- Mar 7, 2009
It was the Lincoln administration's inquiry that prompted the ruling. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase had sent a letter to Attorney General Bates in regards to a schooner, the Elizabeth and Margaret, that had been detained by the revenue cutter Tiger because it had been "commanded by a colored man, and so by a person not a citizen of the United States." Chase noted that "colored masters" were quite numerous in the coastal trade and wanted a legal opinion on the question, "Are colored men citizens of the United States, and therefore competent to command American vessels?"Lincoln’s AG should have tested it, after all he had 4 years to do so. Maybe Abe didn’t want him to because of how it might negatively affect his war effort. Or maybe Abe believed it was good law.
Attorney General Bates issued a 27 page legal opinion on November 29, 1862 that included "if this be a true principle, and I do not doubt it, it follows that every person born in a country is, at the moment of birth, prima facie a citizen; and who would deny it must take upon himself the burden of proving some great disfranchisement strong enough to override the natural born right as recognized by the Constitution in terms the most simple and comprehensive, and without any reference to race or color, or any other accidental circumstance."
Bates concluded that "the free man of color, mentioned in your letter, if born in the United States, is a citizen of the United States..." The legal opinion was never challenged nor overturned so it remained law.