Joseph Story

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Joseph Story
Daguerreotype of Joseph Story, 1844.jpg
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
February 3, 1812[1] – September 10, 1845[1]
Nominated by James Madison
Preceded by William Cushing
Succeeded by Levi Woodbury
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 2nd district
In office
May 23, 1808 – March 4, 1809
Preceded by Jacob Crowninshield
Succeeded by Benjamin Pickman
Personal details
Born (1779-09-18)September 18, 1779
Marblehead, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
Political party Democratic-Republican
Education Harvard University (BA)

Joseph Story (September 18, 1779 – September 10, 1845) was an American lawyer and jurist who served on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1812 to 1845, during the Marshall Court and early-Taney Court eras. He is most remembered for his opinions in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee and The Amistad case, and especially for his magisterial Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, first published in 1833. Dominating the field in the 19th century, this work is a cornerstone of early American jurisprudence. It is the second comprehensive treatise on the provisions of the U.S. Constitution and remains a critical source of historical information about the forming of the American republic and the early struggles to define its law.

Story opposed Jacksonian democracy, saying it was "oppression" of property rights by republican governments when popular majorities began (in the 1830s) to restrict and erode the property rights of the minority of rich men.[2] R. Kent Newmyer presents Story as a "Statesman of the Old Republic" who tried to be above democratic politics and to shape the law in accordance with the republicanism of Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall and the New England Whigs of the 1820s and 1830s, including Daniel Webster.[3] Historians agree that Justice Joseph Story reshaped American law—as much or more than Marshall or anyone else—in a conservative direction that protected property rights.[4]

He was uniquely honored in the historical Steven Spielberg film Amistad when he was portrayed by retired Associate Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court Harry Blackmun. Justice Blackmun portrays Justice Story reading the Supreme Court's decision in the case in which the film was based, and for which Justice Story is most widely remembered, United States v. The Amistad Africans, et al. This is the only time in known film history that an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court has portrayed another Associate Justice.[citation needed]

Early life

Story was born at Marblehead, Massachusetts. His father was Dr. Elisha Story, a member of the Sons of Liberty who took part in the Boston Tea Party in 1773.[5] Dr. Story moved from Boston to Marblehead during the American Revolutionary War. His first wife, Ruth (née Ruddock) died and Story remarried in November 1778, to Mehitable Pedrick, nineteen, the daughter of a wealthy shipping merchant who lost his fortune during the war.[6] Joseph was the first-born of eleven children of the second marriage. (Story also fathered seven children from his first marriage.)[7]

As a boy, Joseph studied at the Marblehead Academy until the fall of 1794, where he was taught by schoolmaster William Harris, later president of Columbia University. At Marblehead he chastised a fellow schoolmate and Harris responded by beating him in front of the school; his father withdrew him immediately afterward.[8] Story was accepted at Harvard University in January 1795;[9] he joined Adelphi, a student-run literary review, and was admitted to the Phi Beta Kappa Society.[10]

Story's young wife, Mary F.L. Oliver, died in June 1805, shortly after their marriage and two months after the death of his beloved father. In August 1808, he married Sarah Waldo Wetmore, the daughter of Judge William Wetmore of Boston. They had seven children but only two, Mary and William Wetmore Story, would survive to adulthood. Their son became a noted poet and sculptor—his bust of his father was mounted in the Harvard Law School Library—who would later publish The Life and Letters of Joseph Story (2 vols., Boston and London, 1851). Volume I and Volume II

Story was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1810,[11] and a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1814.[12] He would later serve as that society's vice-president from 1831 to 1845.[13] In 1844, he was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society.[14]

Supreme Court justice

In November 15, 1811, at the age of 32 years, 58 days, Story became—and, as of 2021, remains—the youngest person nominated to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was chosen by President James Madison to succeed William Cushing, who had died 14 months earlier. Madison's previous nominee for the seat, John Quincy Adams, was confirmed by the United States Senate, but had declined to serve. The Senate confirmed Story's nomination and Madison signed his commission on November 18, 1811. Story swore his oath and assumed office on February 3, 1812.[1][15]

