Joseph Story served as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1811 to 1845. One of the towering figures in U.S. legal history, Story shaped U.S. law both as a judge and as the author of a series of legal treatises. Some legal commentators believe Story's treatises were as influential in the development of nineteenth-century U.S. law as the works of the English jurists sir william blackstone and sir edward coke had been earlier.
Story was born on September 18, 1779, in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1798 and read the law with Samuel Sewall. He established a practice in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1801 and quickly developed an impressive professional career, becoming a director and eventually the president of the Merchant's Bank of Salem. He became a member of the democratic party and was elected to the state legislature in 1805. He served part of a term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1808 to 1809 and then returned to the state legislature in 1810. The following year he was elected speaker of the house.
In November 1811 President james madison appointed Story, at the age of only thirty-two, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Madison hoped that Story would help move the Court in a more democratic direction, correcting the aristocratic tendencies of the federal bench, which had been dominated by the Federalists. In particular, Madison sought to check the influence of Chief Justice john marshall, whose nationalist philosophy led him to construe federal powers broadly. thomas jefferson was opposed to the appointment, however, believing that Story did not subscribe to the Democratic party belief in according deference to state governments.
Jefferson proved to be correct as Story quickly revealed an inclination to accept most of Marshall's principles. In martin v. hunter's lessee, 14 U.S. 304, 4 L. Ed. 97 (1816), the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a decision by the Virginia Supreme Court declaring a section of the federal judiciary act of 1789 unconstitutional. In his majority opinion, Story reversed the state supreme court and affirmed the Supreme Court's power to review the highest state courts in all civil cases involving the federal Constitution, statutes, and treaties. This decision was a key component of federal judicial power and antithetical to Jefferson's conception of state-federal relations.
"[The law] is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship. Itis not to be won by trifling favors, but by lavish homage."
In trustees of dartmouth college v. woodward, 17 U.S. 518, 4 L. Ed. 629 (1819), Story joined in Chief Justice Marshall's holding that the grant of a corporate charter was a contract with the state. As the state had not reserved a power of amendment, the charter grantees were immune from destructive state interference. Story noted that this corporate immunity should be extended only to private, not public, corporations. In making this distinction, Story articulated for the first time that the public character of a corporation turned not on the services it performed but on the identity of the contributors of its capital. Thus, a corporation that was chartered to serve the public, such as a bank, would be considered a private corporation if it was owned by private individuals, and its charter could not be withdrawn or amended in the
absence of a legislative reservation at the time of the original grant. This definition of private corporations by reference to their capitalization was critical to corporate development in the nineteenth century.
Story's most controversial decision came in prigg v. pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539, 10 L. Ed. 1060 (1842), which involved the federal fugitive slave act of 1793. Many northern states demonstrated their hostility to slavery by enacting laws designed to frustrate southern slave owners who came north in search of runaway slaves. Slave owners were outraged at these laws and argued that the federal act gave them the right to reclaim their property without interference by state governments.
Story, writing for an 8–1 majority, declared unconstitutional all fugitive slave laws enacted by the states because the federal law provided the exclusive remedy for the return of runaway slaves. Story also ruled, however, that states were not compelled to enforce the federal fugitive slave provisions. It would be inconsistent and without legal basis, he reasoned, for the Court to declare the preeminence of federal law and then require state courts to help carry out that law.
Prigg was a crucial decision because it announced that slavery was a national issue that could not be disturbed by state action. It angered many opponents of slavery and hurt Story's reputation in the north. Some state judges took Story's opinion to heart and refused to participate in federal fugitive slave proceedings.
Story's other major contribution on the Court was the development of "federal common law," which was first articulated in the 1842 civil procedure case of swift v. tyson, 41 U.S. 1, 10 L. Ed. 865. The controversy arose on a technical question involving the negotiability of a commercial bill of exchange. New York and other states were divided over whether the bill was negotiable. Under the federal Judiciary Act of 1789, the federal courts were instructed to follow state laws when deciding cases between parties from two different states.
Story, who believed the negotiability of such bills was crucial to the development of a national commercial community, declared that the decisions of the New York courts—based not on legislative statutes but on interpretations of the common law—were not "laws" binding on federal judges. Common-law decisions were only "evidence" of the appropriate law. Story concluded that it was the duty of federal courts to examine evidence from all relevant state common-law jurisdictions before proclaiming the governing rule.
