Active Case

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Active Case

ACTIVE CASE. Four captured Americans were among the crew of the sloop Active sailing from Jamaica to New York in August 1778. Unwilling to remain prisoners in New York, the four, led by Gideon Olmstead of Connecticut, took over the sloop on the night of 6 September off the New Jersey coast. A Pennsylvania state navy brig and a privateer escorted the Active to Egg Harbor and claimed a share of her cargo as capture. At a trial before the Pennsylvania court of admiralty (George Ross presiding), the four sailors were awarded only one-fourth of the prize. Seeing an opportunity to make money, Benedict Arnold, Continental Army commander in Philadelphia, made a secret agreement with the four sailors that, in return for one-half interest in the cargo, he would advance funds for the appeal and would use his influence with Congress on their behalf. On 15 December 1778 the Committee of Appeals in the Continental Congress annulled the verdict of the admiralty court and ruled that the Active was the prize of Olmstead and his associates. It ordered the marshal of Philadelphia to sell the prize, pay $280 in costs and charges, and turn the rest of the money over to Olmstead and the other three. But Judge Ross refused to yield, claiming that a court of appeals could not reverse a judge's ruling in a question of facts decided by a jury, and took possession of the £47,981 for which the cargo (not including the sloop) had been sold. Congress never challenged the order of the Pennsylvania admiralty court. Olmstead and his associates received their quarter share on 21 October 1779. The case dragged on for thirty years until in 1809 the United States Supreme Court ordered the state of Pennsylvania to pay the four sailors all that the Continental Congress had awarded them.

SEE ALSO Arnold, Benedict; Ross, George.


Van Doren, Carl. Secret History of the Revolution: An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others Drawn from the Secret Service Papers of the British Headquarters in North America. New York: Viking Press, 1941.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky