Joseph P. Bradley

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Joseph P. Bradley

American attorney Joseph P. Bradley (1813-1892) rose from his rural roots to become one of the most respected Supreme Court justices of the post-Civil War era. Appointed by President Grant following the end of the civil war, Bradley favored a conservative interpretation of the Constitution, particularly with respect to the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments passed by Congress to end slavery and extend citizenship to African Americans.

As an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court during the late nineteenth century, Joseph P. Bradley was a loyal member of the Republican party who supported the federal government's role in interstate commerce but opposed federal intervention in civil matters. His decision-making role on the Supreme Court was somewhat eclipsed in the historical record by his position—as a member of a special electoral commission—as the man casting the deciding vote that certified the disputed election of Rutherford B. Hayes as president of the United States in 1877. Separate from this political controversy, however, Bradley remains one of the most noted jurists of his era, standing second only to his respected colleague Justice John Marshall Harland. Harlan wrote the famous dissenting opinion condemning the "separate but equal" clause in Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896.

Intellectual Promise at an Early Age

Born in Berne, New York, on March 14, 1813, Bradley was the oldest of eleven children born to Philo and Mercy (Gardner) Bradley. He was given no middle name at birth, but his middle initial "P" was likely Bradley's expansion of his own name in honor of his father. Growing up on the family's small farm in upstate New York, Bradley spent his summer months engaged in hard labor, although he soon displayed the intelligence and strength of character that his parents knew would benefit from education. Bradley attended school in the winter months as was the standard for farm children. He became a school teacher at the age of 16. The family's Lutheran minister instructed the young Bradley in Latin and Greek, which enabled the 20 year old Bradley to gain admission at Rutgers College in New Jersey in 1833.

Bradley arrived on campus wearing wool garments spun from his family's sheep and woven by his mother. He also wore homemade leather shoes. Despite his unusual appearance, he quickly showed himself to be an outstanding scholar and he graduated with honors three years later at the top of his class. After Rutgers, Bradley undertook the study of law by working alongside attorney Archer Gifford, collector of the port of Newark. He was admitted to the New Jersey Bar in late 1839. Five years later Bradley married Mary Hornblower, the daughter of the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. The couple had seven children.

Beginning in 1840 when he entered into private practice in Newark, Bradley worked to establish himself within the legal field and gained a reputation for his handling of patent and commercial law due to his knack for math. Among his major clients was the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company—later to be the Prudential Insurance Company—for whom he worked as an actuary. He also counselled several railroads as well. It was on behalf of one of his railroad clients that Bradley made his first appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court in December of 1860 in the case of Milnor vs. the New Jersey Railroad and Transportation Co.

Appointed to High Court

Bradley was a membber of the Whig party, which had formed during the 1830s in opposition to Andrew Jackson's policies and which favored protective tariffs and a strong federal government. When the issue of slavery fragmented the party during the 1850s, like many northern Whigs, Bradley joined the Republican Party. As a Republican, he supported Abraham Lincoln's run for the presidency in 1860 and opposed the expansion of slavery to the western states. In the winter of 1860-61, after the eleven states representing the Confederacy seceded from the Union, Bradley traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge a compromise between the factions. However, in April of 1861, the attack on the Union-held Fort Sumter by South Carolina troops erased all hopes of avoiding a war, and Bradley became a staunch Unionist. Supporting both President Lincoln and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, Bradley became caught up in politics to the point that he attempted a political career of his own. His 1862 bid for a seat in Congress was unsuccessful.

Bradley's backing of war hero Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 presidential election gained him a nomination—as one of two Republicans—to the U.S. Supreme Court in February of 1870. He was confirmed by the Senate on March 21 of that year. Bradley's appointment brought the court's membership to nine justices out of a possible ten members, following the recent death of justices John Catron and James Moore Wayne and the retirement of Justice Robert Cooper Greer. Bradley's position as a stalwart Republican was viewed cynically by some as a move by Grant to "pack" the court and allow passage of several controversial cases.

During his tenure on the high court, Bradley continued to focus on business and commercial matters. His opinions on cases involving interstate commerce reflect his belief that the U.S. government has the power to regulate commerce among and between individual states. Significant among such cases were what became known as the "Slaughterhouse Cases," which reached the bench in 1873. The cases involved a group of New Orleans butchers who claimed that the Fourteenth Amendment, by protecting the right to work, did not just refer to African Americans but to all Americans through its first clause: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States … ; nor shall any state deprive a person of the right to life, liberty, or property without due process of law." The butchers felt that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited the state of Louisiana from restricting butchers' rights to slaughter their own animals or mandating butchers to utilize specific privately owned slaughterhouses within the city on the basis of health concerns. Siding with the plaintiffs in one of three separate dissenting opinions in a divided Court, Bradley said the restrictions imposed by the state of Louisiana were "unreasonable, arbitrary, and unjust." Together with Justice Noah Swayne, Bradley interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as applying not only to former slaves but to "all citizens," and argued that the Louisiana regulation deprived the plaintiffs of property without due process of law. In later years, Bradley's dissenting opinion became significant for its promotion of the concept of "due process of law" as a part of constitutional interpretation.