Story's opinion in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee was profoundly significant before Story ever so much as addressed the issue explicitly. The manner in which Story framed the American republic is profoundly indicative of his philosophy. Story noted, "The Constitution of the United States was established, not by the states in their sovereignty capacities, but emphatically, as the preamble declares 'by the people of the United States."[16]

Regarding the nominal issue of the case, whether the Supreme Court possessed appellate jurisdiction over the states, Story argued that the Court must possess such jurisdiction. Without national oversight over local courts the law could become discordant. This fear of discordant law was part of Story's belief in legal science, in this instance manifested as a belief in the uniformity of law. Without uniformity, each state would be allowed to develop its own idiosyncrasies, and such provincialism ran contrary to Story's aim of a national republic. Story citied the Constitution's assertion to be "The supreme law of the land" and that "Judges in every state shall be bound thereby".[17]

The case came to symbolize a profound transformation in Story's tenure on the Court. Initially Marshall's most influential ally, Story enjoyed the success that came along with the nearly uniform agreement by the justices in Marshall's Court. Following the death of the chief justice and the arrival of the Age of Jackson, Story for the first time on the bench, seemed out of step with the rest of the Court. The Court ruled 4–2 in favor of the Warren Bridge, rejected the petitioner's claim that their charter granted them exclusive rights. Story, writing for the minority, noted "I stand upon the old law."[18]

One of Story's more vexing opinions was Prigg v. Pennsylvania, in which he wrote for the majority in 1842. Story was forced to consider the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania personal liberty law which placed procedural requirements on those seeking to extradite fugitive slaves. Story, despite his hatred of slavery, sided with the southern justices to declare the Pennsylvania law unconstitutional. This appears especially hard to square with Story's anti-slavery philosophy, as one of the individuals kidnapped by Edward Prigg, the slave catcher in question, was actually not a slave at all. However, despite the outcome as appearing entirely in favor of the South, a more accurate assessment can be gleaned from the text and time period. Concerning the former, Story argued that fugitive slaves were addressed in the Article 4 Section 2. Despite the fact that slavery was not mentioned, Story concluded that it was all too clear that the clause was meant to secure runaway slaves for southern slaveholders. He went on to note, "The full recognition of the right and title was indispensable to the security of this species of property in all the slaveholding States; and, indeed, was so vital to the preservation of their domestic interests and institutions, that it cannot be doubted that it constituted a fundamental article, without the adoption of which the Union could not have been formed."[19] Story's apparent endorsement of slaveholders' rights must be read through this light, that the justice felt that this was a bargain integral to the Constitution. Consequently, Story had an obligation to honor the deal struck at the Constitutional Convention. Further insight is provided by the political activity of southerners of the day. H. Robert Baker notes, "Story chose the path that he believed best supported a strong Union and rejected the natural right of slaveholders to the people they claimed as property. His resonating opinion answered southern constitutional claims in ways that protected slaveholders' rights, but not on the terms they wanted."[20]

Though still embroiled in his struggle with Roger Taney, Story achieved his last great victory in Swift v. Tyson. This 1842 case concerned a bill of exchange, essentially a promise of payment, given from a businessman in New York, in exchange for land in Maine. However, the individuals who received the bill of exchange, Jarius Keith and Nathaniel Norton, did not own the land in question. The central issue of the case focused on Article 34 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 which established that the Court was to employ state statutes as authoritative rules when they were applicable for the Court's cases. Story, ever the nationalist, had long despised using state statutes as authoritative when he deemed federal common law a much more preferable alternative. Simply put, Story longed to place more power in the hands of judges, in particular federal judges, instead of local legislatures. Though Story, writing for the unanimous majority, rejected the fraudulent Bill of Exchange, this remains less significant than his development of federal common law. As aforementioned, section 34 of the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789 held that courts were bound to local state statutes. Story, though had long desired to establish federal common law, had been unable to sway sufficient support to the cause. In Swift he finally rallied sufficient support to chip away at the barrier. He noted, "This section (34 of the Judiciary Act), upon it sure intendment and construction, is strictly limited to local statutes and local usages of the character before started, and does not extend to contracts and other instruments of a commercial nature."[21]. Swift's ultimate overruling in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins marked a turning point in American civil procedure.[22]

