Associate Justice Levi Woodbury (c. 1850).
The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Levi Woodbury, portrait.
Litchfield, Connecticut 06759, United States
Litchfield Law School.
Hanover, New Hampshire 03755, United States
BEP portrait of Woodbury as Secretary of the Treasury.
Levi Woodbury was educated first at a public school and eventually at Dartmouth College. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1809, Mr. Woodbury pursued a legal education briefly at the Tapping Reeve Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut. He eventually determined to supplement this education with legal apprenticeships, first with Samuel Dana of Boston and later with Jeremiah Smith in Exeter, New Hampshire.
By 1812 Mr. Woodbury had been admitted to the bar and had set up a legal practice in his hometown. During these early years, the young lawyer also busied himself with political affairs, becoming an ardent supporter of President James Madison’s administration and a rising Republican star. Beginning in 1816, Levi Woodbury was appointed clerk of the New Hampshire senate. Soon thereafter, when New Hampshire Republicans decided to reorganize Dartmouth College as a public institution, he was appointed one of its new trustees. In 1817 Republican Governor William Plumer elevated the 27-year-old Mr. Woodbury to a seat on the New Hampshire Supreme Court. That same year a constitutional challenge to the state’s reorganization of the college came before the court. Not surprisingly, Levi Woodbury, a Dartmouth trustee, saw no constitutional offense in the state’s treatment of the college and appears to have joined in the court’s decision upholding the state’s actions in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (N.H. 1817). When the case eventually arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall famously disagreed by holding that the attempted public takeover of Dartmouth violated the Constitution’s Contracts Clause.
With Elizabeth Clapp’s, his wife, connections and his own political talents, Levi Woodbury was poised four years later to become governor of New Hampshire when Republican infighting made him an attractive compromise candidate. He won, but gubernatorial elections occurred annually in New Hampshire at that time, and he was not able to hold onto the post past his initial term. In his reelection bid, when a close vote threw the governor’s election into the state legislature, he lost to his opponent. His short-lived career as governor, and the political opposition that marked it, prompted Mr. Woodbury to comment wryly in a letter to his father-in-law that one must do his duty and create "some memorial to his children and friends, that his life was not that of a mere vegetable or an oyster."
On the heels of his gubernatorial loss, Mr. Woodbury landed quickly on his feet. He won a seat in the New Hampshire legislature in 1825 and was immediately chosen speaker of the House. That same year the legislature elected him to serve as U.S. senator. After he had served six years in the Senate, President Andrew Jackson tapped him for a position in the Cabinet as secretary of the Natty. Mr. Woodbury joined the Cabinet with Roger B. Taney, President Jackson’s attorney general, who would shortly be named chief justice of the Supreme Court that Mr. Woodbury himself would later join. The two men would both become embroiled in the war President Jackson waged against the Bank of the United States. After Andrew Jackson vetoed the bill rechartering the bank, he decided to strangle the Bank’s remaining life by removing federal deposits from it. When two successive treasury secretaries declined to follow the president’s orders on this point, Jackson finally appointed Mr. Taney to the post, and he promptly accomplished the president’s controversial wishes. For this loyalty, Roger Taney was assured that he would receive a permanent appointment as secretary of the treasury.
Nevertheless, the Senate rejected Mr. Taney’s appointment, upon which President Jackson nominated Levi Woodbury for the position. Mr. Woodbury would hold the post of treasury secretary from 1834 through 1841. His advance to this influential cabinet position during a controversial period owed a good deal to his ability to appear uncommitted on contested issues until circumstances forced his hand. This, at least, was the judgment of Roger Taney in connection with the controversy over the Bank of the United States.
With the arrival of William Henry Harrison’s presidential administration in 1841, Levi Woodbury returned home to New Hampshire, only to be chosen immediately by the state legislature to return to Washington as a U.S. senator. By now his name was a fixture in national Democratic political circles. He was mentioned in 1844 as a possible Democratic presidential candidate and, after James K. Polk’s nomination, as a possible candidate for vice president. Though neither nomination ultimately fell to Mr. Woodbury, his name remained prominent when President Polk began to fill positions in his administration. In 1845 Mr. Polk suggested him as minister to Great Britain. Levi Woodbury declined this appointment, but when Associate Justice Joseph Story died in the fall of that year, the president nominated Mr. Woodbury to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. He was appointed while the Senate was not in session and began service in 1845. The Senate confirmed the appointment on January 3, 1846.
The year after the decision in Jones v. Van Zandt, Mr. Woodbury seemed a strong candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. He lost, however, to Lewis Cass, who subsequently lost the presidential election to Zachary Taylor. Levi Woodbury’s close brush with the nation’s highest office fueled his determination to win the Democratic nomination in 1852. Death intervened, though, and stilled Mr. Woodbury’s political ambition.
Associate Justice Woodbury demonstrated a marked enthusiasm for state legislature power in his five years on the Court. In the ongoing controversy over the relative powers of Congress and the states to regulate commercial matters, Mr. Woodbury tended to side with the states. He joined with the majority in the License Cases (1847), upholding the power of states to regulate liquor traffic. Later, in the Passenger Cases (1849), he sided with Justices Roger Taney, Peter Daniel, and Samuel Nelson in dissenting from the Court’s declaration that a state tax on immigrants usurped congressional authority under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.
Levi Woodbury’s support for states’ rights was congenial enough to traditional southern sensibilities to earn for him the characterization as a "dough face" in some quarters - that is, a northerner with the political views characteristic of southerners. Justice Woodbury’s views on slavery certainly did nothing to counter this characterization, though they were generally consistent with the views of other conservative northern Democrats of the time. The abolitionist case against slavery was, he thought, simply inconsistent with the Constitution’s treatment of the issue. The immorality of slavery held no place in his constitutional scheme. The framers of the Constitution had wrestled with issues relating to slavery, he believed, and had negotiated an uneasy resolution of them. "Whatever may be the theoretical opinions of any as to the expediency of some of those compromises or of die right of property in persons which they recognize, this Court has no alternative while they exist, but to stand by the Constitution and laws widi fidelity to tiieir duties and their oaths. The path is a straight and narrow one."
Quotes from others about the person
Roger Taney: "[Levi Woodbury] was a singularly wary and cautious man, unwilling to commit himself upon any opinion which he was not obliged immediately to act and never further than that action acquired."
In 1819 Levi Woodbury married Elizabeth Williams Clapp, the daughter of Asa Clapp, a wealthy merchant in Portland, Maine, who supported his son-in-law’s political aspirations.