Students of the history of administrative law in the United States regard the antebellum era as one in which strict common law rules of official liability prevailed. Yet conventional accounts of the antebellum period often omit a key institutional feature. Under the system of private legislation in place at the time, federal government officers were free to petition Congress for the passage of a private bill appropriating money to reimburse the officer for personal liability imposed on the basis of actions taken in the line of duty. Captain Little, the officer involved in one oftcited case, Little v. Barreme, pursued this avenue of indemnification successfully. As a result, the ultimate loss associated with that officer’s good faith effort to enforce federal law fell on the government rather than on the officer himself.
This paper fills out the picture of government accountability in the early nineteenth century by clarifying the practice of congressional indemnification. After identifying cases in which officers sought indemnity from Congress through a petition for private relief, we examine the way official liability, as administered by the courts,
interacted with private legislation, as administered by Congress, to shape the incentives of government officers to comply with the law. We find that a practice of relatively routine indemnification took the sting out of sovereign immunity, a doctrine that key players—including James Madison and John Marshall—treated as thinly formalistic. We also find that Congress assumed responsibility for deciding when federal officers were entitled to indemnity for acts taken in the scope of employment.
The antebellum system thus contrasts sharply with modern government accountability law. Jurists today tend to regard sovereign immunity as a barrier to relief, rather than a principle of forum allocation that preserves legislative primacy in the adoption of money bills. Moreover, courts today often refrain from deciding the question of formal legality in an effort to strike a proper balance between the victim’s interest in accountability and the official’s interest in immunity. Whatever the wisdom of the resulting body of qualified immunity law, the doctrine reflects judicial control of matters that the early republic had assigned to the legislative branch.