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Birth:
18 Sep 1779 1
Marblehead MA 1
Death:
10 Sep 1845 1
Cambridge, MA 1
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Full Name:
Joseph Story 1
Birth:
18 Sep 1779 1
Marblehead MA 1
Death:
10 Sep 1845 1
Cambridge, MA 1

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Portrait of Joseph Story.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society. Joseph Story

b. September 18, 1779, Marblehead, MA
d. September 10, 1845, Cambridge, MA


Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
(1811-1845)


Joseph Story graduated from Harvard College in 1798 and practiced law in Salem, Massachusetts, from 1801 to 1811. A member of Thomas Jefferson's Republican party, he served in the state House of Representatives from 1805 to 1811 and in the U.S. Congress from 1808 to 1809. Returning to the state legislature in 1810, he was chosen Speaker of the House the following year. 

In November 1811, President James Madison appointed the 32-year-old Story to the Supreme Court. Though he had no judicial experience, Story was respected for his legal scholarship, and Madison hoped he would contest the positions of Chief Justice John Marshall in expanding federal government powers. The youngest person ever to join the Court, Story soon disappointed his political sponsors and aligned himself with Marshall. Where Marshall was a middling legal scholar at best, Story was erudite, and he contributed significantly to decisions that laid the legal foundations of federal power. 

Story's decisions shaped early American commercial and admiralty law. His opinions freed American businesses from English common law and unleashed that uniquely American business entity, the corporation. 

A man of great energy, Story was approachable and sociable, but he was also combative, and his life was marked by personal tragedy. His first wife died in 1805, six months after they were married. He remarried in 1808, but most of his children died before they reached adolescence. He coped with personal difficulty by throwing himself into his work, and he took on many and diverse responsibilities. In 1829 he became Dane Professor of Law at Harvard. Thereafter he led a dual career as jurist and professor, and in addition even served as president of the Massachusetts branch of the National Bank. 

Though intensely opposed to slavery, Story believed the Constitution recognized and legitimized the institution, and he tried to avoid rulings that placed his ethics and his respect for the Constitution in conflict. In 1841, however, a case came before the Supreme Court that forced him to articulate his most basic principles. A Spanish ship, the AMISTAD, carrying enslaved Africans from Cuba was taken into custody by the U.S. Navy off Long Island. Writing for the majority, Story based his decision on a treaty with Spain and declared that the Africans should be free. His opinion in the case had significant implications for later jurisprudence, for he ruled that Africans were free individuals with full rights to participate in the legal system and to receive a fair trial in American courts regardless of their race. 

Story wrote magazine articles, speeches, and nine multivolumed legal commentaries. His work won praise at home and abroad, and his commentaries on conflicts, in particular, were widely read in Latin America, where they influenced the shaping of treaties and statutes. Story's extensive legal works are among the formative treatises of American legal scholarship.

Joseph Story was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts on September 18, 1779. In 1801, Story became a member of the bar. Story served as a member of the lower house in the Massachusetts legislature from 1805-11, and in Congress as a Democratic-Republican Congressman in 1808-09. In 1810, Justice William Cushing died, creating a New England vacancy on the Supreme Court. President James Madison turned to the 32-year old Story only after his first three choices declined the nomination.

Story is the second youngest person to be appointed to the Court. Story remained a member of the Court until his death on September 10, 1845. Although appointed as a Democratic-Republican, Story's views were largely consistent with those of the Federalist Chief Justice, John Marshall. The first important opinion delivered by Story was Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, (1816). With Marshall recusing himself because of his interest in the litigation, Story upheld the constitutionality of Section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which permitted the Supreme Court to review the opinions of state courts.

In Dartmouth College v. Woodward, (1819), Story wrote a concurring opinion suggesting that Marshall's broad claim that the Contracts Clause barred regulation of companies chartered by the state did not account for the state inserting a "reservation" clause allowing the legislature to later amend the charter of the corporation. In the Charles River Bridge litigation  (1837), Story found himself in the dissent, as newly-confirmed Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney held that a state charter did not impliedly grant the Charles River Bridge Company a monopoly. Story concluded that the company's property rights were to be strictly protected. One of Story's most important opinions was in Swift v. Tyson (1842).

In Swift, Story held that parties to civil litigation in federal court would use general common law rather than the law existing in the state or states in which the dispute arose. This case dramatically expanded federal court jurisdiction. The Supreme Court overruled Swift in 1938 in Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (1938), in which positivist conceptions of law triumphed over a type of natural law. A year before Swift, Story wrote one of seven opinions in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1841), a case concerning the right of Pennsylvania to prosecute a "slave-catcher" who had taken an alleged fugitive slave from Pennsylvania without first obtaining official permission to do so. The Court was fractured, and Story's opinion held that state personal liberty laws were subordinate to federal law guaranteeing the return of fugitive slaves to their owners. Story also concluded that states were not required to participate in the process of returning fugitive slaves (the "rendition" process), which resulted in the nationalization of the slavery issue. 

Story was the Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University from 1829 to his death, and is credited with popularizing the teaching of law in a university setting. He also wrote nine Commentaries on the law, including the three-volume Commentaries on the Constitution, a text still occasionally cited by the Court. 

Story died peacefully, a devout Unitarian. He married Mary Story on December 9, 1804. She died six months later. He married Sarah Wetmore in August 1808. Five of their children died in childhood. His son William Wetmore Story wrote a biography of his father.

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