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Civil War debt is invalid, Tampa officials claim

TAMPA — The debt may be owed in Confederate money, so Tampa isn't obligated to pay $299.58 plus more than $22.6-million in interest for military supplies used to defend the city during the Civil War.

That's one of 21 arguments made by an assistant city attorney Tuesday in court papers rebutting a claim for payment on a 147-year-old promissory note.

Joan Kennedy Biddle and her family sued the city last month to collect the loan plus the 8 percent annual interest pledged in a note to a store once operated by her great-grandfather.

Among other things, the city's motion to dismiss says the claim is barred by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits payment of debts to assist in "rebellion against the United States."

The city argues that the debt is for military supplies the store provided to defend Tampa during the Civil War, two months after President Abraham Lincoln declared Florida and other states that seceded from the Union "in rebellion."

Biddle's great-grandfather, Thomas Pugh Kennedy, operated a store with John Darling when Tampa had only 800 residents.

Biddle, 77, told the Times last month that the note issued June 28, 1861, to Kennedy and Darling for cannon and carriage repairs and ammunition is a family heirloom. Her attorney, James Purdy, filed the suit in Hillsborough Circuit Court last month.

On Tuesday, Biddle referred questions to Purdy, who did not return calls for comment.

Jerry Gewirtz, chief assistant city attorney, said he and his paralegal, Kimber Spitsberg, relied in part on city archives and the Tampa Bay History Center to make 21 arguments for dismissing the case. "The combination of the law and history made it particularly fascinating," he said.

Among his points:

• The city that issued the note no longer exists. In 1869, Tampa residents voted to dismantle their local government, then reincorporated in 1873. Fourteen years later, under a special act of the Florida Legislature, the towns of Tampa and North Tampa were abolished and the city of Tampa was created.

• It's not clear whether the loan was to be paid in U.S. or Confederate currency, which became worthless after the war.

• In 1865, a Florida law voided any liabilities incurred after Jan. 10, 1861, the day Florida seceded from the Union, and before Oct. 25, 1865, six months after the end of the Civil War.

And then there are process and conflict-of-interest issues.

Gewirtz points out that John Darling, who served as deputy city clerk in 1861, signed the note for payment to his own business, a move Gewirtz calls an "apparent unfair dealing."

He also questions whether an ordinance allowing the payment was advertised for 10 days in a local newspaper or at the courthouse, and approved by the City Council, as required by the city's 1855 articles of incorporation.

Plus, Gewirtz argues that Biddle's great-grandfather died before the note was signed. Kennedy died in 1858, according to Tampa In Civil War and Reconstruction, by Canter Brown Jr.

A hearing on the matter will be scheduled in the coming months.

"It's an interesting issue," Gewirtz said. "I would like to think since we have set forth 21 arguments that it will be persuasive to the court."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Civil War debt is invalid, Tampa officials claim 04/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2008 5:41pm]
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