Joseph Story, Assoc. Justice of the US Supr. Court

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Joseph Story

Birthplace: Marblehead, Essex, Massachusetts, United States
Death: Died in Cambridge, MA
Place of Burial: Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA:Story's grave is located on Narcissus Path near the intersection with Alder Path.
Immediate Family:

Son of Dr. Elisha Story and Mehitable Story
Husband of Sarah Waldo Story and Mary Lynde Story
Father of Mary Oliver Story; William Wetmore Story; Mary Story; Joseph Story; Caroline Story and 2 others
Brother of Eliza White; Charlotte Forrester; Isaac Story; Caroline Story; Lieut. Horace Cullen Story and 6 others
Half brother of john story; rebecca story; tabitha story; elisha story; William Story and 4 others

Occupation: jurist, educator, and writer, Supreme Court Justice
Managed by: account deleted
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About Joseph Story, Assoc. Justice of the US Supr. Court

Joseph Story (September 18, 1779 – September 10, 1845) was an American lawyer and jurist who served on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1811 to 1845. He is most remembered today for his opinions in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee and The Amistad, along with his magisterial Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, first published in 1833. Dominating the field in the 19th century, this work is one of the chief cornerstones of early American jurisprudence. It is the first comprehensive treatise ever written on the U.S. Constitution, and remains a great source of historical information of the formation and early struggles to define the American republic. It also is organized in a way antithetical to modern books on the subject; rather than starting with judicial review and leapfrogging to areas of main interest, Story methodically goes through the Constitution phrase by phase, covering topics most other constitutional commentaries ignore.

Story had opposed Jacksonian democracy and said it was "oppression" of property rights by republican governments when popular majorities in the 1830s began to restrict and erode the property rights of the minority of rich men. Newmyer (1985) presents Story as a "Statesman of the Old Republic" who tried to be above democratic politics and to shape the law in accordance with the republicanism of Story's heroes, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, as well as the New England Whigs of the 1820s and 1830s such as Daniel Webster. Historians agree that Justice Story--as much or more than Marshall or anyone else--did indeed reshape American law in a conservative direction that protected property rights.

Early life

Story was born at Marblehead, Massachusetts. His father was Dr. Elisha Story (1743–1805), a member of the Sons of Liberty who took part in the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Doctor Story moved from Boston to Marblehead during the war. His first wife, Ruth (née Ruddock) soon died, leaving children, and Story remarried in November, 1778, to Mehitable Pedrick, nineteen, the daughter of a wealthy shipping merchant who would lose most of his fortune during the Revolutionary War. Joseph was the first-born of the many children of this second marriage.

As a boy, Joseph Story studied at the Marblehead Academy until the fall of 1794 when his father withdrew him from school because the schoolmaster, William Harris (later president of Columbia University), beat Story for some minor offense. On his second attempt, Story was accepted at Harvard University in January, 1795, with the class of 1798. At Harvard, he was an excellent and well-behaved student and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After graduating second in his class, he read law in Marblehead under Samuel Sewall, then a congressman and later chief justice of Massachusetts. He later read law under Samuel Putnam in Salem.

He was admitted to the bar at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1801. As the only lawyer in Essex County aligned with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, he was hired as counsel to the powerful Republican shipping firm of George Crowninshield & Sons. He was a poet as well and published "The Power of Solitude" in 1804, one of the first long poems by an American. In 1805 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served until 1808, when he succeeded a Crowninshield to become one of Essex County's representatives in Congress, serving from December 1808 to March 1809, during which he led the successful effort to put an end to Jefferson's Embargo against maritime commerce. He re-entered the private practice of law in Salem and was again elected to the state House of Representatives, which he served as Speaker in 1811.

Story's young wife, Mary F.L. Oliver, died in June 1805, shortly after their marriage and two months after the death of his beloved father. In August, 1808, he married Sarah Waldo Wetmore, the daughter of Judge William Wetmore of Boston. They would have seven children, though only two, Mary and William Wetmore Story, survived to adulthood. Their son became a noted poet and sculptor (his bust of his father is in the entrance to the Harvard Law School Library) who would publish The Life and Letters of Joseph Story (2 vols., Boston and London, 1851). Volume I and Volume II

Supreme Court justice

In November 1811, at the age of thirty-two, Story became the youngest Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was nominated by President James Madison on November 15, 1811, to a seat vacated by William Cushing, and was confirmed by the United States Senate, and received his commission, on November 18, 1811. Story remains the youngest Supreme Court Justice at appointment. Here he found a congenial home for the brilliance of his scholarship and the development and expression of his political philosophy.

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. Chief Justice John Marshall led this effort, but Story had a very large share in the remarkable decisions and opinions issued from 1812 until 1832. For instance, Story wrote the opinion for a unanimous court in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee following Marshall's recusal. He built up the department of admiralty law in the United States federal courts; he devoted much attention to equity jurisprudence and 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 gave a public anti-slavery speech in Salem and was prominent in the proceedings of the Massachusetts Convention called to revise the state constitution.

Non-lawyers are most likely to be familiar with Story's 1841 opinion in the case of United States v. The Amistad, which was the basis for a 1997 movie directed by Steven Spielberg. Story was played by an actual retired Supreme Court justice, Harry Blackmun.

In 1829 he moved from Salem to Cambridge and became the first Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University, meeting with remarkable success as a teacher and winning the affection of his students, who had the benefit of learning from a sitting Supreme Court judge. He was a prolific writer, publishing many reviews and magazine articles, delivering orations on public occasions, and publishing books on legal subjects which won high praise on both sides of the Atlantic.


Justice Story was one of the most successful American authors of the first half of the 19th Century. "By the time he turned 65, on September 18, 1844, he earned $10,000 a year from his book royalties. At this point his salary as Associate Justice was $4,500."

Among his publications are:

Commentaries on the Law of Bailments (1832)--Link to an 1846 printing.

Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: Volume I, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: Volume II and Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: Volume III, (3 vols., 1833), a work of profound learning which is still the standard treatise on the subject. Story published a One Volume Abridgment the same year.

The Constitutional Class Book: Being a Brief Exposition of the Constitution of the United States (1834)--Story published an expanded edition, entitled A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States in 1840.

Commentaries on the Conflict of Laws (1834), by many regarded as his most significant work.

The second edition in 1841 was revised, corrected and greatly enlarged. Commentaries on Equity Jurisprudence (2 vols., 1835–1836) Vol. 1 1846 printing Vol. 2 1866 printing-revised by Isaac Redfield.

Equity Pleadings (1838)

Law of Agency (1839) Link to an 1851 printing.

Law of Partnership (1841)--Link to the second edition published in 1846.

Law of Bills of Exchange (1843)--Link to second edition published in 1847.

Law of Promissory Notes Law of Promissory Notes(1845)--Link to the 1851 printing.

A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States (1847).

He also edited several standard legal works. His Miscellaneous Writings, first published in 1835, appeared in an enlarged edition in 1851.

The Life and Letters of Joseph Story (1851) edited by his son William Wetmore Story was published in two volumes: Volume I and Volume II

Story contributed articles (in full, and or as part of larger articles) to The Encyclopedia Americana including this article Death, Punishment of. William Wetmore Story in The Life and Letters of Joseph Story, Volume 2, listed the articles Joseph Story wrote for The Encyclopedia Americana.": Common Law, Congress of the United States, Conquest, Contracts, Corpus Delicti, Courts of England and the United States, Criminal Law,(Story's contribution begins at "To the preceding article....") Death, Punishment of, Domicil, Equity, Evidence, Jury, Lien, Law, Legislation, and Codes, (Story's contribution begins on p. 581.) Natural Law, Nations, Law of, Prize, and Usury. Story is sometimes identified as an "eminent American jurist" by the editors when he is a joint author of an article. See the Law, Legislation, and Codes article for an example.


Gallison's Reports. Reports of Cases in the Circuit Court of the United States for the First Circuit 2d ed. With additional Notes and References. By John Gallison. 2 vols. Boston, 1845. Vol 1 Vol 2

Mason's Reports. Reports of Cases in the Circuit Court of the United States for the First Circuit, from 1816 to 1830. By William P. Mason. 5 vols. Boston, 1819-31. Vol 5

Sumner's Reports. Reports of Cases argued and determined in the Circuit Court of the United States for the First Circuit. By Charles Sumner. 3 vols. Boston, 1836-40.

Story's Reports. Reports of Cases argued and determined in the Circuit Court of the United States for the First Circuit. By W. W. Story. 3 vols. Boston, 1842-47 Vol 3

"These volumes contain all the decisions of Mr. Justice Story on his Circuit. The decisions relate particularly to questions of Equity and Admiralty, and are of great practical value."

Death and legacy

Story died at home in Cambridge in 1845.

Story County, Iowa was named in his honor, as was Story Hall, a dormitory at Harvard Law School, and the DePaul University College of Law chapter of the legal fraternity, Phi Alpha Delta.

