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SUPREME COURT HISTORY
Law, Power & Personality
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Portrait of Joseph Story
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.


Louis D. Brandeis Sandra Day O'Connor Henry Baldwin Peter Daniel James McReynolds William Douglas view all biographies Stephen Field Joseph Story