New Jersey, United States
Portrait of Joseph P. Bradley.
Joseph Philo Bradley.
Joseph Philo Bradley.
Joseph Bradley grew up on a farm and largely taught himself. He set out for New York City when he was 17 years old. By his own account, he missed the last boat available to take him to New York City and had to tarry instead in Albany, where he taught school and made contacts that ultimately directed him to Rutgers University (previously Rutgers College) in New Jersey in 1833. Mr. Bradley declared ever afterward that had he not missed the boat, he "would have become a grocer in New York." Instead, he graduated from Rutgers University in 1836, was briefly a teacher and a journalist, and then turned to the study of law in the office of Archer Gifford, who served as collector for the port of Newark.
Mr. Bradley was admitted to the bar in 1839. For the next 25 years, he practiced law in Newark, New Jersey, representing a variety of business clients, including the Camden and Amboy Railroad and the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of Newark. During this time, Joseph Bradley argued a number of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He ran for Congress in 1862 as a Republican and, not surprisingly in view of the Democratic strength in his district, he lost. By the end of the decade, however, Joseph P. Bradley was a lawyer of national stature, well known by a number of important political figures, and considered a possible nominee for the Supreme Court.
During the administration of President Andrew Johnson, Congress had cut the number of the seats on the Court from 10 to seven, pending resignations of sitting justices, to prevent Mr. Johnson from making any appointments. In fact, only one justice resigned while the 1869 act was in effect, so the number of actual justices never slipped below eight. The Judiciary Act of 1869 increased the number of seats on the Court to nine. This increase, combined with Associate Justice Robert Grier’s announcement in mid-December 1869 of his intention to resign effective February 1, 1870, presented President Ulysses S. Grant with the opportunity of making two appointments to the Court. Because the eventual timing of these two appointments coincided with the Supreme Court’s announcement of Hepburn v. Griswold (1870), one of the most controversial cases in years, and because the appointments ultimately resulted in the reversal of the Court’s original decision, many observers at the time complained that Ulysses Grant had arranged to pack the Court with the votes necessary for him to have the Court to overrule its earlier decision.
Mr. Hepburn concerned legal tender, an issue over which Democrats and Republicans tended to split along party lines. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase, had (reluctantly) issued paper currency to help finance the Union cause. Congress had reciprocated by passing the Legal Tender Act of 1862, which required creditors to accept the currency - commonly called greenbacks - in payment of debts. After the war, Republicans tended overwhelmingly to approve the constitutionality of the Legal Tender Act, Democrats to decry it as unconstitutional. Unfortunately for the Republicans, however, when a challenge to the Legal Tender Act arrived before the Supreme Court toward the end of the 1860s, Salmon P. Chase now sat as chief justice, and he believed the Legal Tender Act to be unconstitutional.
In November 1869 the Court privately decided the challenge to the Act in Hepburn v. Griswold, with the chief justice of a truncated Court commanding a majority in favor of striking the law down. The Court did not immediately announce its decision publicly, however, and in the meantime, Justice Robert C. Grier’s resignation at the end of January 1870 left two seats vacant on the Court, which President Grant moved to fill. Congress pressured Mr. Grant to appoint Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, to one of the vacancies; and Mr. Grant himself nominated Attorney General E. Rockwood Hoar to the other vacant seat. The Senate declined to confirm E. Hoar, however, and Edwin Stanton died suddenly four days after his confirmation and before he could assume the office of justice. Consequently, on February 7, 1870, Ulysses Grant nominated William Strong and Joseph P. Bradley to fill the two open seats on the Court. The day he announced these nominations, the Court announced the result in the Hepburn case, leading to the charge of courtpacking - a charge that was almost surely unfair. Mr. Grant would have had to look outside his own Republican party for judicial nominees who would have opposed the Legal Tender Act. That he did not is scarcely noteworthy. He certainly benefited when Mr. Strong and Mr. Bradley soon had the opportunity with the rest of the Court to reconsider the legal tender issue in Knox v. Lee (1871) and Parker v. Davis (1871); and not surprisingly, William Strong and Joseph Bradley joined together with the three dissenters in the original case to uphold the constitutionality of the Legal Tender Act.
Joseph Bradley, who thus arrived on the Court in controversial circumstances, found himself plunged into controversy again seven years later, when he was appointed to serve on the special commission selected by Congress to resolve the disputed presidential election of 1876. On a commission evenly balanced between Republicans and Democrats - including four other Supreme Court justices in addition to Mr. Bradley - Joseph Bradley, one of the Court’s least partisan justices, was expected to be the swing vote. Yet although he professed at the time and thereafter that he had made his decision on legal and constitutional grounds rather than political ones, Mr. Bradley joined with the other Republicans on the commission in a party-line vote. Thus, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, was declared the winner over Samuel Tilden.
In all, Mr. Bradley served almost 22 years on the Court, and during that period he earned a reputation as one of the Court’s most vigorous intellects. The two great constitutional controversies of his day involved the issues of civil rights and property rights. On both issues Joseph Bradley’s positions were complicated and not readily reduced to a predictable posture.
As an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court during the late nineteenth century, Joseph P. Bradley was a loyal member of the Republican party who supported the federal government's role in interstate commerce but opposed federal intervention in civil matters. As a justice he emphasized the power of the federal government to regulate commerce. His decisions reflecting this view, rendered during the period of rapid industrialization that followed the American Civil War, were significant in assuring a national market for manufactured goods. His refusal to allow constitutional protection for the civil rights of blacks assisted in the defeat of Reconstruction in the South.
In the area of civil rights, Justice Bradley exhibited the conservative tendencies common to many public figures of his age: he opposed slavery and rejoiced in its abolition, but he seems not to have seen in the Reconstruction Amendments of the Constitution (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) any promise of an end to racial (or sexual) discrimination in society. For the Court, Mr. Bradley concluded that under the Fourteenth Amendment - which guarantees the equal protection of the law - Congress can do no more than pass laws to abolish official acts of discrimination as opposed to private acts.
On issues relating to property rights, Mr. Bradley proved surprisingly more independent in his views than one might have expected from a business and railroad lawyer. He regularly upheld the constitutionality of state business regulations - including regulations of railroads.
Quotes from others about the person
Felix Frankfurter: "He [Joseph P. Bradley] who by his previous experience would supposedly reflect the bias of financial power, was as free from it as any judge, and indeed much more radical."
In 1839 Mr. Bradley married Mary Hornblower, daughter of William Horn blower, the chief justice of New Jersey Supreme Court.