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Whitney v. Robertson

Citation. 124 U.S. 190 (1888)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The plaintiffs, merchants doing business in New York, challenged the congressional act that made their goods dutiable articles whereas other goods, similar in kind, that were imported from Hawaiian islands were imported free of duty.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Both legislation and treaty are placed on the same standing and the supreme law of the land, and no one prevails over the other.


The plaintiffs, merchants doing business in New York, imported a large quantity of “centrifugal and molasses sugars,” the produce and manufacture of the island of San Domingo. The goods were similar in kind to sugars produced in the Hawaiian Islands, which are admitted free of duty under the treaty with the king of those islands, and the act of Congress. They were duly entered at the custom house at the port of New York. The plaintiffs argue that the goods should be admitted free by the treaty with the Republic of San Domingo. The defendant, the collector of the port, refused to allow the plaintiffs’ claim and treated their goods as dutiable articles under the acts of Congress.


May Congress impose duty on goods from one importer while freeing the duty from another party who import the same goods?


Yes, the act of Congress under which the duties were collected authorized their exaction, because it is of general application, making no exception in favor of goods of any country. It was passed after the treaty with the Dominican Republic, and if there by any conflict between the stipulations of the treaty and the requirements of the law, the latter must control.


A treaty is primarily a contract between two or more independent nations, and is so regarded by writers on public law. For the infraction of its provisions, a remedy must be sought by the injured party through reclamations upon the other. When the stipulations are not self-executing they can only be enforced pursuant to legislation to carry them into effect, and such legislation is as much subject to modification by Congress as legislation upon other subjects. If the treaty contains stipulations that are self-executing, it requires no legislation to make them operative. By the Constitution a treaty is placed on the same footing, and made of like obligation, with an act of legislation. Both are declared by that instrument to be the supreme law of the land, and no superior efficacy is given to either over the other. Thus, the courts must give deference to the treaty made and entered into the agreement by Congress.

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