Nelson, Samuel (1792–1873)

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NELSON, SAMUEL (1792–1873)

On March 5, 1845, Samuel Nelson became a Justice of the Supreme Court and judge of the Second Circuit. President john tyler nominated the New York Democrat in the belief that his record of moderation compiled over twenty-one years in the New York courts, including thirteen as associate and then chief justice of the state supreme court, would resolve eighteen months of wrangling between the chief executive and the senate over the high court vacancy. Unanimous Senate confirmation made Nelson the Court's thirty-first justice.

Nelson's most significant contribution to constitutional development involved the admiralty clause in Article III, section 2, of the Constitution. That clause specified that the federal courts should exclusively exercise the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. He interpreted the clause to extend federal jurisdiction while retaining for the states an area of constitutional responsibility. Nelson first suggested the position, later adopted by the full Court in propeller genesee chief v. fitzhugh (1851), that where interstate commerce was involved the admiralty clause extended federal jurisdiction to inland rivers and lakes (New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. v. Merchant's Bank, 1848). He carefully rooted this expansion in an 1845 act that established admiralty jurisdiction in "certain cases, upon the lakes and navigable waters connecting with" the oceans. Nelson left to state courts responsibility for vessels that operated on lakes and rivers exclusively within the same state. This interpretation rested on two constitutional themes that pervaded his other opinions: congressional domination of matters of law as opposed to constitutional principles, and belief in a scheme of dual sovereignty.

Even in this single instance of doctrinal leadership Nelson lost the initiative. New members of the Court and the quickening tempo of commercial life in the western United States rendered his emphasis on dual sovereignty obsolete. Almost always eager for accommodation, he acquiesced. In 1869 he spoke for the Court in holding that from the time of Genesee Chief federal admiralty jurisdiction on the lakes and rivers stemmed from the judiciary act of 1789 rather than from the act of 1845 (The Eagle v. Frazer, 1869). Through this about-face, Nelson acknowledged that litigants could use federal district courts in admiralty cases arising in intrastate commerce.

The concept of dual sovereignty also informed his attitude toward the commerce clause. Inthe license cases (1847) and passenger cases (1849) he concurred with Chief Justice roger b. taney's opinions sustaining state police power, and in the 1849 cases he was the only Justice not to write a separate opinion. When Congress acted under the commerce clause, Nelson supported national power. Speaking for the Court in Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co. (1856), his most important commerce clause opinion, he confirmed Congress's power to deal with navigation and interstate commerce on inland rivers.

Nelson's constitutional jurisprudence also stressed judicial self-restraint and separation of powers. He voted only once with a majority to strike down a federal law in Hepburn v. Griswold (1870). He deferred to presidential management of foreign affairs, but dissented in the prize cases (1863) because he thought President abraham lincoln had infringed on Congress's war-making powers.

Nelson believed that federal judicial power should protect slaveholders, but that the Court should exercise it benignly. Acting on this belief, he persuaded the Court in 1856 to rehear dred scott v. sandford (1857). In his draft opinion for the Court, he argued that the laws of Missouri made Scott a slave and that the Court could ignore the questions of the legal status of slaves and the constitutionality of the missouri compromise. This position raised the hackles of Justices john mclean and benjamin r. curtis, and Chief Justice Taney took from Nelson responsibility for preparing the Court's opinion. Nelson, believing that the Chief Justice's decision to reach major issues was unwise, submitted his draft opinion for the Court as his own, even retaining the pronoun "we" in the printed version.

Nelson continued in the post-civil war era as a hardworking jurist and able legal technician. He agreed in February 1871 to serve on the Alabama Claims Commission. His appointment by a Republican president underscored as much his reputation as an impartial jurist as it did his knowledge of admiralty, maritime, and prize law.

Nelson resigned from the Court on November 28, 1872. Often described as a doughface (a Northerner who took a southern view on slavery), Nelson is better understood as a political moderate concerned about the fate of the Union, disposed to antislavery rather than proslavery views, and committed to the position that the judicial role should emphasize discretion, restraint, and deference to legislative leadership. In view of his twenty-six years on the Court, he contributed surprisingly little to constitutional jurisprudence.

Kermit L. Hall


Gatell, Frank Otto 1969 Samuel Nelson. Pages 817–839 in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., The Justices of the United States Supreme Court 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.