The Great Speeches and Orations of Daniel Webster
Daniel Webster

Part 8 out of 25

acknowledged, so far at least as to affect us by laws of trade, it was
not easy to settle the line of distinction. It was thought, however, to
be very clear, that the charters of the Colonies had exempted them from
the general legislation of the British Parliament. See Massachusetts
State Papers, p. 351. The important assistance rendered by John Adams in
the preparation of the answer of the House to the Message of the
Governor may be learned from the Life and Works of John Adams, Vol. II.
p. 311 _et seq._]

[Footnote 7: The official copy of the Declaration, as engrossed and
signed by the members of Congress, is framed and preserved in the Hall
over the Patent-Office at Washington.]

[Footnote 8: See Life and Works of John Adams, Vol. II. p. 417 _et

[Footnote 9: On the authorship of this speech, see Note at the end of
the Discourse.]

[Footnote 10: In this Convention he served as chairman of the committee
for preparing the draft of a Constitution.]

[Footnote 11: Upon the organization of this body, 15th November, 1820,
John Adams was elected its President; an office which the infirmities of
age compelled him to decline. For the interesting proceedings of the
Convention on this occasion, the address of Chief Justice Parker, and
the reply of Mr. Adams, see Journal of Debates and Proceedings in the
Convention of Delegates chosen to revise the Constitution of
Massachusetts, p. 8 _et seq._]

[Footnote 12: For an account of Mr. Webster's last interview with Mr.
Adams, see March's Reminiscences of Congress, p. 62.]

[Footnote 13: Mr. Jefferson himself considered his services in
establishing the University of Virginia as among the most important
rendered by him to the country. In Mr. Wirt's Eulogy, it is stated that
a private memorandum was found among his papers, containing the
following inscription to be placed on his monument.--"Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the
Statutes of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the
University of Virginia." Eulogies on Adams and Jefferson, p. 426.]

[Footnote 14: See Letters of John Adams to his Wife, Vol. I. p. 128,



[This was an action of _assumpsit_, brought originally in the Circuit
Court of Louisiana, by Saunders, a citizen of Kentucky, against Ogden, a
citizen of Louisiana. The plaintiff below declared upon certain bills of
exchange, drawn on the 30th of September, 1806, by one Jordan, at
Lexington, in the State of Kentucky, upon the defendant below, Ogden, in
the city of New York, (the defendant then being a citizen and resident
of the State of New York,) accepted by him at the city of New York, and
protested for non-payment.

The defendant below pleaded several pleas, among which was a certificate
of discharge under the act of the legislature of the State of New York,
of April 3d, 1801, for the relief of insolvent debtors, commonly called
the Three-Fourths Act.

The jury found the facts in the form of a special verdict, on which the
court rendered a judgment for the plaintiff below, and the cause was
brought by writ of error before this court. The question which arose
under this plea, as to the validity of the law of New York as being
repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, was argued at
February term, 1824, by Mr. Clay, Mr. D.B. Ogden, and Mr. Haines, for
the plaintiff in error, and by Mr. Webster and Mr. Wheaton, for the
defendant in error, and the cause was continued for advisement until the
present term. It was again argued at the present term, by Mr. Webster
and Mr. Wheaton, against the validity, and by the Attorney-General, Mr.
E. Livingston, Mr. D.B. Ogden, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Sampson, for the

Mr. Wheaton opened the argument for the defendant in error; he was
followed by the counsel for the plaintiff in error; and Mr. Webster
replied as follows.]

The question arising in this case is not more important, nor so
important even, in its bearing on individual cases of private right, as
in its character of a public political question. The Constitution was
intended to accomplish a great political object. Its design was not so
much to prevent injustice or injury in one case, or in successive single
cases, as it was to make general salutary provisions, which, in their
operation, should give security to all contracts, stability to credit,
uniformity among all the States in those things which materially concern
the foreign commerce of the country, and their own credit, trade, and
intercourse with each other. The real question, is, therefore, a much
broader one than has been argued. It is this: Whether the Constitution
has not, for general political purposes, ordained that bankrupt laws
should be established only by national authority? We contend that such
was the intention of the Constitution; an intention, as we think,
plainly manifested in several of its provisions.

The act of New York, under which this question arises, provides that a
debtor may be discharged from all his debts, upon assigning his property
to trustees for the use of his creditors. When applied to the discharge
of debts contracted before the date of the law, this court has decided
that the act is invalid.[1] The act itself makes no distinction between
past and future debts, but provides for the discharge of both in the
same manner. In the case, then, of a debt already existing, it is
admitted that the act does impair the obligation of contracts. We wish
the full extent of this decision to be well considered. It is not merely
that the legislature of the State cannot interfere by law, in the
particular case of A or B, to injure or impair rights which have become
vested under contracts; but it is, that they have no power by general
law to regulate the manner in which all debtors may be discharged from
subsisting contracts; in other wrords, they cannot pass general bankrupt
laws to be applied _in presenti_. Now, it is not contended that such
laws are unjust, and ought not to be passed by any legislature. It is
not said that they are unwise or impolitic. On the contrary, we know the
general practice to be, that, when bankrupt laws are established, they
make no distinction between present and future debts. While all agree
that special acts, made for individual cases, are unjust, all admit that
a general law, made for all cases, may be both just and politic. The
question, then, which meets us on the threshold is this: If the
Constitution meant to leave the States the power of establishing systems
of bankruptcy to act upon future debts, what great or important object
of a political nature is answered by denying the power of making such
systems applicable to existing debts?

The argument used in _Sturges v. Crowninshield_ was, at least, a
plausible and consistent argument. It maintained that the prohibition of
the Constitution was levelled only against interferences in individual
cases, and did not apply to general laws, whether those laws were
retrospective or prospective in their operation. But the court rejected
that conclusion. It decided that the Constitution was intended to apply
to general laws or systems of bankruptcy; that an act providing that all
debtors might be discharged from all creditors, upon certain conditions,
was of no more validity than an act providing that a particular debtor,
A, should be discharged on the same conditions from his particular
creditor, B.

It being thus decided that general laws are within the prohibition of
the Constitution, it is for the plaintiff in error now to show on what
ground, consistent with the general objects of the Constitution, he can
establish a distinction which can give effect to those general laws in
their application to future debts, while it denies them effect in their
application to subsisting debts. The words are, that "no State shall
pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts." The general
operation of all such laws is to impair that obligation; that is, to
discharge the obligation without fulfilling it. This is admitted; and
the only ground taken for the distinction to stand on is, that, when the
law was in existence at the time of the making of the contract, the
parties must be supposed to have reference to it, or, as it is usually
expressed, the law is made a part of the contract. Before considering
what foundation there is for this argument, it may be well to inquire
what is that obligation of contracts of which the Constitution speaks,
and whence is it derived.

The definition given by the court in _Sturges v. Crowninshield_ is
sufficient for our present purpose. "A contract," say the court, "is an
agreement to do some particular thing; the law binds the party to
perform this agreement, and this is the obligation of the contract."

It is indeed probable that the Constitution used the words in a somewhat
more popular sense. We speak, for example, familiarly of a usurious
contract, and yet we say, speaking technically, that a usurious
agreement is no contract.

By the obligation of a contract, we should understand the Constitution
to mean, the duty of performing a legal agreement. If the contract be
lawful, the party is bound to perform it. But bound by what? What is it
that binds him? And this leads us to what we regard as a principal
fallacy in the argument on the other side. That argument supposes, and
insists, that the whole obligation of a contract has its origin in the
municipal law. This position we controvert. We do not say that it is
that obligation which springs from conscience merely; but we deny that
it is only such as springs from the particular law of the place where
the contract is made. It must be a lawful contract, doubtless; that is,
permitted and allowed; because society has a right to prohibit all such
contracts, as well as all such actions, as it deems to be mischievous or
injurious. But if the contract be such as the law of society tolerates,
in other words, if it be lawful, then we say, the duty of performing it
springs from universal law. And this is the concurrent sense of all the
writers of authority.

The duty of performing promises is thus shown to rest on universal law;
and if, departing from this well-established principle, we now follow
the teachers who instruct us that the obligation of a contract has its
origin in the law of a particular State, and is in all cases what that
law makes it, and no more, and no less, we shall probably find ourselves
involved in inextricable difficulties. A man promises, for a valuable
consideration, to pay money in New York. Is the obligation of that
contract created by the laws of that State, or does it subsist
independent of those laws? We contend that the obligation of a contract,
that is, the duty of performing it, is not created by the law of the
particular place where it is made, and dependent on that law for its
existence; but that it may subsist, and does subsist, without that law,
and independent of it. The obligation is in the contract itself, in the
assent of the parties, and in the sanction of universal law. This is the
doctrine of Grotius, Vattel, Burlamaqui, Pothier, and Rutherforth. The
contract, doubtless, is necessarily to be enforced by the municipal law
of the place where performance is demanded. The municipal law acts on
the contract after it is made, to compel its execution, or give damages
for its violation. But this is a very different thing from the same law
being the origin or fountain of the contract.

Let us illustrate this matter by an example. Two persons contract
together in New York for the delivery, by one to the other, of a
domestic animal, a utensil of husbandry, or a weapon of war. This is a
lawful contract, and, while the parties remain in New York, it is to be
enforced by the laws of that State. But if they remove with the article
to Pennsylvania or Maryland, there a new law comes to act upon the
contract, and to apply other remedies if it be broken. Thus far the
remedies are furnished by the laws of society. But suppose the same
parties to go together to a savage wilderness, or a desert island,
beyond the reach of the laws of any society. The obligation of the
contract still subsists, and is as perfect as ever, and is now to be
enforced by another law, that is, the law of nature; and the party to
whom the promise was made has a right to take by force the animal, the
utensil, or the weapon that was promised him. The right is as perfect
here as it was in Pennsylvania, or even in New York; but this could not
be so if the obligation were created by the law of New York, or were
dependent on that law for its existence, because the laws of that State
can have no operation beyond its territory. Let us reverse this example.
Suppose a contract to be made between two persons cast ashore on an
uninhabited territory, or in a place over which no law of society
extends. There are such places, and contracts have been made by
individuals casually there, and these contracts have been enforced in
courts of law in civilized communities. Whence do such contracts derive
their obligation, if not from universal law?

If these considerations show us that the obligation of a lawful contract
does not derive its force from the particular law of the place where
made, but may exist where that law does not exist, and be enforced
where that law has no validity, then it follows, we contend, that any
statute which diminishes or lessens its obligation does impair it,
whether it precedes or succeeds the contract in date. The contract
having an independent origin, whenever the law comes to exist together
with it, and interferes with it, it lessens, we say, and impairs, its
own original and independent obligation. In the case before the court,
the contract did not owe its existence to the particular law of New
York; it did not depend on that law, but could be enforced without the
territory of that State, as well as within it. Nevertheless, though
legal, though thus independently existing, though thus binding the party
everywhere, and capable of being enforced everywhere, yet the statute of
New York says that it shall be discharged without payment. This, we say,
impairs the obligation of that contract. It is admitted to have been
legal in its inception, legal in its full extent, and capable of being
enforced by other tribunals according to its terms. An act, then,
purporting to discharge it without payment, is, as we contend, an act
impairing its obligation.

Here, however, we meet the opposite argument, stated on different
occasions in different terms, but usually summed up in this, that the
law itself is a part of the contract, and therefore cannot impair it.
What does this mean? Let us seek for clear ideas. It does not mean that
the law gives any particular construction to the terms of the contract,
or that it makes the promise, or the consideration, or the time of
performance, other than is expressed in the instrument itself. It can
only mean, that it is to be taken as a part of the contract, or
understanding of the parties, that the contract itself shall be enforced
by such laws and regulations, respecting remedy and for the enforcement
of contracts, as are in being in the State where it is made at the time
of entering into it. This is meant, or nothing very clearly intelligible
is meant, by saying the law is part of the contract.

There is no authority in adjudged cases for the plaintiff in error but
the State decisions which have been cited, and, as has already been
stated, they all rest on this reason, that the law is part of the

Against this we contend,--

1st. That, if the proposition were true, the consequence would not

2d. That the proposition itself cannot be maintained.

