does not become owner unless he captures it, because there is a considerable chance of the capture not being made; and this is a better view to take.” De Adquirendo: Translation of Justinian's Digest, Book 41, Title 1, 3 (Cambridge, transl. C. H. Monro, 1900).