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Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 199 (1796),[Note 1] also known as the British Debt Case, is a United States Supreme Court case where the court ruled that treaties take precedence over state law.

Ware v. Hylton
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued February 6 - 12, 1796
Decided March 7, 1796
Full case nameWare, administrator of Jones, Plaintiff in Error v. Hylton et al.
Citations3 U.S. 199 (more)
3 Dall. 199; 1 L. Ed. 568
Case history
PriorAppeal from the Virginia Circuit Court
Treaties made under the Constitution supersede state law.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Associate Justices
James Wilson · William Cushing
James Iredell · William Paterson
Samuel Chase
Case opinions
Ellsworth took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. art. VI, Treaty of Paris

Ware was the first major case concerned with treaties, the first to rule that treaty provisions had the same binding force as domestic U.S. law, and the first to affirm the supremacy of federal law over state law. It is also notable for articulating the legal doctrine that would later be known as judicial review, whereby federal courts have the authority to settle conflicts of law.[1][2]



The Treaty of Paris brought an end to the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States in 1783. Article 4 of the Treaty provided that creditors of both countries should "meet no lawful impediment" when recovering "bona fide" debts from one another.[3]

A resident of the State of Virginia owed a debt to a British subject. The state had enacted a law during the Revolutionary War that allowed debtors to British creditors to discharge their debts, on the grounds that the debt was owed to an alien enemy. The administrator of the British creditor sued in federal court to recover what was owed, citing Article 4 of the Treaty.


The Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law, applying for the first time the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes that federal laws and treaties are the supreme law of the land. The Treaty of Paris, which was ratified pursuant to the Constitution, thus superseded the conflicting state law.

Four justices released their opinions seriatim (one after another) with no majority opinion, a practice which would continue until the Marshall Court. Justice James Iredell delivered the controlling opinion of the Court, which is often the most cited:

The treaty of peace concluded between the United States and Great Britain, in 1783, enabled British creditors to recover debts previously owing to them by American citizens, notwithstanding a payment into a state treasury, under a state law of sequestration. An individual citizen of one state cannot set up the violation of a public treaty, by the other contracting party, to avoid an obligation arising under such treaty; the power to declare a treaty void, for such cause, rests solely with the government, which may, or may not, exercise its option in the premises.[4]

The case was one of the earliest of the Supreme Court to discuss America's obligations towards international law, then called the law of nations. Justice James Wilson asserted that the U.S., upon independence, was "bound to receive the law of nations, in its modern state of purity and refinement" and that Virginia's law did not conform to international custom. Wilson further held that citizens had a duty to fulfill treaty obligations, so that even if the confiscation of debts was customary, it had been precluded by the Treaty of Paris.[5] Justice Samuel Chase concurred, holding that all state laws in conflict with federal treaties were "prostrate" before them. Chase also made the earliest articulation of international law in U.S. federal court, drawing from the writings of Swiss jurist and international lawyer Emer de Vattel :

The first [general law] is universal, or established by the general consent of mankind, and binds all nations. The second [conventional law] is founded on express consent, and is not universal, and only binds those nations that have assented to it. The third [customary law] is founded on TACIT consent; and is only obligatory on those nations, who have adopted it.[6]

Ware is also notable for having been argued on both sides by several prominent legal minds of the time, including Patrick Henry, John Wickham, and John Marshall, who would later become Chief Justice of the Court.[7] Although he represented the losing side, Marshall's argument won him great admiration at the time of its delivery, increasing his reputation as a lawyer and legal scholar.[8]


The oral argument in the case was reenacted at Mount Vernon in 2011, with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito presiding. Historic Mount Vernon and the U.S. Supreme Court Historical Society cosponsored the event.[9]

See alsoEdit


External linksEdit

  1. ^ Full name: Ware, administrator of Jones, Plaintiff in Error v. Hylton et al.
  1. ^ "Ware v Hylton: Supreme Court Power to Invalidate State Laws re: Selective Service Act of 1917". Constitutional Law Reporter. 2016-05-10. Retrieved 2019-04-30.
  2. ^ Robert P. Frankel, Jr (2003-03-01). "Before Marbury: Hylton v. United States and the Origins of Judicial Review". Journal of Supreme Court History. 28 (1): 1–13. doi:10.1111/1540-5818.00052. ISSN 1540-5818.
  3. ^ Maeva Marcus, Editor; et al. Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800 (1985-2007).
  4. ^ Reports of Cases Ruled and Adjudged in the Several Courts of the United States and of Pennsylvania Held at the Seat of the Federal Government, Volume III, edited by Dallas, Alexander J, Banks Law Publishing, New York, 1905 p. 198.
  5. ^ Dumbauld, Edward (1955). "John Marshall and the Law of Nations". University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 104: 38–56 – via HeinOnline.
  6. ^ Dodge, William S. (2010). "Withdrawing from Customary International Law: Some Lessons from History". Rochester, NY.
  7. ^ Quoted Flanders, Henry The Life of John Marshall, pp 30-31, Philadelphia, T. & J. W. Johnson & Co., 1905.
  8. ^ Quoted Flanders, Henry The Life of John Marshall, p 38, Philadelphia, T. & J. W. Johnson & Co., 1905.
  9. ^ Bookout, Ann, "Annual Report of the Regent," Mount Vernon Ladies' Association Annual Report, Two Thousand Ten (Mount Vernon, Va. 2011), pp. 15-16.