Samuel Nelson was an American attorney and a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.Though he authored nearly 350 opinions during his time on the Court, these mostly occupy dusty pages that few people ever find the need to consult. He is best known perhaps for the restrained position he took in the Dred Scott case, but since his restraint vindicated the rights of slaveholders, few observers today characterize it as a virtue.
The son of farmers, Samuel Nelson was born on November 11, 1792, in Hebron, New York. His parents, John Rodgers Nelson and Jean McArthur Nelson, entertained hopes of a ministerial career for their son and arranged for his education in private academies and ultimately at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Samuel chose to pursue a career in law after graduating from college in 1813. He apprenticed in a law office in Salem, New York, for two years before migrating to Madison County and entering into a law partnership with one of his former mentors. In 1818 he was admitted to the bar, and two years later he married his partner’s daughter, Pamela Woods.
Nelson’s wife died within three years after giving birth to a son. Nelson then left his law partnership to set up a practice of his own in Cortland, New York. He soon earned a measure of prominence as an attorney and also secured a position as the town postmaster. At the same time, he embarked on a brief political career, serving as a presidential elector in 1820 and as delegate from his county at the State Constitutional Convention in 1821. Two years later, in 1823, Nelson began what would eventually become a 50-year judicial career when he accepted an appointment to the Sixth Circuit Court of New York. He moved to Cooperstown and married again, this time to Catherine Ann Russell. Three children would be born to this union, and one of them—Rensselaer P. Nelson—would one day follow in his father’s judicial footsteps by becoming a federal district court judge in Minnesota.
After eight years as a state circuit court judge, Nelson received an appointment in 1831 to tire New York Supreme Court. Six years later he replaced John Savage, one of his original legal mentors, as chief justice of the court. Nelson’s steady advance in his career as a judge seems to have owed a great deal to solid ability and a judicial temperament. “Nature intended him for a judge,” one biographer wrote. “His opinions are pervaded by a humane and liberal spirit. They were read and admired for their terseness, directness, lucidity and practical comprehension of the cases under consideration. ...”
After 20 years of distinguished service on the New York bench, Nelson found himself belatedly considered for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. When fellow New Yorker Smith Thompson died in 1843, however, Nelson was far from the first candidate to be considered for the vacancy Thompson’s death created on the Court. President John Tyler proved remarkably incapable of finding a candidate willing to undertake an appointment to the Court and—more important—able to obtain confirmation from the U.S. Senate. The Senate rejected Tyler’s first choice, Secretary of the Treasury John Spencer. A subsequent series of candidates declined to accept the appointment. When Chancellor Reuben H. Walworth of New York withdrew from consideration in the face of political opposition, Tyler turned at last to Samuel Nelson. The Senate easily confirmed his appointment, and the 52-year-old New Yorker took his seat on the Supreme Court on March 5, 1845.
After the war, President Ulysses S. Grant solicited Nelson to put his mediation skills to the service of his country once again by appointing the aged justice in 1871 to be a member of the Alabama Claims Commission. This commission sought reparations from England for damages caused by British built ships, such as the Alabama, used by the Confederacy against the Union. Overtaxed by this final public service and plagued with insomnia and general ill health, Justice Nelson resigned from the Supreme Court in November 1872. He retired to Cooperstown, New York, and died there, just over a year later, on December 13,1873.
History remembers Samuel Nelson most for his role in the Court’s decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). When Dred Scott, a slave, argued before the Court that his travels with his master into free territory had made him free once he returned to Missouri, a slave state, a majority of the Court seemed initially poised to decide the case on technical grounds. Nelson took the position that Missouri law controlled the question of Scott’s status as a slave and that the Court had no jurisdiction to override the state’s determination in this matter, which was adverse to Scott’s claim. In fact, Nelson prepared an initial draft of an opinion for the Court, resolving the case on this ground. But the other members of the Court eventually decided to address the core issues posed by the case: whether blacks were citizens of the United States and thus entitled to invoke the Court’s jurisdiction; and whether the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which limited slavery in certain territories, violated the Constitution. At the suggestion of Justice James M. Wayne, a majority of the Court chose to decide these controversial questions, ultimately ruling that Dred Scott, because he was black, could not be a citizen of the United States and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Nelson, however, persisted in his belief that the case should be resolved more circumspectly and submitted his original opinion for the Court as his own separate opinion in the case. Though his opinion did not earn him the same blistering attacks heaped on Chief Justice Taney and the other justices who followed the reasoning of Taney, many Northern observers chastised Nelson for ruling against Dred Scott. An editorial from the New York Tribune dismissed him as a timid jurist who had failed to stand up for the truth: “. . . a New York Democrat of the perishing school. . . . He hesitated to go with the Southern Judges in their revolutionary opinions, yet he had not sufficient virtue to boldy stand up against their heresies.” History has not rescued Nelson from this judgment.
The national resolution of the slavery debate that Taney and his colleagues hoped to achieve through the Dred Scott decision never materialized. As the country stood on the precipice of war, Nelson again sought some intermediate resolution that would stave off conflict. He served for a time with Justice John Campbell of Alabama as an intermediary in discussions between President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, and a confederate delegation concerning federal occupation of Fort Sumter in South Carolina. When Seward failed to keep a commitment to remove federal troops from the fort, Nelson abandoned his role as a mediator, and war soon followed.
In the face of Lincoln’s vigorous attempts to subdue Southern rebellion, Nelson preferred strict adherence to constitutional principles even if this meant allowing Southern states to withdraw from the Union, which, he thought, could not be preserved by force. When Lincoln took the contrary view and blockaded Southern ports even before a congressional declaration of war, Nelson sided with the minority of the Court that thought the president had overstepped his constitutional bounds. In the Prize Cases (1863), he joined with justices Taney, Catron, and Clifford in a dissent from the majority holding that Lincoln’s blockage was justified. Writing for the dissenters, Justice Nelson agreed that Congress alone had the constitutional power to declare war and that, in the absence of such a declaration, Lincoln’s vigorous action was illegitimate.
In 1820 he married his partner’s daughter, Pamela Woods. In 1823 he married again, this time to Catherine Ann Russell. Three children would be born to this union, and one of them—Rensselaer P. Nelson—would one day follow in his father’s judicial footsteps by becoming a federal district court judge in Minnesota.