Duvall, Gabriel (1752–1844)

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DUVALL, GABRIEL (1752–1844)

Although he served as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court for nearly a quarter of a century, Gabriel Duvall had a relatively small impact on the development of American constitutional law. Born into a prominent Maryland Huguenot family, he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1788. He supported the movement for independence during the 1770s, and held a number of minor posts under the revolutionary government. Following the adoption of the Maryland Constitution of 1777 he served as clerk of the State House of Delegates. In 1782 he was elected to the Maryland State Council and in 1787 to the House of Delegates as a representative from Annapolis. He was selected to be a delegate to the constitutional convention, but, for reasons that are unclear, he declined to serve. He supported thomas jefferson during the political battles of the 1790s, and was elected as a Democratic-Republican to Congress in 1794. He resigned the position less than two years later to become a judge of the Maryland Supreme Court. He helped to organize Maryland successfully for the Republicans in 1800 and often advised Jefferson and james madison on appointments there. In December 1802 Jefferson appointed him to be the first comptroller of the United States Treasury.

In 1811 President Madison appointed Duvall to the United States Supreme Court. On the most important and controversial cases of the period—Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816), Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), and brown v. maryland (1827)—Duvall followed the lead of joseph story and john marshall, and he even supported the Chief Justice when he dissented in Ogden v. Saunders (1827). Dartmouth College v. Woodward was the only major case in which he failed to support Marshall, but since he dissented without opinion, it is not possible to determine his reasons. It is clear that Duvall knew and understood the law, and he did write straightforward and creditable opinions for the Court in several minor commercial law and maritime cases: Archibald Freeland v. Heron, Lenox and Company (1812); United States v. January and Patterson (1813), Prince v. Bartlett (1814); and The Frances and Eliza v. Coates (1823).

Although no abolitionist, Duvall had definite antislavery leanings. Dissenting from a Supreme Court ruling in Mina Queen and Child v. Hepburn (1812), in which hearsay evidence had been excluded "from a trial in which two black persons attempted to establish their freedom," he argued, with some force, "It appears to me that the reason for admitting hearsay evidence upon a question of freedom is much stronger than in cases of pedigree or in controversies relative to the boundaries of land. It will be universally admitted that the right to freedom is more important than the right of property." In another case, LeGrand v. Darnall (1829), speaking on behalf of the Court, Duvall ruled that a slaveholder's deeding of property to his ten-year-old son by a slave woman implied an intention to free the boy, despite a Maryland law that denied manumission to any slave under forty-five years of age.

As he grew older, Duvall's increasing infirmities and deafness caused numerous problems and considerable embarrassment for the Court. For almost a decade his resignation was expected, but he did not step down until January 1835, when he received assurances that andrew jackson planned to appoint fellow Marylander roger b. taney to the bench. Duvall died nine years later at the age of ninety-two.

Richard E. Ellis


Dillard, Irving 1969 Gabriel Duvall. Pages 419–429 in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., Justices of the Supreme Court 1789–1969. New York: Chelsea House.