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Federal Courts and The Admiralty Oar

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While it is not commonly known, there is a direct link between the colonial-era British admiralty courts and the current federal district courts of the United States. The silver oar on display in the Warren B. Rudman United States Courthouse is a symbolic representation of that link.

The law of admiralty, also known as maritime law, is a system of rules and principles derived from long-standing seafaring customs, medieval maritime codes, and international treaties. While some aspects of admiralty law may have originated as early as 900 B.C., it was first formally adjudicated in England and Wales around 1360, by the High Court of Admiralty located in London and by Vice Admiralty Courts located at various port cities. Cases in these British admiralty courts were decided solely by a judge, as individuals had no right to a jury trial. Initially, these admiralty courts addressed cases involving piracy and naval discipline, but gradually, jurisdiction was extended to commercial maritime matters.

In medieval times, valuable objects such as crowns and scepters were used to symbolize power. The High Courts of the British Crown employed a silver mace, engraved with the royal coat of arms, to signify their authority under the monarchy. The silver oar symbolized the power and authority of British admiralty courts. It was displayed on the bench in front of the admiralty judge during trials. The admiralty court’s marshal would carry the oar with him when delivering warrants. Possibly the most notorious appearance of the silver oar was during public executions. For example, on May 23, 1701, when Captain William Kidd and six of his associates were to be hanged as pirates, the admiralty court’s marshal, bearing the silver oar, led the procession from London’s Newgate Prison to the gallows.

Traditionally, English admiralty courts had two areas of jurisdiction: “Prize” and “Instance”. Prize jurisdiction extended to the property of an enemy of the Crown, captured at sea, which included cargo as well as the vessel itself. This jurisdiction was important because, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England was commonly at war with other countries. In contrast, instance jurisdiction pertained to private litigation brought at the “instance” of a plaintiff against a vessel. Examples of such cases included seamen’s claims for unpaid wages, suits for salvage brought by the rescuer of a ship or its cargo, and suits on bottomry bonds (in which the ship was pledged as security.)

As the British Empire moved west into colonial America, vice-admiralty courts were established in the port cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Williamsburg and Charleston. The vice-admiralty court established in Boston had jurisdiction in all admiralty cases arising in New Hampshire. At least some of these courts used a silver oar to denote the King’s authority over their proceedings. Vice-admiralty judges traveled to courthouses, public houses and taverns to preside over cases in outlying areas. By the early 1700’s, some cases were heard at Packer’s Tavern in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It is not known whether a silver oar was ever present for those remote proceedings, but stories are told that court personnel, arriving by ship and then rowing to shore in rowboats, would place an oar outside the establishment where court was to be held that day to inform the citizens of its location.

In 1696, in an effort to increase monies deposited into the royal treasury, British Parliament decided to enforce the "Navigation Acts". These acts mandated that only ships built, owned and registered in Britain could trade with the American colonies, that the master and three-quarters of the crew must be British, and that merchandise freight going to or from any other European country to the American colonies must make a stop in England to pay a duty. Vice Admiralty Courts in the American colonies had the responsibility of enforcing this law, which had a dramatic impact on the colonies’ foreign trade.

Anti-British sentiments grew during the first half of the 18th century as these non-jury Vice Admiralty Courts in North America were given expanded jurisdiction to hear criminal and civil matters involving colonists and to enforce additional trade policies enacted by the British Parliament, such as The Stamp Act of 1765 and The Townshend Acts of 1767. These developments, imposed upon a new generation of colonists born in America who increasingly regarded England as a foreign country, served as a source of resentment against Great Britain that culminated in the American Revolutionary War.

Many American lawyers who played prominent roles in the Revolution, such as Alexander Hamilton of New York and John Adams of Massachusetts, practiced admiralty law. After the American colonies won independence from Great Britain, admiralty jurisdiction was first exercised by each respective state and, upon ratification of the United States Constitution, by the federal government. In 1789, the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the United States Constitution which provides in Article 3, '2 that the judicial power of the United States, "shall extend Y to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction." The Judiciary Act of 1789 then established thirteen federal judicial districts, including New Hampshire, each having its own circuit and district courts. While the circuit courts (where the district judge and one or two Supreme Court justices sat en banc) heard the more complex civil and criminal matters, the district courts heard primarily admiralty cases. Thus, the United States District Courts, which still maintain original jurisdiction over all admiralty and maritime disputes, have a direct heritage to the silver oar of British admiralty and colonial vice-admiralty courts.

Unfortunately, many forged colonial artifacts (especially symbols of British authority) were lost during the American Revolutionary War. Some were melted down to be re-made into armaments. Today, only two original silver oars from colonial America’s vice-admiralty courts can be found: one in Boston and the other in New York.

Boston's silver oar was made by a well-known silversmith named Jacob Hurd between the years 1740 and 1750. Its design is said to derive from a ship's steering oar rather than a rowing oar. One side of the oar depicts the Royal Coat of Arms, along with the initials "GR" for George Rex (King George II ruled England from 1727 until 1760.) Encircling the shield is the motto of the Order of the Garter, a French phrase that reads "Honi soit qui mal y pene.” Although Jacob Hurd was a respected silversmith in his day, he misspelled the last word of the phrase, which was supposed to read "pense". The entire phrase means "evil to him who thinks evil". The reverse side of the oar features an anchor with a rope flowing around it to symbolize admiralty law. The oar is less elaboratively detailed than many silver oars of England, possibly due to the Puritan style of its American creator.

Boston's silver oar was carried by the last Marshal of the Vice Admiralty Court, Arodi Thayer. Thayer, a Loyalist, was responsible for arresting John Hancock when he smuggled a load of Madeira wine on his ship, The Liberty. Thayer was exiled in 1776 and brought the silver oar with him to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then to New York City, and then to London. Thayer and the oar ultimately returned to Dorchester, Massachusetts, where he passed away in 1831. Thayer's daughters gave the oar to the Dorchester Antiquarian and Historical Society, which eventually disbanded. The oar was next given to the Massachusetts Historical Society, which loaned it to the New England Historic and Genealogical Society in 1871. The oar is currently on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where it is on display.

The silver oar of the Vice Admiralty Court of New York was made by silversmith Charles Le Roux in 1737. The New York oar features engravings similar to those found on the Boston oar: one side shows an anchor and crown, while the other shows the royal crest. The handle is engraved, “Court of Vice Admiralty New York”. When the American Revolutionary War caused the court in New York to disband, Thomas Ludlow, Jr., the Marshal at that time, brought the silver oar home with him. It was retained by his heirs as their personal property until one of them pledged it as security for a bank loan in 1939. The oar was then purchased for $2,500.00 by a group of thirty New York admiralty law firms, for presentation to the District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1941.

The oar displayed in the Warren B. Rudman U.S. Courthouse was fabricated in 2010. Its design is based on the two remaining silver oars of colonial America, including engravings of a British royal crest (c. 1714-1801) and a rope and anchor. This exhibit honors the rich history and admiralty authority of the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire.