Joseph Story (1779-1845)

August 1, 2012

Best known as the youngest Associate Justice ever appointed to the Supreme Court, Joseph Story was born on September 18, 1779.

Born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Joseph Story was the oldest of eleven children of Mehitable Pedrick and Elisha Story. Elisha was a surgeon and physician, who was active in the Sons of Liberty and participated in the Boston Tea Party.  Story remained close to his sisters and brothers throughout his life. He was educated at Marblehead Academy until 1794 when he successfully passed the exam for entrance to Harvard College. Known to study fourteen hours a day, he graduated second in his class to Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in 1798.  Story studied law in the offices of Samuel Sewall in Marblehead and Samuel Putnam in Salem, both of whom were later appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. He told a friend that his decision to pursue law was not without a “sigh of regret . . . expressive of my ardent love of literary fame, and the impossibility of devoting all my attention to the object of my wishes.” He opened a practice in Salem after he was admitted to the bar in 1801. Known as the “Poet from Marblehead,” he was chosen to give the eulogy for George Washington in the town in 1800 and Salem’s Fourth of July oration in 1804. Story published Power of Solitude, a 1,500 line love poem.  It received poor reviews causing Story to buy and burn all the remaining copies. He continued, however, to use poetry as an outlet for his emotions.

In December 1804 he married Mary Lynde Oliver, the daughter of a local minister. Sadly, his wife died the next year only a few months before the death of Story’s father. Story grieved by throwing himself deeper into work and becoming active in politics. He served several terms in the Massachusetts State legislature before he was appointed to Congress in 1808. He was reelected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives the following year and served as Speaker of the House in 1811.

After the death of Associate Justice William Cushing, President James Monroe needed to appoint a new associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. The successor had to be from New England, like Cushing, because during this period associate justices were also responsible for managing their regional circuit court. Monroe nominated three respected candidates, all of whom declined the appointment, before he selected Story in the fall of 1811. Story embraced the nomination stating the opportunity “will allow me to pursue, what of all things I admire, juridical studies.”(Dunne, 81) At the age of thirty-two Story became the youngest justice ever to be appointed to that Court. The War of 1812 changed the trading habits of maritime shippers; many of Story’s decisions involved cases concerning admiralty and prize law. His knowledge of commercial law made him particularly well suited for his positions as president of the Merchant Bank of Salem (1815-1835) and vice president of the Salem Savings Bank (1818-1830).

In 1808 Story married Sarah Waldo Wetmore, daughter of Judge William Wetmore of the Boston Court of Common Pleas. Of the couple’s seven children only two, Mary and William Wetmore, survived to adulthood. After the death of one of his sons in 1814, Story wrote, “I bear the loss as well as I may; I fly to business to stifle my recollections of the past, and I find . . . that employment is the only relief under the severe losses of human life.”

Story supported an expansive reading of the Constitution and advocated for the expansion of federal powers by creating common law for criminal and commercial law. He believed in judicial nationalism, or the curbing of states’ rights to ensure the foundation of a strong national judicial system for the developing nation. His shared these views with Chief Justice John Marshall. In 1816 Story wrote one of the most important decisions of his career: Martin vs. Hunter’s Lessee, a case concerning Virginia’s confiscation of Loyalist property during the Revolutionary War. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Virginia had violated a U.S. treaty therefore unlawfully seizing the property in question, overturning the Virginia Supreme Court. Story’s landmark decision asserted the United States Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over state courts in cases on federal constitutional law, which established the precedent for the operation of the United States judicial system. Story disagreed with slavery on a moral and political level but his position required him to uphold laws governing slavery. He used sound legal justifications, however, wherever possible to limit the application of slavery. In 1841 he wrote the decision that freed the African captives of the Amistad slave ship after their mutiny, citing an 1817 Spanish law that forbade slave trade. During his career Story wrote 286 opinions, of which only fourteen were dissenting opinions.

In September 1829 Story moved to Cambridge after becoming the Dane Professor of Law at Harvard. Story helped develop the nation’s first law school at Harvard by increasing the endowment, improving the library and stimulating enrollment. His reputation and teaching style attracted hundreds of students to his courses. He published a series of legal treaties known as Commentaries. He published nine popular multi-volume editions between 1832 to 1845. On the Constitution (1833) and Conflict of Laws (1834) were translated into French and German and contributed to Story’s international reputation. In addition to his responsibilities on the Supreme Court and at Harvard, Story was active in his community. He was one of the founders of Mount Auburn Cemetery and delivered the consecration address at the dedication ceremony of the new cemetery on September 24, 1831. He served as president of the Cemetery from 1835 to his death in 1845.

When Chief Justice Marshall died in 1835, Story was disappointed that he was not appointed in his place. President Jackson did not agree with many of Story’s opinions and appointed Roger Taney as Chief Justice. Of this period Story wrote: “For the future I must be in a dead minority of the Court, with the painful alternative of either pressing an open dissent from the opinions of the Court, or, by my silence seeming to acquiesce in them.” (Dunne, 427) He dutifully stayed on the Court to tackle his mounting circuit court caseload. Upon his death, Story’s student and friend Senator Charles Sumner found comfort in Story’s lot at Mount Auburn, “by the thought of the pilgrims that would come from afar, through long successions of generations, to look upon the last home of the great Jurist. From all parts of our country, from all the lands where law is taught as a great science, where justice prevails, they shall come to seek the grave of their master.”  In 1896, Mount Auburn named its newest chapel, Story Chapel, in honor of Story.

Joseph Story is buried at Mount Auburn in Lot 313 on Narcissus Path.


Adapted from Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: Joseph Story , 2005.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *