November 15, 1811 – Nomination of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story

On this day in history, Joseph Story was nominated by President James Madison to take the Supreme Court seat vacated by William Cushing. (Cushing was the longest-serving of the Court’s original members, sitting on the bench for 21 years.) Story was confirmed by the United States Senate, and received his commission on November 18, 1811. At age 32, he was the youngest person ever appointed to the Court.

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Joseph Story, in office November 18, 1811 – September 10, 1845

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Joseph Story, in office November 18, 1811 – September 10, 1845

Story was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He went to Harvard, where he graduated second in his class, and practiced law in Salem, Massachusetts from 1801 to 1811. Politically, he was a member of Jefferson’s Republican-Democrat Party, and so Madison assumed he was appointing an ally when he nominated Story to the Supreme Court in 1811.

Much to the chagrin of Jefferson and Madison, however, Story aligned himself with Jefferson’s nemesis, Chief Justice John Marshall, just as their other appointments had done.

In the later years of his career on the Supreme Court, Justice Story was the author of two of the Court’s most important decisions related to slavery. Though personally opposed to slavery, Story believed the Constitution recognized and legitimized the institution. Nevertheless, he tried to construct his decisions in ways that might aid the cause of abolition.

The 1841 Amistad case (40 U.S. 518; 10 L. Ed. 826) stemmed from a 1839 incident in which Spanish slave traders had forcibly taken more than 500 captured Africans to Spanish-ruled Cuba. Spanish law prohibited the transportation of African slaves to Cuba. But Spanish officials in Cuba largely ignored that law; there was much money to be made in Cuba for bringing in laborers for sugar planters.

At a slave sale in Havana, some of these slaves were purchased and transferred to the schooner Amistad for delivery at plantations along the coast of Cuba. But the slaves revolted, took over the ship, and tried to go back to Africa. They stopped at Long Island Sound in New York to get provisions. A U.S. Navy brig learned of the situation and took custody of the Amistad, requesting a hearing. The case moved up through the courts, reaching the Supreme Court in 1841.

1840 engraving depicting the Amistad revolt

1840 engraving depicting the Amistad revolt

Justice Story, speaking for the Court, declared that the men on the Amistad were seized illegally in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain. They were not slaves; they were “kidnapped Africans.” Moreover, “… in no sense could they possibly intend to import themselves here, as slaves, or for sale as slaves.” Thus, he declared them free, to be dismissed from the custody of the Court without delay.

In the 1842 case Prigg v. Pennsylvania (41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539, 1842), the majority opinion, again written by Justice Story, affirmed the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Justice Story maintained that the fugitive slave clause was in fact essential to the formation of the Union, but only federal agents could enforce it. His decision seemed to say that on the one hand, states had no right to protect its free citizens from being kidnapped and enslaved. But on the other, states did not have any obligation to assist in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. The resulting uproar contributed to the insistence by the South of a new fugitive slave law, which they got in 1850, and which played a large role in precipitating the Civil War.

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Story’s decisions also helped shaped early American commercial and admiralty law. Moreover, while sitting as a justice of the Supreme Court, he began teaching at Harvard Law School in 1829 and in 1833 published his Commentaries on the Constitution, which became an essential guide for American lawyers.

Story served on the Supreme Court until his death on September 10, 1845.

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