1. If it were true that the law is to be considered as part of the
contract, the consequence contended for would not follow; because, if
this statute be part of the contract, so is every other legal or
constitutional provision existing at the time which affects the
contract, or which is capable of affecting it; and especially this very
article of the Constitution of the United States is part of the
contract. The plaintiff in error argues in a complete circle. He
supposes the parties to have had reference to it because it was a
binding law, and yet he proves it to be a binding law only upon the
ground that such reference was made to it. We come before the court
alleging the law to be void, as unconstitutional; they stop the inquiry
by opposing to us the law itself. Is this logical? Is it not precisely
_objectio ejus, cujus dissolutio petitur_? If one bring a bill to set
aside a judgment, is that judgment itself a good plea in bar to the
bill? We propose to inquire if this law is of force to control our
contract, or whether, by the Constitution of the United States, such
force be not denied to it. The plaintiff in error stops us by saying
that it does control the contract, and so arrives shortly at the end of
the debate. Is it not obvious, that, supposing the act of New York to be
a part of the contract, the question still remains as undecided as ever.
What is that act? Is it a law, or is it a nullity? a thing of force, or
a thing of no force? Suppose the parties to have contemplated this act,
what did they contemplate? its words only, or its legal effect? its
words, or the force which the Constitution of the United States allows
to it? If the parties contemplated any law, they contemplated all the
law that bore on their contract, the aggregate of all the statute and
constitutional provisions. To suppose that they had in view one statute
without regarding others, or that they contemplated a statute without
considering that paramount constitutional provisions might control or
qualify that statute, or abrogate it altogether, is unreasonable and
inadmissible. "This contract," says one of the authorities relied on,
"is to be construed as if the law were specially recited in it." Let it
be so for the sake of argument. But it is also to be construed as if the
prohibitory clause of the Constitution were recited in it, and this
brings us back again to the precise point from which we departed.

The Constitution always accompanies the law, and the latter can have no
force which the former does not allow to it. If the reasoning were
thrown into the form of special pleading, it would stand thus: the
plaintiff declares on his debt; the defendant pleads his discharge under
the law; the plaintiff alleges the law unconstitutional; but the
defendant says, You knew of its existence; to which the answer is
obvious and irresistible, I knew its existence on the statute-book of
New York, but I knew, at the same time, it was null and void under the
Constitution of the United States.

The language of another leading decision is, "A law in force at the time
of making the contract does not violate that contract"; but the very
question is, whether there be any such law "in force"; for if the States
have no authority to pass such laws, then no such law can be in force.
The Constitution is a part of the contract as much as the law, and was
as much in the contemplation of the parties. So that the proposition, if
it be admitted that the law is part of the contract, leaves us just
where it found us: that is to say, under the necessity of comparing the
law with the Constitution, and of deciding by such comparison whether it
be valid or invalid. If the law be unconstitutional, it is void, and no
party can be supposed to have had reference to a void law. If it be
constitutional, no reference to it need be supposed.

2. But the proposition itself cannot be maintained. The law is no part
of the contract. What part is it? the promise? the consideration? the
condition? Clearly, it is neither of these. It is no term of the
contract. It acts upon the contract only when it is broken, or to
discharge the party from its obligation after it is broken. The
municipal law is the force of society employed to compel the performance
of contracts. In every judgment in a suit on contract, the damages are
given, and the imprisonment of the person or sale of goods awarded, not
in performance of the contract, or as part of the contract, but as an
indemnity for the breach of the contract. Even interest, which is a
strong case, where it is not expressed in the contract itself, can only
be given as damages. It is all but absurd to say that a man's goods are
sold on a _fieri facias_, or that he himself goes to jail, in pursuance
of his contract. These are the penalties which the law inflicts for the
breach of his contract. Doubtless, parties, when they enter into
contracts, may well consider both what their rights and what their
liabilities will be by the law, if such contracts be broken; but this
contemplation of consequences which can ensue only when the contract is
broken, is no part of the contract itself. The law has nothing to do
with the contract till it be broken; how, then, can it be said to form a
part of the contract itself?

But there are other cogent and more specific reasons against considering
the law as part of the contract. (1.) If the law be part of the
contract, it cannot be repealed or altered; because, in such case, the
repealing or modifying law itself would impair the obligation of the
contract. The insolvent law of New York, for example, authorizes the
discharge of a debtor on the consent of two thirds of his creditors. A
subsequent act requires the consent of three fourths; but if the
existing law be part of the contract, this latter law would be void. In
short, nothing which is part of the contract can be varied but by
consent of the parties; therefore the argument runs _in absurdum_; for
it proves that no laws for enforcing the contract, or giving remedies
upon it, or any way affecting it, can be changed or modified between its
creation and its end. If the law in question binds one party on the
ground of assent to it, it binds both, and binds them until they agree
to terminate its operation. (2.) If the party be bound by an implied
assent to the law, as thereby making the law a part of the contract, how
would it be if the parties had expressly dissented, and agreed that the
law should make no part of the contract? Suppose the promise to have
been, that the promisor would pay at all events, and not take advantage
of the statute; still, would not the statute operate on the whole,--on
this particular agreement and all? and does not this show that the law
is no part of the contract, but something above it? (3.) If the law of
the place be part of the contract, one of its terms and conditions, how
could it be enforced, as we all know it might be, in another
jurisdiction, which should have no regard to the law of the place?
Suppose the parties, after the contract, to remove to another State, do
they carry the law with them as part of their contract? We all know they
do not. Or take a common case. Some States have laws abolishing
imprisonment for debt; these laws, according to the argument, are all
parts of the contract; how, then, can the party, when sued in another
State, be imprisoned contrary to the terms of his contract? (4.) The
argument proves too much, inasmuch as it applies as strongly to prior as
to subsequent contracts. It is founded on a supposed assent to the
exercise of legislative authority, without considering whether that
exercise be legal or illegal. But it is equally fair to found the
argument on an implied assent to the potential exercise of that
authority. The implied reference to the control of legislative power is
as reasonable and as strong when that power is dormant, as while it is
in exercise. In one case, the argument is, "The law existed, you knew
it, and acquiesced." In the other it is, "The power to pass the law
existed, you knew it, and took your chance." There is as clear an assent
in one instance as in the other. Indeed, it is more reasonable and more
sensible to imply a general assent to all the laws of society, present
and to come, from the fact of living in it, than it is to imply a
particular assent to a particular existing enactment. The true view of
the matter is, that every man is presumed to submit to all power which
may be lawfully exercised over him or his right, and no one should be
presumed to submit to illegal acts of power, whether actual or
contingent. (5.) But a main objection to this argument is, that it would
render the whole constitutional provision idle and inoperative; and no
explanatory words, if such words had been added in the Constitution,
could have prevented this consequence. The law, it is said, is part of
the contract; it cannot, therefore, impair the contract, because a
contract cannot impair itself. Now, if this argument be sound, the case
would have been the same, whatever words the Constitution had used. If,
for example, it had declared that no State should pass any law impairing
contracts _prospectively_ or _retrospectively_; or any law impairing
contracts, whether existing or future; or, whatever terms it had used to
prohibit precisely such a law as is now before the court,--the
prohibition would be totally nugatory if the law is to be taken as part
of the contract; and the result would be, that, whatever may be the laws
which the States by this clause of the Constitution are prohibited from
passing, yet, if they in fact do pass such laws, those laws are valid,
and bind parties by a supposed assent.

But further, this idea, if well founded, would enable the States to
defeat the whole constitutional provision by a general enactment.
Suppose a State should declare, by law, that all contracts entered into
therein should be subject to such laws as the legislature, at any time,
or from time to time, might see fit to pass. This law, according to the
argument, would enter into the contract, become a part of it, and
authorize the interference of the legislative power with it, for any
and all purposes, wholly uncontrolled by the Constitution of the United

So much for the argument that the law is a part of the contract. We
think it is shown to be not so; and if it were, the expected consequence
would not follow.

The inquiry, then, recurs, whether the law in question be such a law as
the legislature of New York had authority to pass. The question is
general. We differ from our learned adversaries on general principles.
We differ as to the main scope and end of this constitutional provision.
They think it entirely remedial; we regard it as preventive. They think
it adopted to secure redress for violated private rights; to us, it
seems intended to guard against great public mischiefs. They argue it as
if it were designed as an indemnity or protection for injured private
rights, in individual cases of _meum_ and _tuum_; we look upon it as a
great political provision, favorable to the commerce and credit of the
whole country. Certainly we do not deny its application to cases of
violated private right. Such cases are clearly and unquestionably within
its operation. Still, we think its main scope to be general and
political. And this, we think, is proved by reference to the history of
the country, and to the great objects which were sought to be attained
by the establishment of the present government. Commerce, credit, and
confidence were the principal things which did not exist under the old
Confederation, and which it was a main object of the present
Constitution to create and establish. A vicious system of legislation, a
system of paper money and tender laws, had completely paralyzed
industry, threatened to beggar every man of property, and ultimately to
ruin the country. The relation between debtor and creditor, always
delicate, and always dangerous whenever it divides society, and draws
out the respective parties into different ranks and classes, was in such
a condition in the years 1787, 1788, and 1789, as to threaten the
overthrow of all government; and a revolution was menaced, much more
critical and alarming than that through which the country had recently
passed. The object of the new Constitution was to arrest these evils; to
awaken industry by giving security to property; to establish confidence,
credit, and commerce, by salutary laws, to be enforced by the power of
the whole community. The Revolutionary War was over, the country had
peace, but little domestic tranquillity; it had liberty, but few of its
enjoyments, and none of its security. The States had struggled together,
but their union was imperfect. They had freedom, but not an established
course of justice. The Constitution was therefore framed, as it
professes, "to form a more perfect union, to establish justice, to
secure the blessings of liberty, and to insure domestic tranquillity."

It is not pertinent to this occasion to advert to all the means by which
these desirable ends were to be obtained. Some of them, closely
connected with the subject now under consideration, are obvious and
prominent. The objects were commerce, credit, and mutual confidence in
matters of property; and these required, among other things, a uniform
standard of value or medium of payments. One of the first powers given
to Congress, therefore, is that of coining money and fixing the value of
foreign coins; and one of the first restraints imposed on the States is
the total prohibition to coin money. These two provisions are
industriously followed up and completed by denying to the States all
power to emit bills of credit, or to make any thing but gold and silver
a tender in the payment of debts. The whole control, therefore, over the
standard of value and medium of payments is vested in the general
government. And here the question instantly suggests itself. Why should
such pains be taken to confide to Congress alone this exclusive power of
fixing on a standard of value, and of prescribing the medium in which
debts shall be paid, if it is, after all, to be left to every State to
declare that debts may be discharged, and to prescribe how they may be
discharged, without any payment at all? Why say that no man shall be
obliged to take, in discharge of a debt, paper money issued by the
authority of a State, and yet say that by the same authority the debt
may be discharged without any payment whatever?

We contend, that the Constitution has not left its work thus unfinished.
We contend, that, taking its provisions together, it is apparent it was
intended to provide for two things, intimately connected with each
other. These are,--

1. A medium for the payment of debts; and,

2. A uniform manner of discharging debts, when they are to be discharged
without payment.

The arrangement of the grants and prohibitions contained in the
Constitution is fit to be regarded on this occasion. The grant to
Congress and the prohibition on the States, though they are certainly to
be construed together, are not contained in the same clauses. The powers
granted to Congress are enumerated one after another in the eighth
section; the principal limitations on those powers, in the ninth
section; and the prohibitions to the States, in the tenth section. Now,
in order to understand whether any particular power be exclusively
vested in Congress, it is necessary to read the terms of the grant,
together with the terms of the prohibition. Take an example from that
power of which we have been speaking, the coinage power. Here the grant
to Congress is, "To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of
foreign coins." Now, the correlative prohibition on the States, though
found in another section, is undoubtedly to be taken in immediate
connection with the foregoing, as much as if it had been found in the
same clause. The only just reading of these provisions, therefore, is
this: "Congress shall have power to coin money, regulate the value
thereof, and of foreign coin; but no State shall coin money, emit bills
of credit, or make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in
payment of debts."

