Cover

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Title Page

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pp. i-vi

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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Editors’ Preface

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pp. ix-x

Rarely can one say that a study of a case is definitive. Charles Hobson’s study of Fletcher v. Peck (1810) is the exception to this rule. It is difficult to see how it can be surpassed.
The case itself is a tangle of land speculation, state building, corruption, and ambition that is worthy of study in itself and opens a window on land transactions, Indian relations, and politics in the early nation. The scene shifts from the frontier to the courtroom and from Georgia to New England, as it seemed the entire nation had a financial interest in the Yazoo lands....

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xvi

The idea for this book arose around the turn of the present century when I learned of the University Press of Kansas series Landmark Law Cases and American Society. A few years earlier the press had published The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law, which included a chapter on Marshall’s contract clause opinions. In response to my inquiries, editor-in-chief Michael Briggs informed me that series editors Peter Hoffer and N. E. H. Hull were open to my participation and that I could choose the contract case or cases I preferred to write on....

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Introduction

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pp. 17-26

The case of Fletcher v. Peck (1810) is a landmark of American constitutional law for two reasons: It was the first time the Supreme Court invalidated a state law as contrary to the Constitution and the first time the Court applied the clause of the Constitution that prohibits the states from impairing the “Obligation of Contracts.” Although in Marbury v. Madison (1803) the Court had struck down a portion of a federal statute, the practice of what came to be known as “judicial review” had its true beginnings with the exposition of the contract clause in Fletcher . Ideas about the judiciary’s authority to void legislative acts were still in flux at the time of this decision, with jurists appealing to extraconstitutional principles as well as specific provisions of the Constitution. Chief Justice John Marshall interpreted the contract clause in a way that resolved this debate in favor of invoking the written constitutional text, a development of great significance in consolidating the practice of judicial review....

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1. Georgia Sells Its Western Lands

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pp. 27-52

Georgia’s massive Yazoo land sale of January 1795 was the culmination of a successive wave of land speculations dating from the early eighteenth century that looked to the vast and fertile territory beyond the Appalachian (then called the Allegheny) Mountains, seeking to exploit the relentless westward movement of an ever-expanding North American population. After Yazoo, there was less enthusiasm for large-scale enterprises of the kind that proliferated in the postrevolutionary years. Many land company investors had been disappointed in their expectations of great profits; not a few found themselves overextended, unable to meet their obligations, and endured bankruptcy and ruin. The failure of Robert Morris, resulting in his imprisonment for debt, was an object lesson in the perils of land speculation....

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2. Georgia Rescinds the Yazoo Sale

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pp. 53-71

Georgia’s sale of its western lands in 1795 was unmatched in the sheer magnitude of the enterprise, the imperial scale of a purchase of a land mass nearly equal to that of Great Britain. It was national in scope, attracting investment capital from Savannah northward to Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Where earlier land speculations involved plans (some more serious than others) to settle the purchased lands with emigrants, the purchase of Georgia’s western lands from the outset was an unabashed land-jobbing scheme. The traffic, the buying and rapid resale, was not in the lands themselves but in the preemption rights to lands occupied by Indian tribes, whose claims supposedly would soon be “extinguished.”...

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3. New England Purchasers Become Yazoo Claimants

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pp. 72-97

Nothing else so clearly illustrates the land-jobbing nature of the Yazoo sale as the rapid turnover of the Georgia lands from the original grantees to third-party purchasers, who in turn sold their holdings to others, launching a speculative bubble that continued throughout 1795 and into early 1796. To meet the November 1, 1795, deadline for paying the purchase balance, the Yazoo companies immediately set about selling their lands at a price that would cover the balance and return a handsome profit. They accordingly sent their agents to where the concentration of money and speculating enthusiasm was highest—to the northeastern states, particularly New England. The agents who flocked to the northeast represented the two largest companies, the Georgia Company and the Georgia Mississippi Company, each of which received a title deed from Governor Mathews in the winter of 1795 after making their respective down payments....

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4. Fletcher Sues Peck; Congress Debates Yazoo

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pp. 98-125

The case of Fletcher v. Peck commenced with a writ dated May 18, 1803, commanding John Peck of Newton, Massachusetts, to appear at the ensuing June term of the U.S. circuit court at Boston to answer a plea of “covenant broken” brought by Robert Fletcher of Amherst, New Hampshire. The decision to go to court at this time between these two parties resulted from a carefully worked out plan by New England purchasers of Mississippi lands holding titles under the Georgia sale act of January 1795. The largest group of these purchasers was the N.E.M. Land Co., which had acquired the Georgia Mississippi Company’s grant in 1796. Other groups and individuals held their titles under the Georgia Company grant. Peck was a Yazoo purchaser in his own right under the Georgia Company and also as a member of the N.E.M. Land Co., for which he had served as a director since 1797. The case for his title was the same as that of all the New England purchasers....

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5. The Contract Clause, Vested Rights, and First Argument, 1809

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pp. 126-158

Contrary to conventional textbook accounts, the history of the Supreme Court did not begin with the appointment of John Marshall, the “great chief justice,” in 1801. In fact, Marshall built on foundations laid during the Court’s first decade. That it took time for the Court to acquire an institutional identity is not surprising. Article III of the Constitution—the judiciary article—provided only a brief outline for the judicial department, naming just one court, the Supreme Court. It left to Congress’s discretion the establishment of inferior federal courts and conferred lifetime appointments on the judges of both the supreme and inferior courts. It prescribed the federal judiciary’s jurisdiction as extending to “all cases, in Law and Equity, arising under” the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States;...

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6. The Supreme Court Decides Fletcher; Congress Indemnifies Claimants

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pp. 159-192

When the Supreme Court convened for the 1810 term on February 5, the justices sat for the first time in their new courtroom designed by Benjamin Latrobe. Situated on the ground floor of the original north wing of the Capitol, this chamber would be the Court’s home until 1860. As they waited for the second argument of Fletcher v. Peck and an anticipated favorable decision by the Supreme Court, the New England claimants were simultaneously pressing their case again in the halls of Congress. Two years earlier Massachusetts Governor James Sullivan’s memorial on behalf of his state’s Yazoo investors was rudely denounced by opponents of relief. At the same session the House overwhelming rejected a motion to allow the N.E.M Land Co.’s lawyer Joseph Story to speak on the House floor....

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7. The Marshall Court and the Contract Clause after Fletcher

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pp. 193-218

Fletcher v. Peck was the Marshall Court’s second major constitutional law pronouncement, coming seven years after Marbury v. Madison. These cases shared certain similarities. Both became landmarks of American law not for their particular outcomes but as precedents establishing constitutional principles and doctrines that could be applied with effect to future cases. In Marbury Chief Justice Marshall was able to transform a case in which the Court was powerless to enforce a party’s legal right into a manifesto of judicial independence, most famously in proclaiming the judiciary’s authority to invalidate laws deemed to be repugnant to the Constitution. In Fletcher the Court upheld Peck’s title in his dispute with Fletcher, but this judgment did not put Peck or any other Yazoo purchaser in possession...

Chronology

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pp. 219-224

Bibliographical Essay

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pp. 225-238

Index

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pp. 239-246

Back Cover

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