The Full Story of United States v. Smith, America's Most Important Piracy Case

Joel H. Samuels, University of South Carolina - Columbia

Copyright © Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs, 2012.


This article explores the seminal United States Supreme Court decision of United States v. Smith(1820). Smith, an early piracy case, has influenced developments in both domestic and international law on piracy, universal jurisdiction, and a range of broader themes. This article is the first to explore the context within which the case arose, as well as the circumstances of the case itself. In addition to the details of the case, the story of the men prosecuted for their cruise aboard the vessel known as the Irresistible in the late spring and early summer of 1819 also offers a window into important issues of the day, including growing federal assertions of power over the states, the roles of Congress and the courts in defining and punishing piracy under the Constitution, theories of punishment, and the power of the press.