These provisions respect the medium of payment, or standard of value,
and, thus collated, their joint result is clear and decisive. We think
the result clear, also, of those provisions which respect the discharge
of debts without payment. Collated in like manner, they stand thus:
"Congress shall have power to establish uniform laws on the subject of
bankruptcies throughout the United States, but no State shall pass any
law impairing the obligation of contracts." This collocation cannot be
objected to, if they refer to the same subject-matter; and that they do
refer to the same subject-matter we have the authority of this court for
saying, because this court solemnly determined, in _Sturges v.
Crowninshield_, that this prohibition on the States did apply to systems
of bankruptcy. It must be now taken, therefore, that State bankrupt laws
were in the mind of the Convention when the prohibition was adopted, and
therefore the grant to Congress on the subject of bankrupt laws, and the
prohibition to the States on the same subject, are properly to be taken
and read together; and being thus read together, is not the intention
clear to take away from the States the power of passing bankrupt laws,
since, while enacted by them, such laws would not be uniform, and to
confer the power exclusively on Congress, by whom uniform laws could be

Suppose the order of arrangement in the Constitution had been otherwise
than it is, and that the prohibitions to the States had preceded the
grants of power to Congress, the two powers, when collated, would then
have read thus: "No State shall pass any law impairing the obligation of
contracts; but Congress may establish uniform laws on the subject of
bankruptcies." Could any man have doubted, in that case, that the
meaning was, that the States should not pass laws discharging debts
without payment, but that Congress might establish uniform bankrupt
acts? And yet this inversion of the order of the clauses does not alter
their sense. We contend, that Congress alone possesses the power of
establishing bankrupt laws; and although we are aware that, in _Sturges
v. Crowninshield_, the court decided that such an exclusive power could
not be inferred from the words of the grant in the seventh section, we
yet would respectfully request the bench to reconsider this point. We
think it could not have been intended that both the States and general
government should exercise this power; and therefore, that a grant to
one implies a prohibition on the other. But not to press a topic which
the court has already had under its consideration, we contend, that,
even without reading the clauses of the Constitution in the connection
which we have suggested, and which is believed to be the true one, the
prohibition in the tenth section, taken by itself, does forbid the
enactment of State bankrupt laws, as applied to future as well as
present debts. We argue this from the words of the prohibition, from the
association they are found in, and from the objects intended.

1. The words are general. The States can pass no law impairing
contracts; that is, any contract. In the nature of things a law may
impair a future contract, and therefore such contract is within the
protection of the Constitution. The words being general, it is for the
other side to show a limitation; and this, it is submitted, they have
wholly failed to do, unless they shall have established the doctrine
that the law itself is part of the contract. It may be added, that the
particular expression of the Constitution is worth regarding. The thing
prohibited is called a _law_, not an _act_. A law, in its general
acceptation, is a rule prescribed for future conduct, not a legislative
interference with existing rights. The framers of the Constitution would
hardly have given the appellation of _law_ to violent invasions of
individual right, or individual property, by acts of legislative power.
Although, doubtless, such acts fall within this prohibition, yet they
are prohibited also by general principles, and by the constitutions of
the States, and therefore further provision against such acts was not so
necessary as against other mischiefs.

2. The most conclusive argument, perhaps, arises from the connection in
which the clause stands. The words of the prohibition, so far as it
applies to civil rights, or rights of property, are, that "no State
shall coin money, emit bills of credit, make any thing but gold and
silver coin a tender in the payment of debts, or pass any law impairing
the obligation of contracts." The prohibition of attainders, and _ex
post facto_ laws, refers entirely to criminal proceedings, and therefore
should be considered as standing by itself; but the other parts of the
prohibition are connected by the subject-matter, and ought, therefore,
to be construed together. Taking the words thus together, according to
their natural connection, how is it possible to give a more limited
construction to the term "contracts," in the last branch of the
sentence, than to the word "debts," in that immediately preceding? Can a
State make any thing but gold and silver a tender in payment of future
debts? This nobody pretends. But what ground is there for a distinction?
No State shall make any thing but gold and silver a tender in the
payment of debts, nor pass any law impairing the obligation of
contracts. Now, by what reasoning is it made out that the debts here
spoken of are any debts, either existing or future, but that the
contracts spoken of are subsisting contracts only? Such a distinction
seems to us wholly arbitrary. We see no ground for it. Suppose the
article, where it uses the word _debts_, had used the word _contracts_.
The sense would have been the same then that it now is; but the identity
of terms would have made the nature of the distinction now contended for
somewhat more obvious. Thus altered, the clause would read, that no
State should make any thing but gold and silver a tender in discharge of
_contracts_, nor pass any law impairing the obligation of _contracts_;
yet the first of these expressions would have been held to apply to all
contracts, and the last to subsisting contracts only. This shows the
consequence of what is now contended for in a strong light. It is
certain that the substitution of the word _contracts_ for _debts_ would
not alter the sense; and an argument that could not be sustained, if
such substitution were made, cannot be sustained now. We maintain,
therefore, that, if tender laws may not be made for future debts,
neither can bankrupt laws be made for future contracts. All the
arguments used here may be applied with equal force to tender laws for
future debts. It may be said, for instance, that, when it speaks of
_debts_, the Constitution means existing debts, and not mere
possibilities of future debt; that the object was to preserve vested
rights; and that if a man, after a tender law had passed, had contracted
a debt, the manner in which that tender law authorized that debt to be
discharged became part of the contract, and that the whole debt, or
whole obligation, was thus qualified by the pre-existing law, and was no
more than a contract to deliver so much paper money, or whatever other
article might be made a tender, as the original bargain expressed.
Arguments of this sort will not be found wanting in favor of tender
laws, if the court yield to similar arguments in favor of bankrupt laws.

These several prohibitions of the Constitution stand in the same
paragraph; they have the same purpose, and were introduced for the same
object; they are expressed in words of similar import, in grammar, and
in sense; they are subject to the same construction, and we think no
reason has yet been given for imposing an important restriction on one
part of them, which does not equally show that the same restriction
might be imposed also on the other part.

We have already endeavored to maintain, that one great political object
intended by the Constitution would be defeated, if this construction
were allowed to prevail. As an object of political regulation, it was
not important to prevent the States from passing bankrupt laws
applicable to present debts, while the power was left to them in regard
to future debts; nor was it at all important, in a political point of
view, to prohibit tender laws as to future debts, while it was yet left
to the States to pass laws for the discharge of such debts, which, after
all, are little different in principle from tender laws. Look at the law
before the court in this view. It provides, that, if the debtor will
surrender, offer, or tender to trustees, for the benefit of his
creditors, all his estate and effects, he shall be discharged from all
his debts. If it had authorized a tender of any thing but money to any
one creditor, though it were of a value equal to the debt, and thereupon
provided for a discharge, it would have been clearly invalid. Yet it is
maintained to be good, merely because it is made for all creditors, and
seeks a discharge from all debts; although the thing tendered may not be
equivalent to a shilling in the pound of those debts. This shows, again,
very clearly, how the Constitution has failed of its purpose, if, having
in terms prohibited all tender laws, and taken so much pains to
establish a uniform medium of payment, it has yet left the States the
power of discharging debts, as they may see fit, without any payment at

To recapitulate what has been said, we maintain, first, that the
Constitution, by its grants to Congress and its prohibitions on the
States, has sought to establish one uniform standard of value, or medium
of payment. Second, that, by like means, it has endeavored to provide
for one uniform mode of discharging debts, when they are to be
discharged without payment. Third, that these objects are connected, and
that the first loses much of its importance, if the last, also, be not
accomplished. Fourth, that, reading the grant to Congress and the
prohibition on the States together, the inference is strong that the
Constitution intended to confer an exclusive power to pass bankrupt laws
on Congress. Fifth, that the prohibition in the tenth section reaches to
all contracts, existing or future, in the same way that the other
prohibition in the same section extends to all debts existing or
future. Sixthly, that, upon any other construction, one great political
object of the Constitution will fail of its accomplishment.

[Footnote 1: Sturges v. Crowninshield, 4 Wheat. Rep. 122.]


OF APRIL, 1830.

[The following argument was addressed to the jury at a trial for a
remarkable murder. A more extraordinary case never occurred in this
country, nor is it equalled in strange interest by any trial in the
French _Causes Celebres_ or the English _State Trials_. Deep sensation
and intense curiosity were excited through the whole country, at the
time of the occurrence of the event, not only by the atrocity of the
crime, but by the position of the victim, and the romantic incidents in
the detection and fate of the assassin and his accomplices.

The following outline of the facts will assist the reader to understand
the bearings of the argument.

Joseph White, Esq. was found murdered in his bed, in his mansion-house,
on the morning of the 7th of April, 1830. He was a wealthy merchant of
Salem, eighty-two years of age, and had for many years given up active
business. His servant-man rose that morning at six o'clock, and on going
down into the kitchen, and opening the shutters of the window, saw that
the back window of the east parlor was open, and that a plank was raised
to the window from the back yard; he then went into the parlor, but saw
no trace of any person having been there. He went to the apartment of
the maid-servant, and told her, and then into Mr. White's chamber by its
back door, and saw that the door of his chamber, leading into the front
entry, was open. On approaching the bed, he found the bed-clothes turned
down, and Mr. White dead, his countenance pallid, and his night-clothes
and bed drenched in blood. He hastened to the neighboring houses to make
known the event. He and the maid-servant were the only persons who slept
in the house that night, except Mr. White himself, whose niece, Mrs.
Beckford, his house-keeper, was then absent on a visit to her daughter,
at Wenham.

The physicians and the coroner's jury, who were called to examine the
body, found on it thirteen deep stabs, made as if by a sharp dirk or
poniard, and the appearance of a heavy blow on the left temple, which
had fractured the skull, but not broken the skin. The body was cold, and
appeared to have been lifeless many hours.

On examining the apartments of the house, it did not appear that any
valuable articles had been taken, or the house ransacked for them; there
was a _rouleau_ of doubloons in an iron chest in his chamber, and costly
plate in other apartments, none of which was missing.

The perpetration of such an atrocious crime, in the most populous and
central part of the town and in the most compactly built street, and
under circumstances indicating the utmost coolness, deliberation, and
audacity, deeply agitated and aroused the whole community; ingenuity was
baffled in attempting even to conjecture a _motive_ for the deed; and
all the citizens were led to fear that the same fate might await them in
the defenceless and helpless hours of slumber. For several days, persons
passing through the streets might hear the continual sound of the
hammer, while carpenters and smiths were fixing bolts to doors and
fastenings to windows. Many, for defence, furnished themselves with
cutlasses, fire-arms, and watch-dogs. Large rewards for the detection of
the author or authors of the murder were offered by the heirs of the
deceased, by the selectmen of the town, and by the Governor of the
State. The citizens held a public meeting, and appointed a Committee of
Vigilance, of twenty-seven members, to make all possible exertions to
ferret out the offenders.

While the public mind was thus excited and anxious, it was announced
that a bold attempt at highway robbery was made in Wenham, by three
footpads, on Joseph J. Knapp, Jr. and John Francis Knapp, on the evening
of the 27th of April, while they were returning in a chaise from Salem
to their residence in Wenham. They appeared before the investigating
committee, and testified that, after nine o'clock, near the Wenham Pond,
they discovered three men approaching. One came near, seized the bridle,
and stopped the horse, while the other two came, one on each side, and
seized a trunk in the bottom of the chaise. Frank Knapp drew a sword
from his cane and made a thrust at one, and Joseph with the but-end of
his whip gave the other a heavy blow across the face. This bold
resistance made them fall back. Joseph sprung from the chaise to assail
the robbers. One of them then gave a shrill whistle, when they fled,
and, leaping over the wall, were soon lost in the darkness. One had a
weapon like an ivory dirk-handle, was clad in a sailor's short jacket,
cap, and had whiskers; another wore a long coat, with bright buttons;
all three were good-sized men. Frank, too, sprung from the chaise, and
pursued with vigor, but all in vain.

