Story, Joseph

As a Supreme Court ally of Chief Justice John Marshall, Story contributed to the early formation of constitutional law in the United States, particularly in determining the appellate role of the Court in civil cases.

Story graduated with honors from Harvard University in 1798 and was admitted to the Essex County bar in 1801. A Democratic-Republican, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1805 and to the U.S. Congress as a Representative from Essex South in 1808. His vote to repeal Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act (1807) alienated him from the president and from his party.Madison, James;nominations to the Court

Joseph Story

(Art & Visual Materials, Special Collections Department, Harvard Law School Library)

As Story’s political career faltered, his reputation in the courts gained distinction. He was a shrewd and exceptionally well-versed lawyer, particularly in commercial law, and his arguments before the federal courts convinced many Republicans of his suitability to serve on the Supreme Court. When Justice William Cushing died in 1810, President James Madison, mindful of the rift between Jefferson and Story, reluctantly nominated Story after his first three choices declined the offer. At the age of thirty-two, Story became the youngest justice to serve on the Supreme Court. He served until his death, nearly thirty-four years later.

The Marshall-Story Alliance

Confirming Jefferson’s suspicions, Story allied himself with Chief Justice John Marshall,Marshall, John whose aim was to forge a strong federal Court with broad jurisdiction and the power to strike down any legislative act that violated the Constitution. Constitutional law was in its infancy, and Marshall’s agenda, though effectively implemented, lacked the weight of precedence and legal argument. Story drew from common law, natural law, and commercial law and wrote brilliantly articulated decisions supporting Marshall’s more intuitive (and political) reasoning.

A land dispute, ruled on by the state of Virginia’s chief justice Spencer Roane in 1810, was appealed to the Supreme Court. Marshall, himself involved in the suit, recused himself from hearing the case, and Story overturned the decision of the state court. Roane, in turn, ruled that the federal Court’s decision was unconstitutional. The case was returned to the Supreme Court in 1816. “It is the case…and not the court, that gives the jurisdiction,” Story wrote in his decision, defending section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 against Roane’s assertion of state sovereignty. Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee[case]Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee[Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee] (1816) established the supremacy of the federal Court in questions of federal law, even in civil cases that arise in state courts.

Story’s opinions extended constitutional protections to private corporations under the contract clause (notably in Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 1819) and sought to protect private property from takings by state governments. His expansive interpretation of laws has been criticized as tortured, but such adaptation of an older body of law to the new republic undoubtedly built and preserved the coequal status of the Supreme Court among the three branches of the federal government.

Years of Dissent

His opinions defending the “natural” rights of individuals and corporations against intrusion by the states became a desperate series of bitter dissents after the death of Marshall. President Andrew Jackson nominated Roger Brooke Taney to be the new chief justice, a move many believed would be the undoing of the Marshall Court’s nationalistic gains. Story, now in the Court’s minority, had few victories during his last decade on the Court. In Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge[case]Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge[Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge] (1837), Taney ruled that the monopoly interest granted to the original bridge company could be revoked in the interest of the community, while Story staunchly defended the “implied” guarantee against competition of the original contract.

Story’s personal abhorrence of slavery conflicted with his belief in its constitutional legitimacy. His single notable win on the Taney Court was in the United States v. The Amistad[case]Amistad[Amistad];Story, Joseph[Story, Joseph] (1841), in which a group of Africans taken aboard a Spanish slave ship overthrew their captors and landed in the American courts. Story wrote the majority opinion that upheld the lower court’s ruling and freed the Africans, reasoning that at the time of the incident they were victims of kidnapping and not lawful merchandise. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania[case]Prigg v. Pennsylvania[Prigg v. Pennsylvania] (1842), however, Story concurred with the Court and dismissed a charge of kidnapping against a bounty hunter who had reclaimed an escaped slave, under the provisions of federal law, in violation of a state law. Though he suggested that states were under no obligation to aid in the apprehension of fugitive slaves, his opinion gave fugitive slave laws and slavery constitutional standing that they had not until then formally enjoyed.

As a dissenter, Story’s influence on the decisions of the Court was not great, though his opinions remained of interest to constitutional scholars. It was as an educator that he sought to perpetuate his judicial philosophies. He returned to Harvard in 1829 as Dane Professor at Harvard Law School, where he greatly influenced the development of university-based law education in the United States. His Commentaries on the law (1832-1845) were long considered essential to an American legal education.

Further Reading

  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Clinton, Robert, Christopher Budzisz, and Peter Renstrom, eds. The Marshall Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, ABC-Clio, 2007.
  • Huebner, Timothy S. The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Irons, Peter. A People’s History of the Supreme Court. New York: Viking, 1999.
  • McClellan, James. Joseph Story and the American Constitution: A Study in Political and Legal Thought with Selected Writings. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
  • Story, William Wetmore. Life and Letters of Joseph Story, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University. 1851. 2 vols. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 2000.
  • Watson, Alan. Joseph Story and the Comity of Errors: A Case Study in Conflict of Laws. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Appellate jurisdiction

Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge

Madison, James

Marshall, John

Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee

Taney, Roger Brooke