People v. Alexander McLeod, 1841

25 Wendell 483 (1841)

Crimes Committed Under the Authority of a Foreign Sovereign

During the Canadian Rebellion of 1837, the Caroline, a steam vessel owned by William Wells of Buffalo, was involved in supplying arms and munitions to the rebels on Navy Island in the Niagara River. On December 29, 1837, the Caroline, with several New York citizens on board, berthed at the Schlosser wharf on the New York side of the river. In the pre-dawn hours of December 30, around sixty loyalists — commanded by Allan McNab, a colonel in her majesty’s forces — left Canada in small boats on an expedition to find and destroy the Caroline. The British forces located the vessel and, in the course of setting her on fire and sending her over the Falls, killed an American citizen. President Martin Van Buren, fearing that the peaceful relations between Britain and America would be endangered, issued a proclamation forbidding all interference with Canada, and sent American forces to the frontier to ensure compliance.

The Caroline incident came to the fore again during the presidency of John Tyler. Alexander McLeod of Canada boasted that he had been part of the raid on the Caroline and had killed an American. In November 1840, while on a business trip to Lewiston, New York, McLeod was arrested by the New York authorities and charged with the murder and arson. The British government made a formal request to the President of the United States for the release of McLeod, but because McLeod was held under State law, neither the President nor the Federal government had the power to release him.

In July 1841, Mr. McLeod’s attorneys brought a petition for habeas corpus on McLeod’s behalf before Justices Samuel Nelson, Greene C. Bronson and Esek Cowen of the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. The many letters that were passing between the English Minister to the United States Mr. Fox, and the American Secretary of State Daniel Webster, were introduced in evidence.1 The New York Supreme Court of Judicature, in an opinion by Justice Cowen, concluded that immunity from prosecution could arise only from acts occurring during a state of war and that, at the time of the raid on the Caroline, Britain and the United States were not at war. The Court then remanded McLeod for trial, but changed the venue from Niagara County to Oneida County.

This decision of the New York Supreme Court exacerbated the tensions between Britain and the United States, and New York City Superior Court Judge Daniel Bryant Tallmadge wrote a review criticizing the decision and the law upon which it was based. The review was highly regarded by the leading jurists of the day2 and quoted in a speech by Daniel Webster in the United States Senate.

Alexander McLeod’s trial began in the Circuit Court, Oneida County, on October 4, 1841, with Judge Philo Gridley presiding. New York Attorney-General Willis Hall conducted the prosecution and Joshua A. Spencer, acting privately although a United States Attorney at the time, was counsel for the defense. During the trial, many witnesses testified that McLeod was present in Chippewa, Canada at the time the Caroline was destroyed. The jury deliberated for twenty minutes and returned a verdict of “not guilty.”

On August 23, 1842, Congress enacted a statute (chapter 188, 5 Stat. 516) that allowed habeas corpus relief for foreigners held for a crime, where they could show that they acted under the authority of a foreign sovereign.



  1. The letters are reproduced in the report of the case at 25 Wendell 483
  2. Published in an appendix to Volume 26 of Wendell’s Reports


Product added to cart

No products in the cart.