Joseph Story

Joseph Story (1779-1845), American jurist and statesman, was an associate justice of the Supreme Court and a prolific and influential legal publicist.

Joseph Story was born in Marblehead, Mass., on Sept. 18, 1779. He graduated with honors from Harvard in 1798. After studying in the offices of Samuel Putnam and Samuel Sewall, he was admitted to the bar in 1801. He practiced in the local, state, and lower Federal courts, specializing in commercial and maritime law, and rose rapidly to the top of the profession. At the same time he began his career in legal scholarship, editing works on pleading (1805), shipping (1810), and assumpsit (1811).

Story entered politics as a Jeffersonian Republican. From 1805 to 1811 he was a leading member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and during 1811 was Speaker. He championed judicial reform, including a successful attempt to raise judicial salaries and an unsuccessful effort to establish a chancery court. In the winter of 1808/ 1809 he served in the U.S. House of Representatives. President James Madison appointed him to the Supreme Court in November 1811.

Story quickly won respect among his fellow justices. During the War of 1812 he steadfastly backed national authority. His exposition of admiralty law during this period and thereafter helped lay the foundations for that branch of American jurisprudence. His opinion in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816) was a major decisional link in the chain of nationalism forged by the Court under Chief Justice John Marshall. Like Marshall, Story was dedicated to the sanctity of property rights, and his opinions consistently favored national expansion of business and commerce. His opinion in Terrett v. Taylor (1815) and concurrence in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) were instrumental in shielding corporations from state interference. In commercial law he was during his tenure the most influential justice on the Court.

After 1837 Story was progressively alienated by the states'-rights tendency of the Court under Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and he continued to defend the "old law" in biting dissents. While performing his judicial duties, he also taught at the Harvard Law School, which, through his efforts, pioneered in formal legal education. From his teaching came a series of commentaries on the main branches of American law.

Story was a leader in the Massachusetts constitutional convention of 1820 and drafted legislation on bankruptcy, crimes, and admiralty jurisdiction. He died on Sept. 10, 1845.

Further Reading on Joseph Story

Story's son's work, William W. Story, ed., Life and Letters of Joseph Story (2 vols., 1851), remains a valuable account of Story's life and career. Henry Steele Commager's "Joseph Story" in The Gaspar G. Bacon Lectures on the Constitution of the United States, 1940-1950 (1953) is a very readable summary. Gerald T. Dunne, Justice Joseph Story and the Rise of the Supreme Court (1971), and James McClellan, Joseph Story and the American Constitution (1971), are the fullest and most analytical studies of Story to date. General histories of the Supreme Court and biographies of other justices can be consulted for information on Story. Among the most useful are Albert J. Beveridge, The Life of John Marshall (4 vols., 1916-1919); Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History (3 vols., 1922; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1926); Carl B. Swisher, Roger B. Taney (1935); and The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government and Politics, vol. 1: 1789-1835 (1944), by Charles G. Haines, and vol. 2: 1835-1864 (1957), on the Taney period, by Haines and Foster H. Sherwood.

Additional Biography Sources

Newmyer, R. Kent, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: statesman of the Old Republic, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

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