The account of this unusual and bold attempt at robbery, thus given by
the Knapps was immediately published in the Salem newspapers, with the
editorial remark, that "these gentlemen are well known in this town, and
their respectability and veracity are not questioned by any of our

Not the slightest clew to the murder could be found for several weeks,
and the mystery seemed to be impenetrable. At length a rumor reached the
ear of the committee that a prisoner in the jail at New Bedford, seventy
miles from Salem, confined there on a charge of shoplifting, had
intimated that he could make important disclosures. A confidential
messenger was immediately sent, to ascertain what he knew on the
subject. The prisoner's name was Hatch; he had been committed before the
murder. He stated that, some months before the murder, while he was at
large, he had associated in Salem with Richard Crowninshield, Jr., of
Danvers, and had often heard Crowninshield express his intention to
destroy the life of Mr. White. Crowninshield was a young man, of bad
reputation; though he had never been convicted of any offence, he was
strongly suspected of several heinous robberies. He was of dark and
reserved deportment, temperate and wicked, daring and wary, subtle and
obdurate, of great adroitness, boldness, and self-command. He had for
several years frequented the haunts of vice in Salem; and though he was
often spoken of as a dangerous man, his person was known to few, for he
never walked the streets by daylight. Among his few associates he was a
leader and a despot.

The disclosures of Hatch received credit. When the Supreme Court met at
Ipswich, the Attorney-General, Morton, moved for a writ of _habeas
corpus ad testif._, and Hatch was carried in chains from New Bedford
before the grand jury, and on his testimony an indictment was found
against Crowninshield. Other witnesses testified that, on the night of
the murder, his brother, George Crowninshield, Colonel Benjamin Selman,
of Marblehead, and Daniel Chase, of Lynn, were together in Salem, at a
gambling-house usually frequented by Richard; these were indicted as
accomplices in the crime. They were all arrested on the 2d of May,
arraigned on the indictment, and committed to prison to await the
sitting of a court that should have jurisdiction of the offence.

The Committee of Vigilance, however, continued to hold frequent meetings
in order to discover further proof, for it was doubted by many whether
the evidence already obtained would be sufficient to convict the

A fortnight afterwards, on the 15th of May, Captain Joseph J. Knapp, a
shipmaster and merchant, a man of good character, received by mail the
following letter:--


"_Belfast, May 12, 1830._

"Dear Sir,--I have taken the pen at this time to address an utter
stranger, and, strange as it may seem to you, it is for the purpose of
requesting the loan of three hundred and fifty-dollars, for which I can
give you no security but my word, and in this case consider this to be
sufficient. My call for money at this time is pressing, or I would not
trouble you; but with that sum, I have the prospect of turning it to so
much advantage, as to be able to refund it with interest in the course
of six months. At all events, I think it will be for your interest to
comply with my request, and that immediately,--that is, not to put off
any longer than you receive this. Then set down and enclose me the money
with as much despatch as possible, for your own interest. This, Sir, is
my advice; and if you do not comply with it, the short period between
now and November will convince you that you have denied a request, the
granting of which will never injure you, the refusal of which will ruin
you. Are you surprised at this assertion--rest assured that I make it,
reserving to myself the reasons and a series of facts, which are founded
on such a bottom as will bid defiance to property or quality. It is
useless for me to enter into a discussion of facts which must inevitably
harrow up your soul. No, I will merely tell you that I am acquainted
with your brother Franklin, and also the business that he was
transacting for you on the 2d of April last; and that I think that you
was very extravagant in giving one thousand dollars to the person that
would execute the business for you. But you know best about that; you
see that such things will leak out. To conclude, Sir, I will inform you
that there is a gentleman of my acquaintance in Salem, that will observe
that you do not leave town before the first of June, giving you
sufficient time between now and then to comply with my request: and if I
do not receive a line from you, together with the above sum, before the
22d of this month, I shall wait upon you with an assistant. I have said
enough to convince you of my knowledge, and merely inform you that you
can, when you answer, be as brief as possible.

"Direct yours to

"CHARLES GRANT, Jr., of Prospect, Maine."

This letter was an unintelligible enigma to Captain Knapp; he knew no
man of the name of Charles Grant, Jr., and had no acquaintance at
Belfast, a town in Maine, two hundred miles distant from Salem. After
poring over it in vain, he handed it to his son, Nathaniel Phippen
Knapp, a young lawyer; to him also the letter was an inexplicable
riddle. The receiving of such a _threatening_ letter, at a time when so
many felt insecure, and were apprehensive of danger, demanded their
attention. Captain Knapp and his son Phippen, therefore, concluded to
ride to Wenham, seven miles distant, and show the letter to Captain
Knapp's other two sons, Joseph J. Knapp, Jr. and John Francis Knapp, who
were then residing at Wenham with Mrs. Beckford, the niece and late
house-keeper of Mr. White, and the mother of the wife of J.J. Knapp, Jr.
The latter perused the letter, told his father it "contained a devilish
lot of trash," and requested him to hand it to the Committee of
Vigilance. Captain Knapp, on his return to Salem that evening,
accordingly delivered the letter to the chairman of the Committee.

The next day J.J. Knapp, Jr. went to Salem, and requested one of his
friends to drop into the Salem post-office the two following
pseudonymous letters.

"_May 13, 1830._

"GENTLEMEN OF THE COMMITTEE OF VIGILANCE,--Hearing that you have taken
up four young men on suspicion of being concerned in the murder of Mr.
White, I think it time to inform you that Steven White came to me one
night and told me, if I would _remove_ the old gentleman, he would give
me five thousand dollars; he said he was afraid he would alter his will
if he lived any longer. I told him I would do it, but I was afeared to
go into the house, so he said he would go with me, that he would try to
get into the house in the evening and open the window, would then go
home and go to bed and meet me again about eleven. I found him, and we
both went into his chamber. I struck him on the head with a heavy piece
of lead, and then stabbed him with a dirk; he made the finishing strokes
with another. He promised to send me the money next evening, and has not
sent it yet which is the reason that I mention this.

"Yours, &c.,


This letter was directed on the outside to the "Hon. Gideon Barstow,
Salem," and put into the post-office on Sunday evening, May 16, 1830.

"_Lynn, May 12, 1830._

"Mr. White will send the $5,000, or a part of it, before to-morrow
night, or suffer the painful consequences.


This letter was addressed to the "Hon. Stephen White, Salem, Mass.," and
was also put into the post-office in Salem on Sunday evening.

When Knapp delivered these letters to his friend, he said his father had
received an anonymous letter, and "What I want you for is to put these
in the post-office in order to nip this silly affair in the bud."

The Hon. Stephen White, mentioned in these letters, was a nephew of
Joseph White, and the legatee of the principal part of his large

When the Committee of Vigilance read and considered the letter,
purporting to be signed by Charles Grant, Jr., which had been delivered
to them by Captain Knapp, they were impressed with the belief that it
contained a clew which might lead to important disclosures. As they had
spared no pains or expense in their investigations, they immediately
despatched a discreet messenger to Prospect, in Maine; he explained his
business confidentially to the postmaster there, deposited a letter
addressed to Charles Grant, Jr., and awaited the call of Grant to
receive it. He soon called for it, when an officer, stationed in the
house, stepped forward and arrested Grant. On examining him, it appeared
that his true name was Palmer, a young man of genteel appearance,
resident in the adjoining town of Belfast. He had been a convict in
Maine, and had served a term in the State's prison in that State.
Conscious that the circumstances justified the belief that he had had a
hand in the murder, he readily made known, while he protested his own
innocence, that he could unfold the whole mystery. He then disclosed
that he had been an associate of R. Crowninshield, Jr. and George
Crowninshield; had spent part of the winter at Danvers and Salem, under
the name of Carr; part of the time he had been their inmate, concealed
in their father's house in Danvers; that on the 2d of April he saw from
the windows of the house Frank Knapp and a young man named Allen ride up
to the house; that George walked away with Frank, and Richard with
Allen; that on their return, George told Richard that Frank wished them
to undertake to kill Mr. White, and that J.J. Knapp, Jr. would pay one
thousand dollars for the job. They proposed various modes of executing
it, and asked Palmer to be concerned, which he declined. George said the
house-keeper would be away at the time; that the object of Joseph J.
Knapp, Jr. was to destroy the will, because it gave most of the property
to Stephen White; that Joseph J. Knapp, Jr. was first to destroy the
will; that he could get from the house-keeper the keys of the iron chest
in which it was kept; that Frank called again the same day, in a
chaise, and rode away with Richard; and that on the night of the murder
Palmer stayed at the Half-way House, in Lynn.

The messenger, on obtaining this disclosure from Palmer, without delay
communicated it by mail to the Committee, and on the 26th of May, a
warrant was issued against Joseph J. Knapp, Jr. and John Francis Knapp,
and they were taken into custody at Wenham, where they were residing in
the family of Mrs. Beckford, mother of the wife of Joseph J. Knapp, Jr.
They were then imprisoned to await the arrival of Palmer, for their

The two Knapps were young shipmasters, of a respectable family.

Joseph J. Knapp, Jr., on the third day of his imprisonment, made a full
confession that he projected the murder. He knew that Mr. White had made
his will, and given to Mrs. Beckford a legacy of fifteen thousand
dollars; but if he died without leaving a will, he expected she would
inherit nearly two hundred thousand dollars. In February he made known
to his brother his desire to make way with Mr. White, intending first to
abstract and destroy the will. Frank agreed to employ an assassin, and
negotiated with R. Crowninshield, Jr., who agreed to do the deed for a
reward of one thousand dollars; Joseph agreed to pay that sum, and, as
he had access to the house at his pleasure, he was to unbar and unfasten
the back window, so that Crowninshield might gain easy entrance. Four
days before the murder, while they were deliberating on the mode of
compassing it, he went into Mr. White's chamber, and, finding the key in
the iron chest, unlocked it, took the will, put it in his chaise-box,
covered it with hay, carried it to Wenham, kept it till after the
murder, and then burned it. After securing the will, he gave notice to
Crowninshield that all was ready. In the evening of that day he had a
meeting with Crowninshield at the centre of the common, who showed him a
bludgeon and dagger, with which the murder was to be committed. Knapp
asked him if he meant to do it that night; Crowninshield said he thought
not, he did not feel like it; Knapp then went to Wenham. Knapp
ascertained on Sunday, the 4th of April, that Mr. White had gone to take
tea with a relative in Chestnut Street. Crowninshield intended to dirk
him on his way home in the evening, but Mr. White returned before dark.
It was next arranged for the night of the 6th, and Knapp was on some
pretext to prevail on Mrs. Beckford to visit her daughters at Wenham,
and to spend the night there. He said that, all preparations being thus
complete, Crowninshield and Frank met about ten o'clock in the evening
of the 6th, in Brown Street, which passes the rear of the garden of Mr.
White, and stood some time in a spot from which they could observe the
movements in the house, and perceive when Mr. White and his two servants
retired to bed. Crowninshield requested Frank to go home; he did so, but
soon returned to the same spot. Crowninshield, in the mean time, had
started and passed round through Newbury Street and Essex Street to the
front of the house, entered the postern gate, passed to the rear of the
house, placed a plank against the house, climbed to the window, opened
it, entered the house alone, passed up the staircase, opened the door of
the sleeping-chamber, approached the bedside, gave Mr. White a heavy and
mortal blow on the head with a bludgeon, and then with a dirk gave him
many stabs in his body. Crowninshield said, that, after he had "done for
the old man," he put his fingers on his pulse to make certain he was
dead. He then retired from the house, hurried back through Brown Street,
where he met Frank, waiting to learn the event. Crowninshield ran down
Howard Street, a solitary place, and hid the club under the steps of a
meeting-house. He then went home to Danvers.

