Joseph Story was an American lawyer and jurist who served on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1811 to 1845. He is most remembered for his opinions in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee and The Amistad case, and especially for his magisterial Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, first published in 1833.
Joseph Story was born on September 18, 1779, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the son of a prominent physician. Story was the eldest child of his father’s second marriage, to Mehitable Pedrick Story, and the eighth of his father’s total 18 children. Story’s grandfather and his father had modest claims to fame—his grandfather for having served as assistant deputy registrar of the British Vice Admiralty Court in Boston and clerk of the American Navy Board and his father for having participated in the Boston Tea Party.
Educated at a private academy in Marblehead, Story left the school early, after being disciplined for brawling, and entered Harvard College in 1795. He graduated second in his class from Harvard in 1798 and turned to die study of law, apprenticing himself first with Samuel Seward and later with Samuel Putnam in Salem. He was admitted to the bar in 1801.
In these early years after graduating from Harvard, the law did not claim absolute dominion over Story’s intellect. He labored at length to establish a reputation as a poet, contributing pieces to local newspapers and crafting a long poem titled The Power of Solitude, which he eventually published in book form in 1805. Whatever pleasure Story may have achieved by this publication paled in the face of tragedy, however.
The legal practice he began after 1801 also seemed destined at first for failure. Like many lawyers of the time, he combined legal work with political engagement. Owing to his father’s influence, however, Story inclined to Democratic-Republican politics and thus for a time found himself alienated from opportunities in Federalist-dominated Massachusetts. But 1805, a year of great personal tragedy for the young lawyer, was also a year in which his political and legal fortunes brightened. Increasing Democratic power in Massachusetts spurred the growth of his legal practice and also won him election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He served as a legislative representative from 1805 to 1808. This political experience led to his election to Congress in 1808 to serve out the term of Jacob Crowninshield, who had died in office. With his election to this post, Story demonstrated—not for the last time—that his Democratic-Republican inclinations were perhaps not so securely fastened to his character as might have been supposed. He earned the ire of party leaders—President Thomas Jefferson in particular—by opposing Jefferson’s embargo against foreign trade.
The same year that the Court decided Fletcher, Justice William Cushing died. Story possessed the experience and Republican credentials necessary to win appointment to the Court as Cushing’s successor. Nevertheless, he was young for the post—a mere 32 years of age—and, more significantly, had earned the distrust of Jefferson, who, though no longer president, still dominated party affairs. Jefferson frankly counseled President James Madison against nominating Story; Madison therefore made a diligent effort to find a more suitable candidate. His first and third choices—Levi Lincoln and John Quincy Adams—declined to serve, and his second choice—Alexander Wolcott—failed to receive confirmation by the Senate. Thus, Madison turned at last to Joseph Story, who chose to relinquish a more lucrative career as an advocate to pursue the vocation of a jurist. By this time he had married Sarah Waldo Wetmore (in August 1808), and he had increasing financial obligations for his family. (This union also would know its share of sorrow, as five of the seven children born to the couple died before reaching adulthood.) But Story’s scholarly inclinations could find no better venue for pursuit than the highest court of the land, and he therefore accepted Madison’s nomination. The Senate confirmed him to the position of associate justice in November 1811; he took the oath of office on February 3, 1812.
Jefferson’s premonition concerning Story’s devotion to Republican principles almost immediately proved itself correct. The new associate justice—confirmed to the Court together with Gabriel Duvall—demonstrated himself, as Jefferson surmised, only a “pseudo-republican.” He quickly aligned himself with the federalism of Jefferson’s great nemesis, Chief Justice John Marshall, and championed, more than any other justice on the Court, a broad scope of audiority for federal courts. In his zeal for this cause, he even outstripped Marshall himself at times. Early in his tenure on the Court, Story launched a campaign to recognize a federal common law of crimes. This issue had been settled shortly after Story took his seat on the Court in United States v. Hudson & Goodwin (1812), in which the Court denied the power of federal courts to enforce federal common-law—or judge-made— criminal sanctions. But the pseudo-Republican Story refused for a time to accept this decisively
Republican holding. As a circuit judge he insisted that the issue was still open and lobbied his brethren—unsuccessfully, as it turned out— to reconsider Hudson. What Story could not accomplish through judicial action, though, he was able to accomplish politically. He drafted a code of federal criminal laws and in 1825, with die legislative assistance of Daniel Webster, saw it enacted by Congress as law.
