116th St & Broadway, New York, New York 10027, United States
14 Old Chapel Rd, Middlebury, Vermont 05753, United States
198 College Hill Rd, Clinton, New York 13323, United States
The portrait of Samuel Nelson from the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Nelson's parents entertained hopes of a ministerial career for their son and arranged for his education in private academies and ultimately at Middlebury College in Vermont. Mr. Nelson 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.
Samuel Nelson received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Geneva College in 1837 and Middlebury College in 1841. He received honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from Columbia University and Hamilton College in 1870.
Samuel Nelson left his law partnership to set up a practice of his own in Cortland, New York, after his wife's death. 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, Mr. 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.
After eight years as a state circuit court judge, Mr. 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. His steady advance in his career as a judge seems to have owed a great deal to solid ability and a judicial temperament.
After 20 years of distinguished service on the New York bench, Samuel Nelson found himself belatedly considered for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. When fellow New Yorker Smith Thompson died in 1843, however, Mr. Nelson was far from the first candidate to be considered for the vacancy Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Samuel 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.
Mr. Nelson was an Episcopalian.
Justice Nelson was a constitutionally conservative Democrat. He could also be described as a judicial minimalist, meaning he frequently took a moderate stance in cases offering a small, case-specific interpretation of the law, and placed a heavy emphasis on precedent. While Nelson was a strong supporter of the Union, he often criticized President Lincoln’s policies and did not believe that the Union could be saved in any worthwhile state through the use of force. While Justice Nelson remained relatively non-partisan, he did side frequently with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Justice John Archibald Campbell. Samuel Nelson also rather frequently disagreed with Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis. Justice Nelson remained good friends with Chief Justice Taney throughout his lifetime.
Mr. Nelson was a hardworking but politically neutral member of the court.
In 1820 Samuel Nelson 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.