Joseph confessed further that the account of the Wenham robbery, on the
27th of April, was a sheer fabrication. After the murder Crowninshield
went to Wenham in company with Frank to call for the one thousand
dollars. He was not able to pay the whole, but gave him one hundred
five-franc pieces. Crowninshield related to him the particulars of the
murder, told him where the club was hid, and said he was sorry Joseph
had not got the right will, for if he had known there was another, he
would have got it. Joseph sent Frank afterwards to find and destroy the
club, but he said he could not find it. When Joseph made the confession,
he told the place where the club was concealed, and it was there found;
it was heavy, made of hickory, twenty-two and a half inches long, of a
smooth surface and large oval head, loaded with lead, and of a form
adapted to give a mortal blow on the skull without breaking the skin;
the handle was suited for a firm grasp. Crowninshield said he turned it
in a lathe. Joseph admitted he wrote the two anonymous letters.

Crowninshield had hitherto maintained a stoical composure of feeling;
but when he was informed of Knapp's arrest, his knees smote beneath him,
the sweat started out on his stern and pallid face, and he subsided upon
his bunk.

Palmer was brought to Salem in irons on the 3d of June, and committed to
prison. Crowninshield saw him taken from the carriage. He was put in the
cell directly under that in which Crowninshield was kept. Several
members of the Committee entered Palmer's cell to talk with him; while
they were talking, they heard a loud whistle, and, on looking up, saw
that Crowninshield had picked away the mortar from the crevice between
the blocks of the granite floor of his cell. After the loud whistle, he
cried out, "Palmer! Palmer!" and soon let down a string, to which were
tied a pencil and a slip of paper. Two lines of poetry were written on
the paper, in order that, if Palmer was really there, he should make it
known by capping the verses. Palmer shrunk away into a corner, and was
soon transferred to another cell. He seemed to stand in awe of

On the 12th of June a quantity of stolen goods was found concealed in
the barn of Crowninshield, in consequence of information from Palmer.

Crowninshield, thus finding the proofs of his guilt and depravity
thicken, on the 15th of June committed suicide by hanging himself to the
bars of his cell with a handkerchief. He left letters to his father and
brother, expressing in general terms the viciousness of his life, and
his hopelessness of escape from punishment. When his associates in guilt
heard his fate, they said it was not unexpected by them, for they had
often heard him say he would never live to submit to an ignominious

A special term of the Supreme Court was held at Salem on the 20th of
July, for the trial of the prisoners charged with the murder; it
continued in session till the 20th of August, with a few days'
intermission. An indictment for the murder was found against John
Francis Knapp, as principal, and Joseph J. Knapp, Jr. and George
Crowninshield, as accessories. Selman and Chase were discharged by the

The principal, John Francis Knapp, was first put on trial. As the law
then stood, an accessory in a murder could not be tried until a
principal had been convicted. He was defended by Messrs. Franklin Dexter
and William H. Gardiner, advocates of high reputation for ability and
eloquence; the trial was long and arduous, and the witnesses numerous.
His brother Joseph, who had made a full confession, on the government's
promise of impunity if he would in good faith testify the truth, was
brought into court, called to the stand as a witness, but declined to
testify. To convict the prisoner, it was necessary for the government to
prove that he was _present_, actually or constructively, as an aider or
abettor in the murder. The evidence was strong that there was a
conspiracy to commit the murder, that the prisoner was one of the
conspirators, that at the time of the murder he was in Brown Street at
the rear of Mr. White's garden, and the jury were satisfied that he was
in that place to aid and abet in the murder, ready to afford assistance,
if necessary. He was convicted.

Joseph J. Knapp, Jr. was afterwards tried as an accessory before the
fact, and convicted.

George Crowninshield proved an _alibi_, and was discharged.

The execution of John Francis Knapp and Joseph J. Knapp, Jr. closed the

If Joseph, after turning State's evidence, had not changed his mind,
neither he nor his brother, nor any of the conspirators, could have been
convicted; if he had testified, and disclosed the whole truth, it would
have appeared that John Francis Knapp was in Brown Street, not to render
assistance to the assassin; but that Crowninshield, when he started to
commit the murder, requested Frank to go home and go to bed; that Frank
did go home, retire to bed, soon after arose, secretly left his father's
house, and hastened to Brown Street, to await the coming out of the
assassin, in order to learn whether the deed was accomplished, and all
the particulars. If Frank had not been convicted as principal, none of
the accessories could by law have been convicted. Joseph would not have
been even tried, for the government stipulated, that, if he would be a
witness for the State, he should go clear.

The whole history of this occurrence is of romantic interest. The murder
itself, the _corpus delicti_, was strange; planned with deliberation and
sagacity, and executed with firmness and vigor. While conjecture was
baffled in ascertaining either the motive or the perpetrator, it was
certain that the assassin had acted upon design, and not at random. He
must have had knowledge of the house, for the window had been unfastened
from within. He had entered stealthily, threaded his way in silence
through the apartments, corridors, and staircases, and coolly given the
mortal blow. To make assurance doubly sure, he inflicted many fatal
stabs, "the least a death to nature," and stayed not his hand till he
had deliberately felt the pulse of his victim, to make certain that life
was extinct.

It was strange that Crowninshield, the real assassin, should have been
indicted and arrested on the testimony of Hatch, who was himself in
prison, in a distant part of the State, at the time of the murder, and
had no actual knowledge on the subject.

It was very strange that J.J. Knapp, Jr. should have been the instrument
of bringing to light the mystery of the whole murderous conspiracy; for
when he received from the hand of his father the threatening letter of
Palmer, consciousness of guilt so confounded his faculties, that,
instead of destroying it, he stupidly handed it back and requested his
father to deliver it to the Committee of Vigilance.

It was strange that the murder should have been committed on a mistake
in law. Joseph, some time previous to the murder, had made inquiry how
Mr. White's estate would be distributed in case he died without a will,
and had been erroneously told that Mrs. Beckford, his mother-in-law, the
sole issue and representative of a deceased sister of Mr. White, would
inherit half of the estate, and that the four children and
representatives of a deceased brother of Mr. White, of whom the Hon.
Stephen White was one, would inherit the other half. Joseph had
privately read the will, and knew that Mr. White had bequeathed to Mrs.
Beckford much less than half.

It was strange that the murder should have been committed on a mistake
in fact also. Joseph furtively abstracted _a_ will, and expected Mr.
White would die intestate; but, after the decease, _the_ will, the
_last_ will, was found by his heirs in its proper place; and it could
never have been known, or conjectured, without the aid of Joseph's
confession, that he had made either of those blunders.

Finally, it was a strange fact that Knapp should, on the night following
the murder, have watched with the mangled corpse, and at the funeral
followed the hearse as one of the chief mourners, without betraying on
either occasion the slightest emotion which could awaken a suspicion of
his guilt.

* * * * *

The following note was prefixed to this argument in the former

Mr. White, a highly respectable and wealthy citizen of Salem, about
eighty years of age, was found, on the morning of the 7th of April,
1830, in his bed, murdered, under such circumstances as to create a
strong sensation in that town and throughout the community.

Richard Crowninshield, George Crowninshield, Joseph J. Knapp, and John
F. Knapp were, a few weeks after, arrested on a charge of having
perpetrated the murder, and committed for trial. Joseph J. Knapp, soon
after, under the promise of favor from government, made a full
confession of the crime and the circumstances attending it. In a few
days after this disclosure was made, Richard Crowninshield, who was
supposed to have been the principal assassin, committed suicide.

A special session of the Supreme Court was ordered by the legislature,
for the trial of the prisoners, at Salem, in July. At that time, John F.
Knapp was indicted as principal in the murder, and George Crowninshield
and Joseph J. Knapp as accessories.

On account of the death of Chief Justice Parker, which occurred on the
26th of July, the court adjourned to Tuesday, the third day of August,
when it proceeded in the trial of John F. Knapp. Joseph J. Knapp, being
called upon, refused to testify, and the pledge of the government was

At the request of the prosecuting officers of the government, Mr.
Webster appeared as counsel, and assisted in the trial.

Mr. Franklin Dexter addressed the jury on behalf of the prisoner, and
was succeeded by Mr. Webster in the following speech.]

I am little accustomed, Gentlemen, to the part which I am now attempting
to perform. Hardly more than once or twice has it happened to me to be
concerned on the side of the government in any criminal prosecution
whatever; and never, until the present occasion, in any case affecting

But I very much regret that it should have been thought necessary to
suggest to you that I am brought here to "hurry you against the law and
beyond the evidence." I hope I have too much regard for justice, and too
much respect for my own character, to attempt either; and were I to make
such attempt, I am sure that in this court nothing can be carried
against the law, and that gentlemen, intelligent and just as you are,
are not, by any power, to be hurried beyond the evidence. Though I could
well have wished to shun this occasion, I have not felt at liberty to
withhold my professional assistance, when it is supposed that I may be
in some degree useful in investigating and discovering the truth
respecting this most extraordinary murder. It has seemed to be a duty
incumbent on me, as on every other citizen, to do my best and my utmost
to bring to light the perpetrators of this crime. Against the prisoner
at the bar, as an individual, I cannot have the slightest prejudice. I
would not do him the smallest injury or injustice. But I do not affect
to be indifferent to the discovery and the punishment of this deep
guilt. I cheerfully share in the opprobrium, how great soever it may be,
which is cast on those who feel and manifest an anxious concern that all
who had a part in planning, or a hand in executing, this deed of
midnight assassination, may be brought to answer for their enormous
crime at the bar of public justice.

Gentlemen, it is a most extraordinary case. In some respects, it has
hardly a precedent anywhere; certainly none in our New England history.
This bloody drama exhibited no suddenly excited, ungovernable rage. The
actors in it were not surprised by any lion-like temptation springing
upon their virtue, and overcoming it, before resistance could begin. Nor
did they do the deed to glut savage vengeance, or satiate long-settled
and deadly hate. It was a cool, calculating, money-making murder. It was
all "hire and salary, not revenge." It was the weighing of money against
life; the counting out of so many pieces of silver against so many
ounces of blood.

An aged man, without an enemy in the world, in his own house, and in his
own bed, is made the victim of a butcherly murder, for mere pay. Truly,
here is a new lesson for painters and poets. Whoever shall hereafter
draw the portrait of murder, if he will show it as it has been
exhibited, where such example was last to have been looked for, in the
very bosom of our New England society, let him not give it the grim
visage of Moloch, the brow knitted by revenge, the face black with
settled hate, and the bloodshot eye emitting livid fires of malice. Let
him draw, rather, a decorous, smooth-faced, bloodless demon; a picture
in repose, rather than in action; not so much an example of human nature
in its depravity, and in its paroxysms of crime, as an infernal being, a
fiend, in the ordinary display and development of his character.

The deed was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness
equal to the wickedness with which it was planned. The circumstances now
clearly in evidence spread out the whole scene before us. Deep sleep had
fallen on the destined victim, and on all beneath his roof. A healthful
old man, to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night
held him in their soft but strong embrace. The assassin enters, through
the window already prepared, into an unoccupied apartment. With
noiseless foot he paces the lonely hall, half lighted by the moon; he
winds up the ascent of the stairs, and reaches the door of the chamber.
Of this, he moves the lock, by soft and continued pressure, till it
turns on its hinges without noise; and he enters, and beholds his victim
before him. The room is uncommonly open to the admission of light. The
face of the innocent sleeper is turned from the murderer, and the beams
of the moon, resting on the gray locks of his aged temple, show him
where to strike. The fatal blow is given! and the victim passes, without
a struggle or a motion, from the repose of sleep to the repose of death!
It is the assassin's purpose to make sure work; and he plies the dagger,
though it is obvious that life has been destroyed by the blow of the
bludgeon. He even raises the aged arm, that he may not fail in his aim
at the heart, and replaces it again over the wounds of the poniard! To
finish the picture, he explores the wrist for the pulse! He feels for
it, and ascertains that it beats no longer! It is accomplished. The deed
is done. He retreats, retraces his steps to the window, passes out
through it as he came in, and escapes. He has done the murder. No eye
has seen him, no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is

Ah! Gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake. Such a secret can be safe
nowhere. The whole creation of God has neither nook nor corner where the
guilty can bestow it, and say it is safe. Not to speak of that eye which
pierces through all disguises, and beholds every thing as in the
splendor of noon, such secrets of guilt are never safe from detection,
even by men. True it is, generally speaking, that "murder will out."
True it is, that Providence hath so ordained, and doth so govern things,
that those who break the great law of Heaven by shedding man's blood
seldom succeed in avoiding discovery. Especially, in a case exciting so
much attention as this, discovery must come, and will come, sooner or
later. A thousand eyes turn at once to explore every man, every thing,
every circumstance, connected with the time and place; a thousand ears
catch every whisper; a thousand excited minds intensely dwell on the
scene, shedding all their light, and ready to kindle the slightest
circumstance into a blaze of discovery. Meantime the guilty soul cannot
keep its own secret. It is false to itself; or rather it feels an
irresistible impulse of conscience to be true to itself. It labors under
its guilty possession, and knows not what to do with it. The human heart
was not made for the residence of such an inhabitant. It finds itself
preyed on by a torment, which it dares not acknowledge to God or man. A
vulture is devouring it, and it can ask no sympathy or assistance,
either from heaven or earth. The secret which the murderer possesses
soon comes to possess him; and, like the evil spirits of which we read,
it overcomes him, and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it
beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He
thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and
almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has
become his master. It betrays his discretion, it breaks down his
courage, it conquers his prudence. When suspicions from without begin to
embarrass him, and the net of circumstance to entangle him, the fatal
secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be
confessed, it will be confessed; there is no refuge from confession but
suicide, and suicide is confession.