In 1829, he moved from Salem to Cambridge and became the first Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University, meeting with remarkable success as a teacher and winning the affection of his students, who had the benefit of learning from a sitting Supreme Court justice. He was a prolific writer, publishing many reviews and magazine articles, delivering orations on public occasions, and publishing books on legal subjects which won high praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Among Story's works of this period, one of the most important is the Justice's Commentaries on the Constitution. The commentaries are divided into three sections, the first two concerning the colonial origins of the confederation and revolution, and the final section concerns the origins of the Constitution. Story's Commentaries encapsulate and expound his ideology. Within his Commentaries Story, in particular, attacks notions of state sovereignty. Even at this moment when his time on the Court was drawing towards a close, Story remained concerned with the welfare of the Union. His guide to the Constitution stressed the sovereignty of the people rather than the states, and extensively attacked those elements, i.e. southern sovereignty advocates, that Story felt could destabilize the Union. Story's Commentaries summarize much of the Justice's philosophy and demonstrate how Story, sought to use his work off the bench to continue to foster popular sovereignty over state sovereignty.[23]


Justice Story remains one of the most significant figures in early American constitutional history. Of the many justices of the Marshall Court, only the chief justice himself wrote more opinions than Story. In the 33 years that Story sat on the Court, he would transition from being an ally of Marshall to the last of an old race. Joseph Story, throughout his time on the Marshall and Taney courts, championed the notion of legal science. He believed that the Union could be made stronger through the proper application of law, in particular proper application necessitated uniformity of application.[23] Consequently, federal control and judicial oversight were important tools in order to craft a more centralized Union. Story was in many respects a creature of New England; however, his chief aim was the creation of a strong Union. Consequently, several of his opinions, such as Prigg, emerge as efforts to protect the Union at the expense of black lives and freedom. Justice Story's jurisprudence stressed the importance of nationalism through economic centralization and judicial review. While aspects of his jurisprudence would fall into the minority with the rise of Jackson, he continued to guide the Constitutional dialogue through cases like Prigg and Swift.[24]


Justice Story was one of the most successful American authors of the first half of the 19th century. "By the time he turned 65, on September 18, 1844, he earned $10,000 a year from his book royalties. At this point, his salary as Associate Justice was $4,500."[25]

Among his publications are:

He also edited several standard legal works. His Miscellaneous Writings, first published in 1835, appeared in an enlarged edition in 1851.

The Life and Letters of Joseph Story (1851), edited by his son William Wetmore Story, was published in two volumes: Volume I and Volume II

Story contributed articles (in full, and or as part of larger articles) to The Encyclopedia Americana including this article Death, Punishment of. William Wetmore Story in The Life and Letters of Joseph Story, Volume 2, listed the articles Joseph Story wrote for The Encyclopedia Americana.":[26] Common Law, Congress of the United States, Conquest, Contracts, Corpus Delicti, Courts of England and the United States, Criminal Law,(Story's contribution begins at "To the preceding article. ... ") Death, Punishment of, Domicil, Equity, Evidence, Jury, Lien, Law, Legislation, and Codes, (Story's contribution begins on p. 581.) Natural Law, Nations, Law of, Prize, and Usury. Story is sometimes identified as an "eminent American jurist" by the editors when he is a joint author of an article. See the Law, Legislation, and Codes article for an example.


The Amistad. Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of the United States, United States v. Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 518 (1841).