Story's opinion came to stand for the proposition that a general federal common law existed that federal courts were free to apply in virtually all common-law matters of private law. The idea of federal common law promoted national uniformity but also constituted a revolutionary expansion of federal jurisdiction. The Supreme Court overruled this proposition in erie railroad co. v. tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S. Ct. 817, 82 L. Ed. 1188 (1938), declaring that federal courts must apply the law of the state, whether it is statutory or case law.
Story's influence went beyond his court decisions. In 1829 he was appointed to be the first Dane Professor of Law at Harvard. He remained in this position the rest of his life while simultaneously serving on the Supreme Court and acting as president of the Salem bank.
The endowment that Nathan Dane had given to Harvard Law School also paid for the publication of Story's many legal commentaries and treatises, which summarized and codified various areas of the law. Story's works included Bailments (1832), Bills of Exchange (1843), Conflict of Laws (1834), Equity Jurisprudence (1836), Equity Pleading (1838), Federal Constitution (1833), and Promissory Notes (1845). They served as valuable reference works for lawyers, judges, and legislators and had a profound influence on the development of commercial law in particular. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French author of Democracy in America (1835–1840), a classic analysis of U.S. society and government, used Story's constitutional commentaries in writing his work.
Story died on September 10, 1845, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Finkelman, Paul. 2002. "Joseph Story and the Problem of Slavery: A New Englander's Nationalist Dilemma." Massachusetts Legal History 8.
Story, William W., ed. 2000. Life and Letters of Joseph Story, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.
Story, Joseph (1779-1845)
Joseph Story (1779-1845)
Massachusetts Elite. Joseph Story personified the dominant forces in early-nineteenth-century Boston much as Edward Livingston typified the aristocracy of old New York. Born in 1779 in Marblehead, then an active port city, he was the oldest of eleven children, although his father also had seven children by a previous marriage. His father, a physician, had been a member of the Sons of Liberty and joined in the Boston Tea Party, while his mother was the daughter of a wealthy Loyalist merchant. He graduated from Harvard College in 1798, ranked second behind the future Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, and returned to Marblehead to study law in the office of Samuel Sewall, then serving in Congress but soon to become chief justice of Massachusetts. Sewall’s other commitments left Story to depend on his own industry and self-discipline, which proved to be prodigious. No figure in the history of American law has ever matched the level of intellectual energy sustained by Story, who for months at a time routinely studied the most technical legal literature for fourteen hours each day. Moving to Salem when Sewall took the bench, Story opened a law office in 1801.
Youngest Justice. Although Essex County, Massachusetts, was the citadel of the extreme wing of the Federalist Party, Story entered public life as a Jeffersonian Republican. He represented Salem in the state legislature from 1805 to 1808, when he was elected to Congress to fill the vacancy created by the death of Jacob Crowninshield, a member of the prominent shipping family that Story often represented in court. He declined to stand for election for the full term, preferring to pursue his private practice and finding it difficult to reconcile his Republican affiliation with the devastating effects of the Jeffersonian embargo on the Massachusetts economy. Jefferso would blame the repeal of the embargo on “one pseudo-Republican Story.” Returned to the Massachusetts legislature, Story become Speaker of the House in January 1811. Ten months later President James Madison made the thirty-two-year-old Story the youngest person ever appointed to the United States Supreme Court. In an era when Supreme Court seats were rigidly assigned to particular geographic areas, the appointment partly reflected the scarcity of Republicans in New England. John Quincy Adams and Jefferson’s attorney general, Levi Lincoln, had already turned down Madison’s offer of the appointment, and the Senate had refused to confirm Alexander Wolcott of Connecticut.
Court Leadership. His youth notwithstanding, Story quickly became a powerful influence on the Court through the force of his vast learning, his boundless energy, and his sympathy with the nationalist principles of Chief Justice John Marshall. Another element in his success was his mastery of admiralty (law of the sea), Story’s specialty in his thriving private practice. Each justice was required to travel through an assigned circuit to hear cases when the Supreme Court was not in session, and in the aftermath of the Embargo and the War of 1812, the New England circuit was dominated by cases in admiralty. Story’s decisions as circuit judge in such cases as DeLovio v. Boit (1815), which addressed the scope of admiralty jurisdiction, and La Jeune Eugénie (1822), which analyzed the international slave trade, were scarcely less influential than his 286 Supreme Court opinions, which included such classics as his opinions for the Court in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816) and Swift v. Tyson (1842), his concurring opinion in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), and his dissenting opinion in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837).