Marshall took the lead in authoring most of the Court’s important decisions during this period. But in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816), the chief justice had to recuse himself because he had a financial interest at stake in the case and had been involved in the case as counsel at one point. In this important Federalist triumph, Associate Justice Story stood in for the chief justice, authoring the opinion for a unanimous Court. It was his most significant and most controversial opinion. The case arose from a Virginia statute, passed during the Revolutionary War, that confiscated the property of Loyalists. One such individual, Thomas Lord Fairfax, had willed his substantial properties to a British subject. This inheritance was frustrated by the Virginia law, however, even though the law itself was in conflict with the subsequently ratified Treaty of Paris and Jay Treaty, both of which protected Loyalists from the kind of confiscation the Virginia law had effected. When the Virginia law was challenged before die Supreme Court in Fairfax’s Devisee v. Hunter’s Lessee (1813), the Court, in an opinion by Justice Story, found the Virginia law was superseded by the federal treaties.
The decision played poorly in Virginia, where states’ rights advocates denounced it as an assault on state sovereignty and where the Virginia Supreme Court soberly pronounced itself under no obligation to abide by the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the section of the 1789 Judiciary Act that authorized the Court to review state court decisions inconsistent with federal laws and treaties was itself unconstitutional. In this posture the case returned again to the Supreme Court as Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, and Justice Story again wrote the majority opinion for the Court. In it, he insisted that the Supreme Court was the final arbiter of questions involving the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Thus, just as the Court possessed the power of judicial review over federal laws—the principle announced in Mar bury v. Madison (1803) by which the Court was declared the final authority as to whether a law violated die Constitution—so it also possessed this power with respect to state laws that were inconsistent wirii federal law.
Story championed a vision of federal judicial authority that would preside over unified principles of commerce. He denied that federal courts were bound to enforce practices that conflicted with these unified principles. Thus, in Swift v. Tyson (1845), he authored the Court’s opinion granting federal courts the ability to apply general commercial principles to resolve cases involving suits between citizens of different states, rather riian being bound by the law of a particular state. Story’s decision in the case would survive until the 20th century, when the Court overturned Swift in Erie Railroad v. Tompkins (1938). More controversially, while acting as a circuit judge, Story—a longtime foe of slavery—held in United States v. La Jeune Eugenie (1822) that the international slave trade violated the law of nations. His brethren on the Court would not follow him to this controversial conclusion, however, and in The Antelope (1825), Marshall’s opinion for the Court over-ruled Story’s holding.
Story served as Chief Justice Marshall’s most vigorous ally on the Court until the latter died in the summer of 1835.
Near the end of 1804, he married Mary Lynde Oliver, a woman who shared a love of poetry with her spouse. But seven months later, he endured his young wife’s untimely death and then, in the same year, the death of his father. The grieving Story promptly turned against his own poetic work, purchasing all the copies of The Power of Solitude he could find and destroying them.
In August 1803 he had married Sarah Waldo Wetmore.
Story opposed Jacksonian democracy, saying it was "oppression" of property rights by republican governments when popular majorities began (in the 1830s) to restrict and erode the property rights of the minority of rich men. R. Kent Newmyer presents Story as a "Statesman of the Old Republic" who tried to be above democratic politics and to shape the law in accordance with the republicanism of Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall and the New England Whigs of the 1820s and 1830s, including Daniel Webster. Historians agree that Justice Joseph Story reshaped American law—as much or more than Marshall or anyone else—in a conservative direction that protected property rights.