Gallison's Reports. Reports of Cases in the Circuit Court of the United States for the First Circuit 2d ed. With additional Notes and References. By John Gallison. 2 vols. Boston, 1845. Vol 1 Vol 2

Mason's Reports. Reports of Cases in the Circuit Court of the United States for the First Circuit, from 1816 to 1830. By William P. Mason. 5 vols. Boston, 1819–31. Vol 5

Sumner's Reports. Reports of Cases argued and determined in the Circuit Court of the United States for the First Circuit. By Charles Sumner. 3 vols. Boston, 1836–40.

Story's Reports. Reports of Cases argued and determined in the Circuit Court of the United States for the First Circuit. By W. W. Story. 3 vols. Boston, 1842–47 Vol 3

"These volumes contain all the decisions of Mr. Justice Story on his Circuit. The decisions relate particularly to questions of Equity and Admiralty, and are of great practical value."[27]

Death and legacy

Justice Story spoke at the dedication ceremony for Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1831, which set the model for dozens of subsequent addresses over the next few decades. It also helped spark the "rural cemetery" movement and to link that movement to the development of the republic. Story emphasized the ways that rural cemeteries contributed to an ordered and well-regulated republic of law.[28] Upon his death in 1845, he was buried there "as are scores of America's celebrated political, literary, religious, and military leaders. His grave is marked by a piece of sepulchral statuary executed by his son, William Wetmore Story."[29]

He is the namesake for Story County, Iowa.[30]

Quotations by Story

On the Supreme Court's authority over state courts in civil matters of federal law (Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 14 U.S. 304 (1816)):

The Constitution unavoidably deals in general language. It did not suit the purposes of the people, in framing this great charter of our liberties, to provide for minute specifications of its powers, or to declare the means by which those powers should be carried into execution. It was foreseen that this would be a perilous and difficult, if not an impracticable, task. The instrument was not intended to provide merely for the exigencies of a few years, but was to endure through a long lapse of ages, the events of which were locked up in the inscrutable purposes of Providence.

On patent law (Title 35 of the United States Code), specifically regarding the patentability of inventions and the granting of patents (Lowell v. Lewis, 1 Mason. 182; 1 Robb, Pat. Cas. 131 Circuit Court, D. Massachusetts. May Term. 1817.):

Bust of Joseph Story, sculpted by his son William Wetmore Story, currently on display at the United States Supreme Court building.

The patent act uses the phrase 'useful invention' merely incidentally. ... All that the law requires is, that the invention should not be frivolous or injurious to the well-being, good policy, or sound morals of society. The word 'useful,' therefore, is incorporated into the act in contradistinction to mischievous or immoral. For instance, a new invention to poison people, or to promote debauchery, or to facilitate private assassination, is not a patentable invention. But if the invention steers wide of these objections, whether it be more or less useful is a circumstance very material to the interests of the patentee, but of no importance to the public. If it be not so extensively useful, it will silently sink into contempt and disregard.[31]

On the subject of church and state:

... Article VI, paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution declares, that 'no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.' This clause is not introduced merely for the purpose of satisfying the scruples of many persons, who feel an invincible repugnance to any religious test, or affirmation. It had a higher objective: to cut off for ever every pretence of any alliance between church and state in the national government.[32]

The real object of the First Amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government. It thus cut off the means of religious persecution, (the vice and pest of former ages,) and of the subversion of the rights of conscience in matters of religion, which had been trampled upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age. The history of the parent country had afforded the most solemn warnings and melancholy instructions on this head; and even New England, the land of the persecuted puritans, as well as other colonies, where the Church of England had maintained its superiority, would furnish out a chapter, as full of the darkest bigotry and intolerance, as any, which should be found to disgrace the pages of foreign annals. Apostacy, heresy, and nonconformity had been standard crimes for public appeals, to kindle the flames of persecution, and apologize for the most atrocious triumphs over innocence and virtue.[33]