Teacher and Scholar. Although Harvard Law School had been established in 1817, the institution only began to develop when Story became Dane Professor of Law in 1829. Story taught through an engaging combination of informal discussions and analysis of hypothetical cases, and enrollment grew from the eighteen students in Story’s first class to 150 students at the time of his death. While teaching, Story also enriched legal scholarship by publishing a series of Commentaries on various branches of law. Writing with phenomenal swiftness on difficult, technical subjects, Story produced his Commentaries on the Law of Bailments in 1832; three volumes of Commentaries on the Constitution in 1833; Commentaries on the Conflict of Laws in 1834; two volumes of Commentaries on Equity Jurisprudence in 1836; Commentaries on Equity Pleading in 1838; Commentaries on Agency in 1839; Commentaries on Partnership in 1841; Commentaries on Bills of Exchange in 1843; and Commentaries on Promissory Notes in 1845. Although sometimes indulging in unnecessary pyrotechnics of erudition, these volumes reshaped and in several cases invented entire fields of American law.
Civic Force. Story did not content himself with merely sitting on the Supreme Court, riding circuit in New England, teaching at Harvard Law School, and preparing his Commentaries. He also supported his friend Daniel Webster and the Whig Party from behind the scenes, for example, by drafting the Bankruptcy Act of 1841; he served on the governing board of Harvard College; he wrote countless occasional pieces and speeches; and he was one of the most celebrated conversationalists in Boston. He died in September 1845 and was buried in Mount Auburn cemetery, for which he had served as the first president and a longtime member of the governing board.
Gerald T. Dunne, Justice Joseph Story and the Rise of the Supreme Court (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971);
R. Kent Newmyer, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
Joseph Story (1779-1845), American jurist and statesman, was an associate justice of the Supreme Court and a prolific and influential legal publicist.
Joseph Story was born in Marblehead, Mass., on Sept. 18, 1779. He graduated with honors from Harvard in 1798. After studying in the offices of Samuel Putnam and Samuel Sewall, he was admitted to the bar in 1801. He practiced in the local, state, and lower Federal courts, specializing in commercial and maritime law, and rose rapidly to the top of the profession. At the same time he began his career in legal scholarship, editing works on pleading (1805), shipping (1810), and assumpsit (1811).
Story entered politics as a Jeffersonian Republican. From 1805 to 1811 he was a leading member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and during 1811 was Speaker. He championed judicial reform, including a successful attempt to raise judicial salaries and an unsuccessful effort to establish a chancery court. In the winter of 1808/ 1809 he served in the U.S. House of Representatives. President James Madison appointed him to the Supreme Court in November 1811.
Story quickly won respect among his fellow justices. During the War of 1812 he steadfastly backed national authority. His exposition of admiralty law during this period and thereafter helped lay the foundations for that branch of American jurisprudence. His opinion in Martin v. Hunter'sLessee (1816) was a major decisional link in the chain of nationalism forged by the Court under Chief Justice John Marshall. Like Marshall, Story was dedicated to the sanctity of property rights, and his opinions consistently favored national expansion of business and commerce. His opinion in Terrett v. Taylor (1815) and concurrence in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) were instrumental in shielding corporations from state interference. In commercial law he was during his tenure the most influential justice on the Court.
After 1837 Story was progressively alienated by the states'-rights tendency of the Court under Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and he continued to defend the "old law" in biting dissents. While performing his judicial duties, he also taught at the Harvard Law School, which, through his efforts, pioneered in formal legal education. From his teaching came a series of commentaries on the main branches of American law.
Story was a leader in the Massachusetts constitutional convention of 1820 and drafted legislation on bankruptcy, crimes, and admiralty jurisdiction. He died on Sept. 10, 1845.
Story's son's work, William W. Story, ed., Life and Letters of Joseph Story (2 vols., 1851), remains a valuable account of Story's life and career. Henry Steele Commager's "Joseph Story" in The Gaspar G. Bacon Lectures on the Constitution of the United States, 1940-1950 (1953) is a very readable summary. Gerald T. Dunne, Justice Joseph Story and the Rise of the Supreme Court (1971), and James McClellan, Joseph Story and the American Constitution (1971), are the fullest and most analytical studies of Story to date. General histories of the Supreme Court and biographies of other justices can be consulted for information on Story. Among the most useful are Albert J. Beveridge, The Life of John Marshall (4 vols., 1916-1919); Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History (3 vols., 1922; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1926); Carl B. Swisher, Roger B. Taney (1935); and The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government and Politics, vol. 1: 1789-1835 (1944), by Charles G. Haines, and vol. 2: 1835-1864 (1957), on the Taney period, by Haines and Foster H. Sherwood.
Newmyer, R. Kent, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: statesman of the Old Republic, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985. □