Conservative in Interpretation of Constitution

Determining limits on the power of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce as well as on the states to levy taxes also figured prominently in Bradley's Supreme Court rulings. Also incorporated within his opinions was the Court's interpretation of the fourth and fifth amendment protections against self-incrimination by the forced production of documentary evidence (Boyd vs. United States).

From a twenty-first century perspective, Bradley's opinions in the area of civil rights law seem almost radical in their conservatism. In 1872, Bradley sided with the majority in Bradwell vs. Illinois. Bradwell vs. Illinois was the case of Myra Bradwell, who argued that she had been denied admittance to the Illinois State Bar on the basis of her gender. Bradwell argued that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, the defendant state had no right to prevent her from pursuing a career in law. Bradley countered that civil laws should be subordinate to those traditions, or "laws of nature," giving women the responsibility of caring for family, citing that these traditions promote the overall good of society.

In the so-called civil rights cases that came before the Court over a decade later, Bradley adopted a conservative interpretation of the thirteenth and fourteenth Amendments protecting the rights of free citizens. Bradley declared the first two sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, explaining that they were designed to prevent discrimination against African Americans in private establishments such as restaurants and inns, as well as in public transportation, etc. He argued that the protections afforded by these amendments apply to actions of state governments, not to those of private enterprises. In his majority opinion he wrote that to "deprive white people the right to choose their own company would be to introduce another kind of slavery." Until the mid-twentieth century and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal government remained silent on matters of civil rights enforcement, leaving such matters up to the individual states.

Electoral Dilemma Proved Unpopular

The year 1877 proved significant to Bradley, who had become a respected Supreme Court justice. The popular vote in the 1876 presidential election had found Democrat Samuel J. Tilden ahead by over 250,000 ballots over his Republican challenger, Rutherford B. Hayes. The electoral vote also favored Tilden. However, a dispute soon arose regarding the electoral votes in four states, which included Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon. Congress decided to call a fifteen-member bipartisan commission to sort the mess out. All members of the commission voted along party lines, with the result that the last man appointed—in this case Bradley—found his vote to be the decisive one. Although many considered Bradley's action to be counter to the intent of the commission, few could argue that he acted outside his honestly held Republican beliefs and talk of scandal soon ceased. Hayes, the former governor of Ohio, took the oath of office shortly after the commission vote and led the nation into a period of economic prosperity, in which the interests of the southern states were integrated with those of the north.

During the twenty-two years he served on the Supreme Court, Bradley's judicial record was widely respected due to his grasp of the law, his business acumen, and his analytical skills. Bradley also had many other intellectual interests including genealogy, philosophy, and the natural sciences. In addition to completing a history of his family that was published posthumously, Bradley devised a perpetual calendar for determining the day of the week in any year.

Bradley died on January 22, 1892, at the age of 78 in Washington, D.C. His extensive library, which contained over six thousand books of general interest as well as ten thousand legal tomes, was divided between his heirs and the Prudential Life Insurance Company of Newark, New Jersey. After his death, Republican President Benjamin Harrison nominated George Shiras Jr. to the Court. Shiras was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in July of 1892, ensuring that the Court retained a conservative bent after the arrival of the Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland later that same year. Bradley's son, Charles Bradley, organized his father's court opinions, lectures, and other writings after the justice's death and published selected works in 1901.


Bradley, Charles, compiler, Miscellaneous Writings of the Late Hon. Jos. P. Bradley … and a Review of His "Judicial Record," [Newark, NJ], 1901.

Lanman, Charles, Biographical Annals of the Civil Government of the United States, D. Appleton & Co., 1888-1889.

Stern, Horace, "Biography of Joseph P. Bradley," Great American Lawyers, Volume 7, John C. Winston Co., 1909.

Urofsky, Melvin I., editor, The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary, Garland Reference Library, 1994.


"Hall of Distinguished Alumni," Rutgers University Alumni Web site, (1991).

Joseph P. Bradley," Biography Resource Center Online,http://galenet.galegroup/servlet/BioRC. (February 4, 2002).

"Joseph P. Bradley," Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936, (February 4, 2002).

"Memorials and Inscriptions: Joseph P. Bradley," University of Pennsylvania Law Library Web site, (February 2, 2002). □

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Joseph P. Bradley was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1870 in a successful move by President ulysses s. grant to pack the court, or fill vacancies on the bench with jurists who supported the president's actions. Grant nominated Bradley and fellow Republican william strong with the almost public understanding that they would save the invalidated Legal Tender Act (12 Stat. 345, 532, 709). As expected, Bradley and Strong voted to uphold the constitutionality of the act. Bradley went on to serve as an associate justice for 22 years and, as was the custom, as a traveling circuit judge for the Fifth (Southern) Circuit.

