The admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of federal courts has its origins in the jurisdiction of the courts of the Admiral of the English Navy. Prior to independence from England, vice-admiralty courts were created in the Colonies by commissions from the English High Court of Admiralty. After independence, the states established admiralty courts, from which at a later date appeals could be taken to a court of appeals set up by Congress under the Articles of Confederation. The primary objective of the development of a uniform body of maritime law by establishing a system of federal courts and granting to tribunals jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime cases was to promote commerce through removal of obstacles occasioned by the diverse local rules of the states.
The Constitution uses the terms “admiralty and maritime jurisdiction” without defining them. In England, the word “maritime” referred to the cases arising upon the high seas, whereas “admiralty” meant primarily cases of a local nature involving police regulations of shipping, harbors, fishing. At the time of the framing of the Constitution, persons in the United States had a broader conception of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. At the very beginning of government under the Constitution, Congress conferred on the federal district courts exclusive original cognizance “of all civil causes of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, including all seizures under laws of impost, navigation or trade of the United States, where the seizures are made, on waters which are navigable from the sea by vessels of ten or more tons burthen, within their respective districts as well as upon the high seas; saving to suitors, in all cases, the right of a common law remedy, where the common law is competent to give it. This broad legislative interpretation of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction soon was accepted by the federal circuit courts. Federal courts ruled that the extent of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction was to be determined by the principles of maritime law as respected by maritime courts of all nations and adopted by most, if not by all, of them on the continent of Europe.
Although the Supreme Court had decided a number of cases on the basis of the broader admiralty jurisdiction on specific issues, it was in 1848 that the Court ruled squarely in its favor, which it did by declaring that “whatever may have been the doubt, originally, as to the true construction of the grant, whether it had reference to the jurisdiction in England, or to the more enlarged one that existed in other maritime countries, the question has become settled by legislative and judicial interpretation, which ought not now to be disturbed.” The Court thereupon proceeded to hold that admiralty had jurisdiction in personam as well as in rem over controversies arising out of contracts of affreightment between New York and Providence.