Much has been said, on this occasion, of the excitement which has
existed, and still exists, and of the extraordinary measures taken to
discover and punish the guilty. No doubt there has been, and is, much
excitement, and strange indeed it would be had it been otherwise. Should
not all the peaceable and well-disposed naturally feel concerned, and
naturally exert themselves to bring to punishment the authors of this
secret assassination? Was it a thing to be slept upon or forgotten? Did
you, Gentlemen, sleep quite as quietly in your beds after this murder as
before? Was it not a case for rewards, for meetings, for committees, for
the united efforts of all the good, to find out a band of murderous
conspirators, of midnight ruffians, and to bring them to the bar of
justice and law? If this be excitement, is it an unnatural or an
improper excitement?

It seems to me, Gentlemen, that there are appearances of another
feeling, of a very different nature and character; not very extensive, I
would hope, but still there is too much evidence of its existence. Such
is human nature, that some persons lose their abhorrence of crime in
their admiration of its magnificent exhibitions. Ordinary vice is
reprobated by them, but extraordinary guilt, exquisite wickedness, the
high flights and poetry of crime, seize on the imagination, and lead
them to forget the depths of the guilt, in admiration of the excellence
of the performance, or the unequalled atrocity of the purpose. There are
those in our day who have made great use of this infirmity of our
nature, and by means of it done infinite injury to the cause of good
morals. They have affected not only the taste, but I fear also the
principles, of the young, the heedless, and the imaginative, by the
exhibition of interesting and beautiful monsters. They render depravity
attractive, sometimes by the polish of its manners, and sometimes by its
very extravagance; and study to show off crime under all the advantages
of cleverness and dexterity. Gentlemen, this is an extraordinary murder,
but it is still a murder. We are not to lose ourselves in wonder at its
origin, or in gazing on its cool and skilful execution. We are to detect
and to punish it; and while we proceed with caution against the
prisoner, and are to be sure that we do not visit on his head the
offences of others, we are yet to consider that we are dealing with a
case of most atrocious crime, which has not the slightest circumstance
about it to soften its enormity. It is murder; deliberate, concerted,
malicious murder.

Although the interest of this case may have diminished by the repeated
investigation of the facts; still, the additional labor which it imposes
upon all concerned is not to be regretted, if it should result in
removing all doubts of the guilt of the prisoner.

The learned counsel for the prisoner has said truly, that it is your
individual duty to judge the prisoner; that it is your individual duty
to determine his guilt or innocence; and that you are to weigh the
testimony with candor and fairness. But much at the same time has been
said, which, although it would seem to have no distinct bearing on the
trial, cannot be passed over without some notice.

A tone of complaint so peculiar has been indulged, as would almost lead
us to doubt whether the prisoner at the bar, or the managers of this
prosecution, are now on trial. Great pains have been taken to complain
of the manner of the prosecution. We hear of getting up a case; of
setting in motion trains of machinery; of foul testimony; of
combinations to overwhelm the prisoner; of private prosecutors; that the
prisoner is hunted, persecuted, driven to his trial; that everybody is
against him; and various other complaints, as if those who would bring
to punishment the authors of this murder were almost as bad as they who
committed it.

In the course of my whole life, I have never heard before so much said
about the particular counsel who happen to be employed; as if it were
extraordinary that other counsel than the usual officers of the
government should assist in the management of a case on the part of the
government. In one of the last criminal trials in this county, that of
Jackman for the "Goodridge robbery" (so called), I remember that the
learned head of the Suffolk Bar, Mr. Prescott, came down in aid of the
officers of the government. This was regarded as neither strange nor
improper. The counsel for the prisoner, in that case, contented
themselves with answering his arguments, as far as they were able,
instead of carping at his presence.

Complaint is made that rewards were offered, in this case, and
temptations held out to obtain testimony. Are not rewards always
offered, when great and secret offences are committed? Rewards were
offered in the case to which I have alluded; and every other means taken
to discover the offenders, that ingenuity or the most persevering
vigilance could suggest. The learned counsel have suffered their zeal to
lead them into a strain of complaint at the manner in which the
perpetrators of this crime were detected, almost indicating that they
regard it as a positive injury to them to have found out their guilt.
Since no man witnessed it, since they do not now confess it, attempts to
discover it are half esteemed as officious intermeddling and impertinent

It is said, that here even a Committee of Vigilance was appointed. This
is a subject of reiterated remark. This committee are pointed at, as
though they had been officiously intermeddling with the administration
of justice. They are said to have been "laboring for months" against the
prisoner. Gentlemen, what must we do in such a case? Are people to be
dumb and still, through fear of overdoing? Is it come to this, that an
effort cannot be made, a hand cannot be lifted, to discover the guilty,
without its being said there is a combination to overwhelm innocence?
Has the community lost all moral sense? Certainly, a community that
would not be roused to action upon an occasion such as this was, a
community which should not deny sleep to their eyes, and slumber to
their eyelids, till they had exhausted all the means of discovery and
detection, must indeed be lost to all moral sense, and would scarcely
deserve protection from the laws. The learned counsel have endeavored to
persuade you, that there exists a prejudice against the persons accused
of this murder. They would have you understand that it is not confined
to this vicinity alone; but that even the legislature have caught this
spirit. That through the procurement of the gentleman here styled
private prosecutor, who is a member of the Senate, a special session of
this court was appointed for the trial of these offenders. That the
ordinary movements of the wheels of justice were too slow for the
purposes devised. But does not everybody see and know, that it was
matter of absolute necessity to have a special session of the court?
When or how could the prisoners have been tried without a special
session? In the ordinary arrangement of the courts, but one week in a
year is allotted for the whole court to sit in this county. In the trial
of all capital offences a majority of the court, at least, is required
to be present. In the trial of the present case alone, three weeks have
already been taken up. Without such special session, then, three years
would not have been sufficient for the purpose. It is answer sufficient
to all complaints on this subject to say, that the law was drawn by the
late Chief Justice himself,[1] to enable the court to accomplish its
duties, and to afford the persons accused an opportunity for trial
without delay.

Again, it is said that it was not thought of making Francis Knapp, the
prisoner at the bar, a PRINCIPAL till after the death of Richard
Crowninshield, Jr.; that the present indictment is an after-thought;
that "testimony was got up" for the occasion. It is not so. There is no
authority for this suggestion. The case of the Knapps had not then been
before the grand jury. The officers of the government did not know what
the testimony would be against them. They could not, therefore, have
determined what course they should pursue. They intended to arraign all
as principals who should appear to have been principals, and all as
accessories who should appear to have been accessories. All this could
be known only when the evidence should be produced.

But the learned counsel for the defendant take a somewhat loftier flight
still. They are more concerned, they assure us, for the law itself, than
even for their client. Your decision in this case, they say, will stand
as a precedent. Gentlemen, we hope it will. We hope it will be a
precedent both of candor and intelligence, of fairness and of firmness;
a precedent of good sense and honest purpose pursuing their
investigation discreetly, rejecting loose generalities, exploring all
the circumstances, weighing each, in search of truth, and embracing and
declaring the truth when found.

It is said, that "laws are made, not for the punishment of the guilty,
but for the protection of the innocent." This is not quite accurate,
perhaps, but if so, we hope they will be so administered as to give that
protection. But who are the innocent whom the law would protect?
Gentlemen, Joseph White was innocent. They are innocent who, having
lived in the fear of God through the day, wish to sleep in his peace
through the night, in their own beds. The law is established that those
who live quietly may sleep quietly; that they who do no harm may feel
none. The gentleman can think of none that are innocent except the
prisoner at the bar, not yet convicted. Is a proved conspirator to
murder innocent? Are the Crowninshields and the Knapps innocent? What is
innocence? How deep stained with blood, how reckless in crime, how deep
in depravity may it be, and yet retain innocence? The law is made, if we
would speak with entire accuracy, to protect the innocent by punishing
the guilty. But there are those innocent out of a court, as well as in;
innocent citizens not suspected of crime, as well as innocent prisoners
at the bar. The criminal law is not founded in a principle of vengeance.
It does not punish that it may inflict suffering. The humanity of the
law feels and regrets every pain it causes, every hour of restraint it
imposes, and more deeply still every life it forfeits. But it uses evil
as the means of preventing greater evil. It seeks to deter from crime by
the example of punishment. This is its true, and only true main object.
It restrains the liberty of the few offenders, that the many who do not
offend may enjoy their liberty. It takes the life of the murderer, that
other murders may not be committed. The law might open the jails, and at
once set free all persons accused of offences, and it ought to do so if
it could be made certain that no other offences would hereafter be
committed, because it punishes, not to satisfy any desire to inflict
pain, but simply to prevent the repetition of crimes. When the guilty,
therefore, are not punished, the law has so far failed of its purpose;
the safety of the innocent is so far endangered. Every unpunished
murder takes away something from the security of every man's life.
Whenever a jury, through whimsical and ill-founded scruples, suffer the
guilty to escape, they make themselves answerable for the augmented
danger of the innocent.

We wish nothing to be strained against this defendant. Why, then, all
this alarm? Why all this complaint against the manner in which the crime
is discovered? The prisoner's counsel catch at supposed flaws of
evidence, or bad character of witnesses, without meeting the case. Do
they mean to deny the conspiracy? Do they mean to deny that the two
Crowninshields and the two Knapps were conspirators? Why do they rail
against Palmer, while they do not disprove, and hardly dispute, the
truth of any one fact sworn to by him? Instead of this, it is made
matter of sentimentality that Palmer has been prevailed upon to betray
his bosom companions and to violate the sanctity of friendship. Again I
ask, Why do they not meet the case? If the fact is out, why not meet it?
Do they mean to deny that Captain White is dead? One would have almost
supposed even that, from some remarks that have been made. Do they mean
to deny the conspiracy? Or, admitting a conspiracy, do they mean to deny
only that Frank Knapp, the prisoner at the bar, was abetting in the
murder, being present, and so deny that he was a principal? If a
conspiracy is proved, it bears closely upon every subsequent subject of
inquiry. Why do they not come to the fact? Here the defence is wholly
indistinct. The counsel neither take the ground, nor abandon it. They
neither fly, nor light. They hover. But they must come to a closer mode
of contest. They must meet the facts, and either deny or admit them. Had
the prisoner at the bar, then, a knowledge of this conspiracy or not?
This is the question. Instead of laying out their strength in
complaining of the _manner_ in which the deed is discovered, of the
extraordinary pains taken to bring the prisoner's guilt to light, would
it not be better to show there was no guilt? Would it not be better to
show his innocence? They say, and they complain, that the community feel
a great desire that he should be punished for his crimes. Would it not
be better to convince you that he has committed no crime?