The eldest of 11 children, joseph bradley was born March 14, 1813, in Berne, New York, and raised on a farm. He was given no middle name at birth; his middle initial was likely an expansion he made of his name to honor his father. He relied on his intelligence, ambition, and strong work ethic to make a name for himself in the legal profession. An 1836 graduate of New Jersey's Rutgers College, Bradley was a self-taught lawyer who was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1839. In 1859, he received an honorary law degree from Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Bradley's marriage to Mary Hornblower helped to open doors in the legal community. His wife's father, william hornblower, was chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Bradley built a successful law practice with a large business clientele that included the troubled Camden and Amboy Railroad. His expertise was in patent and commercial law.

Bradley's appointment to the Supreme Court on February 7, 1870 came shortly after the Court ruled that the Legal Tender Act was unconstitutional. In 1862, Congress had used the act to issue treasury notes as a substitute for gold in its efforts to pay off Civil War debts. Upon reviewing the legislation, the Supreme Court invalidated the issuance of the paper money, in Hepburn v. Griswold, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 603, 19 L. Ed. 513 (1870) (the first of what became known as the Legal Tender Cases).

Court observers predicted that Grant's new appointees would agree to reverse Hepburn because of their long-standing ties to commercial interests. They were right: Bradley and Strong did vote to overturn, thereby upholding the legality of the notes (Knox v. Lee, and Parker v. Davis, 79 U.S. [12 Wall.] 457, 20 L. Ed. 287 [1871], heard concurrently).

Bradley's Supreme Court and circuit court opinions often fail the test of time. Although his contemporaries praised him for his keen intellect and legal acumen, many of his decisions are, by today's standards, objectionable in outcome and reasoning.

For example, Bradley wrote the majority opinion in the infamous civil rights cases, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S. Ct. 18, 27 L. Ed. 835 (1883), which declared the civil rights act of 1875 (18 Stat. 336) unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act was established to ensure the equal treatment of African-Americans in public facilities and accommodations. In effect, that decision sanctioned racial segregation and paved the way for discriminatory jim crow laws.

According to the Court, civil rights legislation could not prevent discrimination by private individuals. Although the thirteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution outlawed slavery, and the fourteenth amendment barred racial discrimination by states, discrimination by private citizens was allowable, according to the Court. Bradley argued that prejudice was

not amenable to legislation. If private business owners refused to serve or accommodate African-Americans, Congress could not force them to do so. In this view, purely private conduct was not covered by the post-Civil War constitutional amendments.

"The study of law [is] a subject of living interest and importance, independent of its attractions as a professional calling."
Joseph P. Bradley

In a famous dissent, Associate Justice john marshall harlan pointed out that because the restaurants, inns, theaters, and hotels owned by private citizens are actually quite public, discrimination against African-Americans in these places should not be tolerated. Harlan's dissent was later used to bolster support for the civil rights act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 2000 et seq.).

In Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 130, 21 L. Ed. 442 (1872), Bradley concurred in the decision to reject Myra Bradwell's bid to practice law in Illinois. Bradwell had studied law with her husband and had passed the Illinois bar examination. However, Illinois denied her admission to the bar because she was female. Bradwell appealed her case to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protected her right to practice in her chosen profession. The Supreme Court ruled otherwise. Bradley wrote in concurring dicta that God had created woman to be wife and mother, not lawyer.

In the slaughter-house cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36, 21 L. Ed. 394 (1873), Bradley's dissent foretold the Court's changing philosophy on due process for businesses. In those cases, Louisiana butchers objected to a state law that allowed only one company to slaughter cattle in New Orleans. The Court sided with the state, but Bradley's dissent was later used to argue for the protection of commercial enterprises from state government intrusion.

Bradley was chosen in 1877 to sit on the Hayes-Tilden Electoral Commission to determine the results of the presidential election between Republican candidate rutherford b. hayes and his Democratic opponent, samuel j. tilden. Bradley was the swing vote; he replaced Justice david davis, a political independent who could not fulfill his term on the electoral commission. Bradley had voted for Hayes, his fellow Republican.

Bradley died in Washington, D.C., on January 22, 1892, at the age of 79.

further readings

Collins, Michael C. 1996. "Justice Bradley's Civil Rights Odyssey Revisited." Tulane Law Review 70 (June): 1979–2002.

Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Cushman, Claire. 1993. The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1993. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Lurie, Jonathan. 1986. "Mr. Justice Bradley: A Reassessment." Seton Hall Law Review 16 (spring): 343–75.