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In 1893, after Furuseth’s decision to fight first on the legislative front, the Union mobilized one of the earliest grass-roots efforts on the U.S. West Coast. SUP members walked door-to-door in the then complete waterfront precinct of San Francisco to support the election of James C. Maguire, a federal judge who had pledged to support the issues SUP. He won the election and two years later legislation that he sponsored was signed into law. Known as the Maguire Act, the law allowed sailors the right to quit a ship while in domestic ports. It was the first time maritime law had been changed to favor the sailors on deck since the medieval Laws of Oleron, the Consolat de Mar, and the Visby rules. The victory was short-lived. Shipowners backed the prosecution of the case of the Arago to undermine the Maguire Act. In 1895 the four men pictured above signed foreign articles in San Francisco for a trip to Valparaiso Chile stopping first in Portland, Oregon. In Knapton, Washington, they attempted to quit the ship. Hunted down, they were dragged aboard in irons. They refused to turn to and were transferred to police custody in Oakland for “refusing duty.” While the lawyers argued the case all the way to the Supreme Court, the sailors remained in Alameda County Jail. In January 1897 the Supreme Court shockingly upheld imprisonment for desertion on the grounds that “surrender of personal liberty” implied in the seamen’s contract was not preempted by the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlaws involuntary servitude. Moreover, the Court sought comfort in the same special circumstances they used in Dred Scott to uphold slavery for blacks—that sailors are sub-human and since the provisions of the Constitution apply only to men, then seamen are not covered by the basic rights and freedoms accorded to others. The Court stated that “seamen are treated by Congress… as deficient in that full and intelligent responsibility for their acts which are accredited to ordinary adults.” The decision became known as Dred Scott II, and it gave rise to efforts to strengthen the Maguire Act through the White Act in 1898, and finally through the Seamen’s Act of 1915 before sailors would be completely free to quit a ship.


photo from SUP archives