Gentlemen, let us now come to the case. Your first inquiry, on the
evidence, will be, Was Captain White murdered in pursuance of a
conspiracy, and was the defendant one of this conspiracy? If so, the
second inquiry is, Was he so connected with the murder itself as that he
is liable to be convicted as a _principal_? The defendant is indicted as
a _principal_. If not guilty _as such_, you cannot convict him. The
indictment contains three distinct classes of counts. In the first, he
is charged as having done the deed with his own hand; in the second, as
an aider and abettor to Richard Crowninshield, Jr., who did the deed; in
the third, as an aider and abettor to some person unknown. If you
believe him guilty on either of these counts, or in either of these
ways, you must convict him.

It may be proper to say, as a preliminary remark, that there are two
extraordinary circumstances attending this trial. One is, that Richard
Crowninshield, Jr., the supposed immediate perpetrator of the murder,
since his arrest, has committed suicide. He has gone to answer before a
tribunal of perfect infallibility. The other is, that Joseph Knapp, the
supposed originator and planner of the murder, having once made a full
disclosure of the facts, under a promise of indemnity, is, nevertheless,
not now a witness. Notwithstanding his disclosure and his promise of
indemnity, he now refuses to testify. He chooses to return to his
original state, and now stands answerable himself, when the time shall
come for his trial. These circumstances it is fit you should remember,
in your investigation of the case.

Your decision may affect more than the life of this defendant. If he be
not convicted as principal, no one can be. Nor can any one be convicted
of a participation in the crime as accessory. The Knapps and George
Crowninshield will be again on the community. This shows the importance
of the duty you have to perform, and serves to remind you of the care
and wisdom necessary to be exercised in its performance. But certainly
these considerations do not render the prisoner's guilt any clearer, nor
enhance the weight of the evidence against him. No one desires you to
regard consequences in that light. No one wishes any thing to be
strained, or too far pressed against the prisoner. Still, it is fit you
should see the full importance of the duty which devolves upon you.

And now, Gentlemen, in examining this evidence, let us begin at the
beginning, and see first what we know independent of the disputed
testimony. This is a case of circumstantial evidence. And these
circumstances, we think, are full and satisfactory. The case mainly
depends upon them, and it is common that offences of this kind must be
proved in this way. Midnight assassins take no witnesses. The evidence
of the facts relied on has been somewhat sneeringly denominated, by the
learned counsel, "circumstantial stuff," but it is not such stuff as
dreams are made of. Why does he not rend this stuff? Why does he not
scatter it to the winds? He dismisses it a little too summarily. It
shall be my business to examine this stuff, and try its cohesion.

The letter from Palmer at Belfast, is that no more than flimsy stuff?

The fabricated letters from Knapp to the committee and to Mr. White, are
they nothing but stuff?

The circumstance, that the house-keeper was away at the time the murder
was committed, as it was agreed she would be, is that, too, a useless
piece of the same stuff?

The facts, that the key of the chamber door was taken out and secreted;
that the window was unbarred and unbolted; are these to be so slightly
and so easily disposed of?

It is necessary, Gentlemen, to settle now, at the commencement, the
great question of a conspiracy. If there was none, or the defendant was
not a party, then there is no evidence here to convict him. If there was
a conspiracy, and he is proved to have been a party, then these two
facts have a strong bearing on others, and all the great points of
inquiry. The defendant's counsel take no distinct ground, as I have
already said, on this point, either to admit or to deny. They choose to
confine themselves to a hypothetical mode of speech. They say, supposing
there was a conspiracy, _non sequitur_ that the prisoner is guilty as
principal. Be it so. But still, if there was a conspiracy, and if he was
a conspirator, and helped to plan the murder, this may shed much light
on the evidence which goes to charge him with the execution of that

We mean to make out the conspiracy; and that the defendant was a party
to it; and then to draw all just inferences from these facts.

Let me ask your attention, then, in the first place, to those
appearances, on the morning after the murder, which have a tendency to
show that it was done in pursuance of a preconcerted plan of operation.
What are they? A man was found murdered in his bed. No stranger had done
the deed, no one unacquainted with the house had done it. It was
apparent that somebody within had opened, and that somebody without had
entered. There had obviously and certainly been concert and
co-operation. The inmates of the house were not alarmed when the murder
was perpetrated. The assassin had entered without any riot or any
violence. He had found the way prepared before him. The house had been
previously opened. The window was unbarred from within, and its
fastening unscrewed. There was a lock on the door of the chamber in
which Mr. White slept, but the key was gone. It had been taken away and
secreted. The footsteps of the murderer were visible, out-doors, tending
toward the window. The plank by which he entered the window still
remained. The road he pursued had been thus prepared for him. The victim
was slain, and the murderer had escaped. Every thing indicated that
somebody within had co-operated with somebody without. Every thing
proclaimed that some of the inmates, or somebody having access to the
house, had had a hand in the murder. On the face of the circumstances,
it was apparent, therefore, that this was a premeditated, concerted
murder; that there had been a conspiracy to commit it. Who, then, were
the conspirators? If not now found out, we are still groping in the
dark, and the whole tragedy is still a mystery.

If the Knapps and the Crowninshields were not the conspirators in this
murder, then there is a whole set of conspirators not yet discovered.
Because, independent of the testimony of Palmer and Leighton,
independent of all disputed evidence, we know, from uncontroverted
facts, that this murder was, and must have been, the result of concert
and co-operation between two or more. We know it was not done without
plan and deliberation; we see, that whoever entered the house, to strike
the blow, was favored and aided by some one who had been previously in
the house, without suspicion, and who had prepared the way. This is
concert, this is co-operation, this is conspiracy. If the Knapps and the
Crowninshields, then, were not the conspirators, who were? Joseph Knapp
had a motive to desire the death of Mr. White, and that motive has been

He was connected by marriage with the family of Mr. White. His wife was
the daughter of Mrs. Beckford, who was the only child of a sister of the
deceased. The deceased was more than eighty years old, and had no
children. His only heirs were nephews and nieces. He was supposed to be
possessed of a very large fortune, which would have descended, by law,
to his several nephews and nieces in equal shares; or, if there was a
will, then according to the will. But as he had but two branches of
heirs, the children of his brother, Henry White, and of Mrs. Beckford,
each of these branches, according to the common idea, would have shared
one half of his property.

This popular idea is not legally correct. But it is common, and very
probably was entertained by the parties. According to this idea, Mrs.
Beckford, on Mr. White's death without a will, would have been entitled
to one half of his ample fortune; and Joseph Knapp had married one of
her three children. There was a will, and this will gave the bulk of the
property to others; and we learn from Palmer that one part of the design
was to destroy the will before the murder was committed. There had been
a previous will, and that previous will was known or believed to have
been more favorable than the other to the Beckford family. So that, by
destroying the last will, and destroying the life of the testator at the
same time, either the first and more favorable will would be set up, or
the deceased would have no will, which would be, as was supposed, still
more favorable. But the conspirators not having succeeded in obtaining
and destroying the last will, though they accomplished the murder, that
will being found in existence and safe, and that will bequeathing the
mass of the property to others, it seemed at the time impossible for
Joseph Knapp, as for any one else, indeed, but the principal devisee, to
have any motive which should lead to the murder. The key which unlocks
the whole mystery is the knowledge of the intention of the conspirators
to steal the will. This is derived from Palmer, and it explains all. It
solves the whole marvel. It shows the motive which actuated those,
against whom there is much evidence, but who, without the knowledge of
this intention, were not seen to have had a motive. This intention is
proved, as I have said, by Palmer; and it is so congruous with all the
rest of the case, it agrees so well with all facts and circumstances,
that no man could well withhold his belief, though the facts were stated
by a still less credible witness. If one desirous of opening a lock
turns over and tries a bunch of keys till he finds one that will open
it, he naturally supposes he has found _the_ key of _that_ lock. So, in
explaining circumstances of evidence which are apparently irreconcilable
or unaccountable, if a fact be suggested which at once accounts for all,
and reconciles all, by whomsoever it may be stated, it is still
difficult not to believe that such fact is the true fact belonging to
the case. In this respect, Palmer's testimony is singularly confirmed.
If it were false, his ingenuity could not furnish us such clear
exposition of strange appearing circumstances. Some truth not before
known can alone do that.

When we look back, then, to the state of things immediately on the
discovery of the murder, we see that suspicion would naturally turn at
once, not to the heirs at law, but to those principally benefited by the
will. They, and they alone, would be supposed or seem to have a direct
object for wishing Mr. White's life to be terminated. And, strange as it
may seem, we find counsel now insisting, that, if no apology, it is yet
mitigation of the atrocity of the Knapps' conduct in attempting to
charge this foul murder on Mr. White, the nephew and principal devisee,
that public suspicion was already so directed! As if assassination of
character were excusable in proportion as circumstances may render it
easy. Their endeavors, when they knew they were suspected themselves, to
fix the charge on others, by foul means and by falsehood, are fair and
strong proof of their own guilt. But more of that hereafter.

The counsel say that they might safely admit that Richard Crowninshield,
Jr. was the perpetrator of this murder.

But how could they safely admit that? If that were admitted, every thing
else would follow. For why should Richard Crowninshield, Jr. kill Mr.
White? He was not his heir, nor his devisee; nor was he his enemy. What
could be his motive? If Richard Crowninshield, Jr. killed Mr. White, he
did it at some one's procurement who himself had a motive. And who,
having any motive, is shown to have had any intercourse with Richard
Crowninshield, Jr., but Joseph Knapp, and this principally through the
agency of the prisoner at the bar? It is the infirmity, the distressing
difficulty of the prisoner's case, that his counsel cannot and dare not
admit what they yet cannot disprove, and what all must believe. He who
believes, on this evidence, that Richard Crowninshield, Jr. was the
immediate murderer, cannot doubt that both the Knapps were conspirators
in that murder. The counsel, therefore, are wrong, I think, in saying
they might safely admit this. The admission of so important and so
connected a fact would render it impossible to contend further against
the proof of the entire conspiracy, as we state it.

What, then, was this conspiracy? J.J. Knapp, Jr., desirous of destroying
the will, and of taking the life of the deceased, hired a ruffian, who,
with the aid of other ruffians, was to enter the house, and murder him
in his bed.

As far back as January this conspiracy began. Endicott testifies to a
conversation with J.J. Knapp at that time, in which Knapp told him that
Captain White had made a will, and given the principal part of his
property to Stephen White. When asked how he knew, he said, "Black and
white don't lie." When asked if the will was not locked up, he said,
"There is such a thing as two keys to the same lock." And speaking of
the then late illness of Captain White, he said, that Stephen White
would not have been sent for if _he_ had been there.

Hence it appears, that as early as January Knapp had a knowledge of the
will, and that he had access to it by means of false keys. This
knowledge of the will, and an intent to destroy it, appear also from
Palmer's testimony, a fact disclosed to him by the other conspirators.
He says that he was informed of this by the Crowninshields on the 2d of
April. But then it is said, that Palmer is not to be credited; that by
his own confession he is a felon; that he has been in the State prison
in Maine; and, above all, that he was intimately associated with these
conspirators themselves. Let us admit these facts. Let us admit him to
be as bad as they would represent him to be; still, in law, he is a
competent witness. How else are the secret designs of the wicked to be
proved, but by their wicked companions, to whom they have disclosed
them? The government does not select its witnesses. The conspirators
themselves have chosen Palmer. He was the confidant of the prisoners.
The fact, however, does not depend on his testimony alone. It is
corroborated by other proof; and, taken in connection with the other
circumstances, it has strong probability. In regard to the testimony of
Palmer, generally, it may be said that it is less contradicted, in all
parts of it, either by himself or others, than that of any other
material witness, and that every thing he has told is corroborated by
other evidence, so far as it is susceptible of confirmation. An attempt
has been made to impair his testimony, as to his being at the Half-way
House on the night of the murder; you have seen with what success. Mr.
Babb is called to contradict him. You have seen how little he knows, and
even that not certainly; for he himself is proved to have been in an
error by supposing Palmer to have been at the Half-way House on the
evening of the 9th of April. At that time he is proved to have been at
Dustin's, in Danvers. If, then, Palmer, bad as he is, has disclosed the
secrets of the conspiracy, and has told the truth, there is no reason
why it should not be believed. Truth is truth, come whence it may.

