Joseph Story

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American jurist Joseph Story

Joseph Story (September 18, 1779 - September 10, 1845), American jurist, was born at Marblehead, Massachusetts.

He graduated at Harvard in 1798, was admitted to the bar at Salem, Mass., in 1801, and soon attained eminence in his profession. He was a member of the Democratic party, and served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1805-1808, and in 1810-1812 for two terms as speaker, and was a representative in Congress from December 1808 to March 1809.

In November 1811, at the age of thirty-two, he became, by President Madison's appointment, the youngest appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. This position he retained until his death. Here he found his true sphere of work. The traditions of the American people, their strong prejudice for the local supremacy of the states and against a centralized government, had yielded reluctantly to the establishment of the Federal legislative and executive in 1789. The Federal judiciary had been organized at the same time, but had never grasped the full measure of its powers.

Soon after Story's appointment the Supreme Court began to bring out into plain view the powers which the United States Constitution had given it over state courts and state legislation. The leading place in this work belongs to Chief Justice John Marshall, but Story has a very large share in that remarkable series of decisions and opinions, from 1812 until 1832, by which the work was accomplished. In addition to this he built up the department of admiralty law in the United States federal courts; he devoted much attention to equity jurisprudence, and rendered invaluable services to the department of patent law. In 1819 he attracted much attention by his vigorous charges to grand juries, denouncing the slave trade, and in 1820 he was a prominent member of the Massachusetts Convention called to revise the state constitution.

In 1829 he became the first Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University, and continued until his death to hold this position, meeting with remarkable success as a teacher and winning the affection of his students, whom he imbued with much of his own enthusiasm. His industry was unremitting, and, besides attending to his duties as an associate justice and a professor of law, he wrote many reviews and magazine articles, delivered various orations on public occasions, and published a large number of works on legal subjects, which won high praise on both sides of the Atlantic.

Among his publications are:

  • Commentaries on the Law of Bailments (1832)
  • Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (3 vols., 1833), a work of profound learning which is still the standard treatise on the subject
  • Commentaries on the Conflict of Laws (1834), by many regarded as his most significant work
  • Commentaries on Equity Jurisprudence (2 vols., 1835-1836)
  • Equity Pleadings (1838)
  • Law of Agency (1839)
  • Law of Partnership (1841)
  • Law of Bills of Exchange (1843)
  • Law of Promissory Notes (1845).

He also edited several standard legal works. His Supreme Court decisions may be found in Cranch's, Wheaton's and Peters's Reports, his Circuit Courts decisions in Mason's, Sumner's and Story's Reports. His Miscellaneous Writings, first published in 1835, appeared in an enlarged edition 1851.

See The Life and Letters of Joseph Story (2 vols., Boston and London, 1851), by his son, WW Story.

Story died at home in Cambirdge, and is interred at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery there. Story County, Iowa was named in his honor.

Of all of Story's opinions, non-lawyers are most likely to be familiar with the case of the Amistad, which was the basis for a 1997 movie of the same name by Steven Spielberg. Oddly, Story was played by an actual retired Supreme Court justice, Harry Blackmun (and is apparently so far the only Supreme Court justice to have been portrayed by another in a motion picture).

Preceded by:
William Cushing
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
February 3, 1812September 10, 1845
Succeeded by:
Levi Woodbury

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