Lemuel Shaw (1781-1861) was one of America's leading judges during the time the common law was being developed.

Lemuel Shaw was born on Jan. 9, 1781, in Barnstable, Mass. Educated mostly at home by his father, he entered Harvard and graduated in 1800. After 3 years of legal study he was admitted to the New Hampshire bar in 1804. After his fiancée died, Shaw did not marry until 1818, when he wed Elizabeth Knapp. She died in 1822, leaving a son and daughter. In 1827 Shaw married Hope Savage; they had two sons.

Returning to Boston, Shaw was admitted to the bar in 1804 and began his slow but certain climb to the top of the profession in Massachusetts. Shaw's legal training was supplemented by political activities. In politics he consistently followed Daniel Webster and was first a Federalist and then a Whig. Shaw served in the General Court as a representative (1811-1814, 1820) and as a senator (1821-1822). He was a delegate to the state constitutional convention (1822) and drew up Boston's first city charter in 1822. Much of Shaw's law practice was commercial. When the governor appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in 1830, he accepted, even though his judicial salary of $3,500 was approximately one-fifth his income as a lawyer.

Shaw's fame rests on his judicial career. In 30 years on the bench he delivered approximately 2,200 opinions. Because Massachusetts was the center of burgeoning commerce, Shaw's opinions on commercial matters were later cited throughout the country, as other areas evolved from agrarian to industrial economies. His sold reasoning helped adjust the venerable common law to the changing economy.

Shaw was an adherent of judicial restraint, and his court voided only 10 laws in 30 years, leaving the legislature uninhibited in providing for society's needs. Shaw believed in the commonwealth idea, individualism, human rights, law and order, in business as the source of progress, and in the need to preserve the Union. Implicit in his judicial opinions, these values were at times in conflict. He believed that business should be supported by the state but he subject to regulation for the common good. Though convinced that slavery was wrong, he could not override his belief in judicial restraint or the deeper conviction that application of the Constitution's fugitive-slave clause was necessary to preserve the Union; and so he refused to invalidate the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, despite considerable antislavery agitation.

His adherence to individualism overrode Shaw's concern for business in his ruling that employees had the right to organize to gain their ends, including establishing a closed shop. He was also responsible for the entry of the "separate but equal" doctrine into American law in the school segregation case of Roberts v. Boston (1849).

Shaw resigned from the bench in 1860. He died on March 30, 1861. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said of Shaw: "The strength of that great judge lay in an accurate appreciation of the community…. Few have lived who were his equals in their understanding of the grounds of public policy to which all laws must ultimately be referred."

Further Reading on Lemuel Shaw

Shaw is eulogized in Frederic Hathaway Chase, Lemuel Shaw (1918). Leonard W. Levy, The Law of the Commonwealth and Chief Justice Shaw (1957), relates Shaw's work to his environment. Judge Elijah Adlow, The Genius of Lemuel Shaw (1962), analyzes Shaw's opinions. Oscar and Mary Flug Handlin, Commonwealth: A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy, Massachusetts, 1774-1861 (rev. ed. 1969), is indispensable for understanding the economic background.

Additional Biography Sources

Levy, Leonard Williams, The law of the commonwealth and Chief Justice Shaw, New York: Oxford University Press, 1957.