Thus, the whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the state government, to be acted upon according to their own sense of justice, and the state constitutions; and the Catholic and the Protestant, the Calvinist and the Arminian, the Jew and the Infidel, may sit down at the common table of the national councils, without any inquisition into their faith, or mode of worship.[34]

On the Second Amendment:

The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace both from the enormous expenses with which they are attended and the facile means which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers to subvert the government or trample upon the rights of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered as the palladium of the liberties of a republic since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers and will generally even if these are successful the first instance enable the people to resist and triumph over them. And yet though this truth would seem so clear and the importance of a well regulated militia would seem so undeniable it cannot be disguised that among the American people there is a growing indifference to any system of militia discipline and a disposition from a sense of its burthens to be rid of all regulations. How it is practicable to keep the people duly armed without some organization it is difficult to see. There is certainly no small danger that indifference may lead to disgust and disgust to contempt and thus gradually undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights.[35]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Justices 1789 to Present". Washington, D.C.: Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved August 26, 2018.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. David Brion Davis, Antebellum American culture (1997), pp. 14-15
  3. Newmyer, p. 4
  4. Presser, p. 526
  5. Dunne, p. 32
  6. Newmyer, pp. 7-8
  7. Friedman, p. 254
  8. Newmyer, p. 21
  9. Dunne, p. 23
  10. Newmyer, p. 27
  11. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter S" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved September 8, 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Member List S". American Antiquarian Society. Retrieved September 10, 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Dunbar, B. (1987). Members and Officers of the American Antiquarian Society. Worcester: American Antiquarian Society.
  14. "APS Member History". Retrieved 2021-04-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. McMillion, Barry J.; Rutkus, Denis Steven (July 6, 2018). "Supreme Court Nominations, 1789 to 2017: Actions by the Senate, the Judiciary Committee, and the President" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service. Retrieved August 26, 2018.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 14 U.S. 304 (1816) 325.
  17. Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 14 U.S. 304 (1816) 341.
  18. Proprietors of the Charles River Bridge v. Proprietors of Warren Bridge, 36 U.S. 402 (1837) 598.
  19. Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842) 35.
  20. H. Robert Baker, "A Better Story in Prigg v. Pennsylvania?," Journal of Supreme Court History Vol. 39 (2014) 186.
  21. Swift v. Tyson, 41 U.S. 1 (1842) 2.
  22. Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938).
  23. 23.0 23.1 R. Kent Newmeyer, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985)
  24. Melvin Urofsky, The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994)
  25. Rotunda & Nowak "Introduction" to Story's Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, p. xxiv, Reprint Edition, Carolina Academic Press, 1987.
  26. Story, Life and Letters, Vol 2 pp. 27-28, Boston, 1851.
  27. Story, Life and Letters, Vol. 2 p. 665, Boston, 1851.
  28. Alfred L. Brophy, "These Great and Beautiful Republics of the Dead": Public Constitutionalism and the Antebellum Cemetery
  29. Christensen, George A., Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, Pages 17 - 41 (Feb 19, 2008), University of Alabama.
  30. "History of Story County". Story County, IA Official Website. Retrieved 17 November 2020.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Lowell v. Lewis, 15 F. Cas. 1019, 1817 U.S. App. LEXIS 169 (C.C.D. Mass. 1817).
  32. Story, Joseph (1833) Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Company. Cambridge: Brown, Shattuck, and Co. Volume III, p. 705, §1841.
  33. Story, Joseph (1833) Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Company. Cambridge: Brown, Shattuck, and Co. Volume III, page 728, §1871.
  34. Story, Joseph (1858) Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Company. Cambridge: Brown, Shattuck, and Co. Third Edition, Volume II, p. 667, §1879.
  35. Story, Joseph (1833) Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Company. Cambridge: Brown, Shattuck, and Co. Volume III, page 746–747, §1890.


Further reading

External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Jacob Crowninshield
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 2nd congressional district

Succeeded by
Benjamin Pickman
Legal offices
Preceded by
William Cushing
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
Levi Woodbury
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