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The Prize Cases

Citation. 67 U.S. (2 Black) 635, 17 L.Ed. 459 (1863).
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Citation. 67 U.S. (2 Black) 635, 17 L.Ed. 459 (1863).

Brief Fact Summary.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln ordered a blockade of southern ports prior to a congressional declaration of war.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

When the United States is invaded, the President is bound to meet the threat, with or without a formal declaration of war by Congress.


During the Civil War, President Lincoln issued an executive order commanding a blockade of Confederate ports.  Property within the blockade could be seized by Union forces.  The order preceded a formal declaration of war by Congress, but Congress had authorized the President to use military forces if the United States were invaded or needed to suppress insurrection.  Ship owners who had their property seized challenged the President’s authority to issue the blockade.


Whether the President had the authority to blockade southern ports before Congress declared war.


JUSTICE GRIER holding:  Yes.  The President was bound to meet the threat without waiting for Congress to formally declare war.


Justice Nelson

Under the Constitution, only Congress can declare a war.  During wartime, every citizen of the hostile State is deemed an enemy.  This power was reserved by the Constitution to Congress, and it cannot be delegated to the President.  Therefore, seizing the ships and the property within violated the Constitution.


`The Court reasoned that, when a foreign nation (or an insurrectionist force like the Confederacy) invades our borders, the President is not the one who initiated the war.  The President, as Commander-in-Chief of the military, is “bound to resist force, by force.”  In these situations, the President cannot wait for Congress to declare war.  The duty to suppress an insurrection was granted to the President, and the Court must abide his decisions on the matter.  The proclamation of a blockade was evidence itself that the country was in a state of war, and thus the President was authorized to respond accordingly.  During wartime, if the President needs to address a threat in a way that requires congressional authorization, Congress can ratify the action later.

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