The facts show that this murder had been long in agitation; that it was
not a new proposition on the 2d of April; that it had been contemplated
for five or six weeks. Richard Crowninshield was at Wenham in the latter
part of March, as testified by Starrett. Frank Knapp was at Danvers in
the latter part of February, as testified by Allen. Richard
Crowninshield inquired whether Captain Knapp was about home, when at
Wenham. The probability is, that they would open the case to Palmer as a
new project. There are other circumstances that show it to have been
some weeks in agitation. Palmer's testimony as to the transaction on the
2d of April is corroborated by Allen, and by Osborn's books. He says
that Frank Knapp came there in the afternoon, and again in the evening.
So the book shows. He says that Captain White had gone out to his farm
on that day. So others prove. How could this fact, or these facts, have
been known to Palmer, unless Frank Knapp had brought the knowledge? And
was it not the special object of this visit to give information of this
fact, that they might meet him and execute their purpose on his return
from his farm? The letter of Palmer, written at Belfast, bears intrinsic
marks of genuineness. It was mailed at Belfast, May 13th. It states
facts that he could not have known, unless his testimony be true. This
letter was not an after-thought; it is a genuine narrative. In fact, it
says, "I know the business your brother Frank was transacting on the 2d
of April." How could he have possibly known this, unless he had been
there? The "one thousand dollars that was to be paid,"--where could he
have obtained this knowledge? The testimony of Endicott, of Palmer, and
these facts, are to be taken together; and they most clearly show that
the death of Captain White was caused by somebody interested in putting
an end to his life.

As to the testimony of Leighton, as far as manner of testifying goes, he
is a bad witness; but it does not follow from this that he is not to be
believed. There are some strange things about him. It is strange, that
he should make up a story against Captain Knapp, the person with whom he
lived; that he never voluntarily told any thing: all that he has said
was screwed out of him. But the story could not have been invented by
him; his character for truth is unimpeached; and he intimated to another
witness, soon after the murder happened, that he knew something he
should not tell. There is not the least contradiction in his testimony,
though he gives a poor account of withholding it. He says that he was
extremely _bothered_ by those who questioned him. In the main story that
he relates, he is entirely consistent with himself. Some things are for
him, and some against him. Examine the intrinsic probability of what he
says. See if some allowance is not to be made for him, on account of
his ignorance of things of this kind. It is said to be extraordinary,
that he should have heard just so much of the conversation, and no more;
that he should have heard just what was necessary to be proved, and
nothing else. Admit that this is extraordinary; still, this does not
prove it untrue. It is extraordinary that you twelve gentlemen should be
called upon, out of all the men in the county, to decide this case; no
one could have foretold this three weeks since. It is extraordinary that
the first clew to this conspiracy should have been derived from
information given by the father of the prisoner at the bar. And in every
case that comes to trial there are many things extraordinary. The murder
itself is a most extraordinary one; but still we do not doubt its

It is argued, that this conversation between Joseph and Frank could not
have been as Leighton has testified, because they had been together for
several hours before; this subject must have been uppermost in their
minds, whereas this appears to have been the commencement of their
conversation upon it. Now this depends altogether upon the tone and
manner of the expression; upon the particular word in the sentence which
was emphatically spoken. If he had said, "When did you _see_ Dick,
Frank?" this would not seem to be the beginning of the conversation.
With what emphasis it was uttered, it is not possible to learn; and
therefore nothing can be made of this argument. If this boy's testimony
stood alone, it should be received with caution. And the same may be
said of the testimony of Palmer. But they do not stand alone. They
furnish a clew to numerous other circumstances, which, when known,
mutually confirm what would have been received with caution without such
corroboration. How could Leighton have made up this conversation? "When
did you see Dick?" "I saw him this morning." "When is he going to kill
the old man?" "I don't know." "Tell him, if he don't do it soon, I won't
pay him." Here is a vast amount in few words. Had he wit enough to
invent this? There is nothing so powerful as truth; and often nothing so
strange. It is not ever suggested that the story was made for him. There
is nothing so extraordinary in the whole matter, as it would have been
for this ignorant country boy to invent this story.

The acts of the parties themselves furnish strong presumption of their
guilt. What was done on the receipt of the letter from Maine? This
letter was signed by Charles Grant, Jr., a person not known to either of
the Knapps, nor was it known to them that any other person beside the
Crowninshields knew of the conspiracy. This letter, by the accidental
omission of the word Jr., fell into the hands of the father, when
intended for the son. The father carried it to Wenham, where both the
sons were. They both read it. Fix your eye steadily on this part of the
_circumstantial stuff_ which is in the case, and see what can be made of
it. This was shown to the two brothers on Saturday, the 15th of May.
Neither of them knew Palmer. And if they had known him, they could not
have known him to have been the writer of this letter. It was mysterious
to them how any one at Belfast could have had knowledge of this affair.
Their conscious guilt prevented due circumspection. They did not see the
bearing of its publication. They advised their father to carry it to the
Committee of Vigilance, and it was so carried. On the Sunday following,
Joseph began to think there might be something in it. Perhaps, in the
mean time, he had seen one of the Crowninshields. He was apprehensive
that they might be suspected; he was anxious to turn attention from
their family. What course did he adopt to effect this? He addressed one
letter, with a false name, to Mr. White, and another to the Committee;
and to complete the climax of his folly, he signed the letter addressed
to the Committee, "Grant," the same name as that which was signed to the
letter received from Belfast. It was in the knowledge of the Committee,
that no person but the Knapps had seen this letter from Belfast; and
that no other person knew its signature. It therefore must have been
irresistibly plain to them that one of the Knapps was the writer of the
letter received by the Committee, charging the murder on Mr. White. Add
to this the fact of its having been dated at Lynn, and mailed at Salem
four days after it was dated, and who could doubt respecting it? Have
you ever read or known of folly equal to this? Can you conceive of crime
more odious and abominable? Merely to explain the apparent mysteries of
the letter from Palmer, they excite the basest suspicions against a man,
whom, if they were innocent, they had no reason to believe guilty; and
whom, if they were guilty, they most certainly knew to be innocent.
Could they have adopted a more direct method of exposing their own
infamy? The letter to the Committee has intrinsic marks of a knowledge
of this transaction. It tells the _time_ and the _manner_ in which the
murder was committed. Every line speaks the writer's condemnation. In
attempting to divert attention from his family, and to charge the guilt
upon another, he indelibly fixes it upon himself.

Joseph Knapp requested Allen to put these letters into the post-office,
because, said he, "I wish to nip this silly affair in the bud." If this
were not the order of an overruling Providence, I should say that it was
the silliest piece of folly that was ever practised. Mark the destiny of
crime. It is ever obliged to resort to such subterfuges; it trembles in
the broad light; it betrays itself in seeking concealment. He alone
walks safely who walks uprightly. Who for a moment can read these
letters and doubt of Joseph Knapp's guilt? The constitution of nature is
made to inform against him. There is no corner dark enough to conceal
him. There is no turnpike-road broad enough or smooth enough for a man
so guilty to walk in without stumbling. Every step proclaims his secret
to every passenger. His own acts come out to fix his guilt. In
attempting to charge another with his own crime, he writes his own
confession. To do away the effect of Palmer's letter, signed Grant, he
writes a letter himself and affixes to it the name of Grant. He writes
in a disguised hand; but could it happen that the same Grant should be
in Salem that was at Belfast? This has brought the whole thing out.
Evidently he did it, because he has adopted the same style. Evidently he
did it, because he speaks of the price of blood, and of other
circumstances connected with the murder, that no one but a conspirator
could have known.

Palmer says he made a visit to the Crowninshields, on the 9th of April.
George then asked him whether he had heard of the murder. Richard
inquired whether he had heard the music at Salem. They said that they
were suspected, that a committee had been appointed to search houses;
and that they had melted up the dagger, the day after the murder,
because it would be a suspicious circumstance to have it found in their
possession. Now this committee was not appointed, in fact, until Friday
evening. But this proves nothing against Palmer; it does not prove that
George did not tell him so; it only proves that he gave a false reason
for a fact. They had heard that they were suspected; how could they have
heard this, unless it were from the whisperings of their own
consciences? Surely this rumor was not then public.

About the 27th of April, another attempt was made by the Knapps to give
a direction to public suspicion. They reported themselves to have been
robbed, in passing from Salem to Wenham, near Wenham Pond. They came to
Salem and stated the particulars of the adventure. They described
persons, their dress, size, and appearance, who had been suspected of
the murder. They would have it understood that the community was
infested by a band of ruffians, and that they themselves were the
particular objects of their vengeance. Now this turns out to be all
fictitious, all false. Can you conceive of any thing more enormous, any
wickedness greater, than the circulation of such reports? than the
allegation of crimes, if committed, capital? If no such crime had been
committed, then it reacts with double force upon themselves, and goes
very far to show their guilt. How did they conduct themselves on this
occasion? Did they make hue and cry? Did they give information that they
had been assaulted that night at Wenham? No such thing. They rested
quietly that night; they waited to be called on for the particulars of
their adventure; they made no attempt to arrest the offenders; this was
not their object. They were content to fill the thousand mouths of
rumor, to spread abroad false reports, to divert the attention of the
public from themselves; for they thought every man suspected them,
because they knew they ought to be suspected.

The manner in which the compensation for this murder was paid is a
circumstance worthy of consideration. By examining the facts and dates,
it will satisfactorily appear that Joseph Knapp paid a sum of money to
Richard Crowninshield, in five-franc pieces, on the 24th of April. On
the 21st of April, Joseph Knapp received five hundred five-franc pieces,
as the proceeds of an adventure at sea. The remainder of this species of
currency that came home in the vessel was deposited in a bank at Salem.
On Saturday, the 24th of April, Frank and Richard rode to Wenham. They
were there with Joseph an hour or more, and appeared to be negotiating
private business. Richard continued in the chaise; Joseph came to the
chaise and conversed with him. These facts are proved by Hart and
Leighton, and by Osborn's books. On Saturday evening, about this time,
Richard Crowninshield is proved, by Lummus, to have been at Wenham, with
another person whose appearance corresponds with Frank's. Can any one
doubt this being the same evening? What had Richard Crowninshield to do
at Wenham, with Joseph, unless it were this business? He was there
before the murder; he was there after the murder; he was there
clandestinely, unwilling to be seen. If it were not upon this business,
let it be told what it was for. Joseph Knapp could explain it; Frank
Knapp might explain it. But they do not explain it; and the inference is
against them.

Immediately after this, Richard passes five-franc pieces; on the same
evening, one to Lummus, five to Palmer; and near this time George passes
three or four in Salem. Here are nine of these pieces passed by them in
four days; this is extraordinary. It is an unusual currency; in ordinary
business, few men would pass nine such pieces in the course of a year.
If they were not received in this way, why not explain how they came by
them? Money was not so flush in their pockets that they could not tell
whence it came, if it honestly came there. It is extremely important to
them to explain whence this money came, and they would do it if they
could. If, then, the price of blood was paid at this time, in the
presence and with the knowledge of this defendant, does not this prove
him to have been connected with this conspiracy?

Observe, also, the effect on the mind of Richard of Palmer's being
arrested and committed to prison; the various efforts he makes to
discover the fact; the lowering, through the crevices of the rock, the
pencil and paper for him to write upon; the sending two lines of poetry,
with the request that he would return the corresponding lines; the
shrill and peculiar whistle; the inimitable exclamations of "Palmer!
Palmer! Palmer!" All these things prove how great was his alarm; they
corroborate Palmer's story, and tend to establish the conspiracy.

Joseph Knapp had a part to act in this matter. He must have opened the
window, and secreted the key; he had free access to every part of the
house; he was accustomed to visit there; he went in and out at his
pleasure; he could do this without being suspected. He is proved to have
been there the Saturday preceding.

If all these things, taken in connection, do not prove that Captain
White was murdered in pursuance of a conspiracy, then the case is at an

Savary's testimony is wholly unexpected. He was called for a different
purpose. When asked who the person was that he saw come out of Captain


Back to Full Books