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Peter Vivian Daniel Edit Profile

judge , Lawyer

Justice Peter V. Daniel was a conservative of conservatives. He sat on a court characterized by conservatism and made his fellow colleagues on the bench seem almost moderate in comparison to him. So extreme were his views that he was able to exert litde influence on the course of constitutional development.


Peter Vivian Daniel was born in the wake of the Revolutionary War on April 24, 1784, on a farm in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of Travers Daniel and Frances Moncure Daniel.


He grew up on a family estate called “Crow’s Nest” was educated privately, and then attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1802. He left Princeton after a few months to return home. In 1805 he moved to Richmond to pursue legal studies in the law office of a famous Virginian, Edmund Randolph, who had played a principal role in the Constitutional Convention and later served as attorney general and secretary of state under President George Washington. By 1808 Daniel had completed his studies with Randolph and returned to Stafford County, where he was admitted to the bar. That same year he participated in a duel, for reasons now unknown, and mortally wounded his opponent, John Seddon.


Peter Daniel’s political career began in 1809 with his election to the Virginia legislature. Within four years he had won an appointment to the Virginia Council of State, to w'hich position he added concurrent service as lieutenant governor beginning in 1818. He would hold these two posts until 1835. These appointments secured Daniel’s membership in the loose con-federation of Virginia leaders, referred to as the Richmond Junta, who controlled the state’s political affairs. From this political base Daniel par-ticipated in the alliance forged between Virginia and New York Republicans, knowm commonly as the Richmond-Albany axis, and cultivated a friendship with New' York’s rising political star, Governor Martin Van Buren.

At the time that Van Buren’s political fortunes were on the ascendancy, Daniel’s owm reached something of a zenith and soon commenced a decline. He supported President Andrew Jackson vigorously, including his choice of Van Buren as a vice-presidential candidate in 1832, but Daniel w'as not able to convert his alliance with Jackson and Van Buren into tangible political attainments. He lost a bid for the Virginia governorship in 1830, and by the middle of the decade he had also lost his posts on the Virginia Council of State and as lieutenant governor. President Jackson made some attempt to reward Daniel’s loyalty by offering him the post of attorney general of the United States after Roger Taney moved from this position to that of secretary of state in 1833, but Daniel declined the position for financial reasons. In 1836, however, Jackson found a new position for Daniel, this time as a federal district judge for the Eastern District of Virginia. Daniel happily accepted this position, in which he served for five years.

Even as a district judge, Daniel had continued to demonstrate his loyalty to Van Buren. He presided over the Democratic state convention in 1840 that proposed Van Buren’s reelection. Although Van Buren lost this bid, he still found a way to reward Daniel when Justice Philip Barbour died suddenly on February 25, 1841. Two days later, before Barbour had been buried and scarcely a week before Van Buren left office, the president appointed Daniel to the vacant seat on the Court. The Senate confirmed the nomination on March 2, and Daniel took his seat the following January. The Whig party, now' in control, retaliated against Van Buren’s lastminute appointment by rearranging the federal circuits, assigning Daniel to the circuit that covered Arkansas and Mississippi. While all of the Supreme Court justices had to serve as a circuit-court judge as well as manage their responsibilities on the Court, Daniel’s new circuit-riding responsibilities proved particularly onerous.

Influence is often a casualty of dissent, and Justice Daniel’s eccentric views largely stripped him of the capacity to influence the Court’s direction during his years of service as an associate justice. He championed agrarian policies in an age of rapid commercial expansion. Even justices who shared with him a significant regard for states’ rights did not share this backward-looking devotion to policies that seemed increasingly out of place in the economic climate of the mid- 19th century. Moreover, although the Court under Chief Justice Roger B. Taney took pains to reserve an important place for states at the national economic table, it also held in part a significant respect for Congress’s constitutionally designated role in supervising commerce among the states. Justice Daniel, however, scarcely ever encountered a federal commercial law of which he approved; they invariably seemed to him pernicious encroachments on the prerogatives of states. For example, his rejection of federal power to build roads and other internal improvements within the states drove him to dissent in Searightv. Stokes (1845).

It also fueled his dissent in the Passenger Cases ( 1849), when a majority of the Court held that a state tax on immigrants interfered with Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. In the latter case, Justice Daniel viewed with great alarm the majority’s lack of respect for state authority over what he viewed as essentially internal affairs. The Court’s decision had “trampled down some of the strongest defenses of the safety and independence of the states.”

Daniel combined a fierce devotion to states’ rights with an equally fervent distaste for corporations. Against a majority of the Court, he denied that corporations were “citizens” within the meaning of the Constitution and so denied that they could invoke the jurisdiction of federal courts to hear disputes between the “citizens” of different states. To similar effect in Planters’

Bank of Mississippi v. Sharp (1848), and again in dissent, Justice Daniel denied that such protections as the Constitution provided to business arrangements under the clause forbidding impairments of contracts applied to corporate charters. These, he thought, could be freely regulated in service of state police power. Daniel matched his public distrust of corporations and banks with a similarly adamant private distrust, an antipathy so fixed in his mind that his will stipulated that none of his estate be invested in “stocks or bonds of banks, railroads, or corporation or joint stock companies of any kind.”

As would be expected from a champion of states’ rights, Justice Daniel settled comfortably within the majority of the Court that rejected Dred Scott’s claim to freedom in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). He agreed emphatically with Chief Justice Taney that Scott, by reason of his race, could not be a citizen of the United States and thus could not invoke the Court’s power to hear disputes between “citizens” of different states. He counted as settled the principles that the African negro race never have been acknowledged as belonging to the family of nations; that as amongst them there never has been known or recognized by the inhabitants of other countries anything partaking of the character of nationality, or civil or political polity; that this race has been by all the nations of Europe regarded as subjects of capture or purchase; as subjects of commerce or traffic; and that the introduction of that race into every section of this country was not as members of civil or political society, but as slaves, as property in the strictest sense of the term.

Justice Daniel served through the Court’s 1858 term. After the Court recessed, he returned to his home in Richmond, Virginia, where he died on May 31, 1860, in time to see his state declare its secession from the Union.


Daniel’s previous political service and his tenure as a federal district judge imbued him with political principles that would dominate his work as a Supreme Court justice. He brought with him to the Court an ingrained suspicion of federal power, an unyielding devotion to the rights of states, and an abiding hostility to corporations. Daniel arrived on the Court at a time when Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had forged a new majority increasingly hospitable to state legislative power and more willing to limit federal power. But Daniel soon showed himself to be an arch-conservative and one of the Court’s most vigorous advocates for states’ rights. He so outdistanced his colleagues in his devotion to state power and his suspicion of all federal encroachments on it that the following decade and a half would find him dissenting alone far more often than any of his brethren. Fifty dissents would flow from his pen before death muzzled his uniquely dissident voice in 1860.


Daniel followed in the steps of innumerable legal apprentices by marrying Lucy Randolph, the daughter of his mentor, on April 20,1810. The marriage, which raised Daniel’s social standing considerably, lasted until Lucy’s death nearly four decades later in 1847. The couple had no children together.

Lucy Randolph - United States