Quotations by Story

"The Constitution unavoidably deals in general language. It did not suit the purposes of the people, in framing this great charter of our liberties, to provide for minute specifications of its powers, or to declare the means by which those powers should be carried into execution. It was foreseen that this would be a perilous and difficult, if not an impracticable, task. The instrument was not intended to provide merely for the exigencies of a few years, but was to endure through a long lapse of ages, the events of which were locked up in the inscrutable purposes of Providence." Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 14 U.S. 304 (1816)

"The patent act uses the phrase 'useful invention' merely incidentally. . . . All that the law requires is, that the invention should not be frivolous or injurious to the well-being, good policy, or sound morals of society. The word 'useful,' therefore, is incorporated into the act in contradistinction to mischievous or immoral. For instance, a new invention to poison people, or to promote debauchery, or to facilitate private assassination, is not a patentable invention. But if the invention steers wide of these objections, whether it be more or less useful is a circumstance very material to the interests of the patentee, but of no importance to the public. If it be not so extensively useful, it will silently sink into contempt and disregard." Lowell v. Lewis, 15 F. Cas. 1018 (C.C.D. Mass. 1817)


"Joseph Story was born at Marblehead, Essex County, Massachusetts, September 18, 1779. His father, also of Boston, Dr. Elisha Story, a physician of repute, moved to Marblehead in 1770. He was a widower when he married Mehitable Pedrich, a young lady of nineteen, whom he introduced to his family of seven children. She became herself the mother of a large family, who fortunes she sustained with spirit and dignity through the arduous years of the Revolution. Joseph Story, was the eldest child of the marriage. The boy is his early years at Marblehead, profited by all the peculiarities of the place, studying the rough humors of its seafaring inhabitants, storing his mind with the prolific discussions of the barber's shop, where he was a privileged visitor, listening to wild legends of superstition, fostered by the weird presence of the sea with its mists and breakers;; giving vent to the emotion of his solitary walks by the resounding shore thus early in verse; profiting, withal, by such education in learning as the town afforded. He had an early and happy introduction to good English literature, in the copious storehouse of Dr. Vicesimus Knox. An incident of his first presentation for examination at Harvard, shows the boy as the boy shows the man. At the age of fifteen, he formed the resolution to offer himself for the Freshman class, at the intermediate January vacation. Armed with the necessary Latin and Greek for admission to college, he was informed that he must add to his preparation a knowledge of the exercises of the class for the previous six months. The task seemed insurmountable, but there were yet six weeks of the vacation to make the attempt. At the end of the vacation, he passed the requisite examination, and was matriculated. Channing was his classmate, and he made friendships with youths of talent and virtue, which adorned his future life. He also developed his talent for poetry, and paid some attention to the arts. At commencement, in 1798, when he graduated, he delivered a poem on "Reason." Channing was the foremost in college honors, Story was the second. Returning to his native Marblehead, he entered the law office of Mr. Samuel Sewall, afterwards Chief Justice of Massachusetts. In 1800, he was called upon by the town to deliver the eulogy on Washington, then recently deceased. The next year, he moved to Salem, where he entered the office of Samuel Putnam; and, in the summer, was admitted to the bar, and began the practice of the profession at that place. In 1804, he delivered a Fourth of July oration, and published a poem on which he had been for some time engaged, entitled the "Power of Solitude." The next year, 1805, saw him a member of the Legislature of Massachusetts, a leader in debate and an advocate, in the "Salem Register," of Jeffersonian politics. Having served for three sessions in the Legislature, he was, in 1808, elected a member of Congress. This was Story's single session in Congress, in 1808-09. He declined becoming a candidate for reelection. In the Summer of 1808, he married Miss Sarah Waldo Wetmore, the daughter of the eminent lawyer of Boston. A year later, he was elected a member of the Massachusetts House of Representative. He was chosen Speaker in 1811, and continued a member of the House till the close of the year, when he received the appointment from President Madison, of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. It was accepted, although, the annual salary was at that time three thousand five hundred dollars, while his legal practice yielded him from five to six thousand dollars a year. Henceforth we find him exclusively engaged in his legal duties. While still engaged in political life he found time to edit patiently and accurately three standard works of the profession: "Chitty on Bills of Exchange and Promissory Notes," "Abbott on Shipping," and "Lawes on Assumpsit." He entered upon the judiciary at the age of thirty-two; nearly thirty-five years of active professional life were before him. Story, we find, added to his labors on the bench such services as his participation in the Massachusetts Convention of 1820, for the revision of the State constitution, where he advocated the permanence of the judicial tenure of office and occasional addresses. In 1827 he prepared and published an edition of the "Laws of the United States." He undertook a still more important duty, in his acceptance of the Dane professorship of law at Harvard, a chair expressly founded by the liberal benefactor for his occupancy. His inaugural discourse, in 1829, treated of the value and reviewed the important divisions of legal study. He devoted his court vacations to the school, making, as usual, a pleasure of toil, and imparting the same reconciling spirit to his pupils. His literary undertakings, all in connection with the law, now grew on his hands. He wrote gratuitously for his friend Dr. Lieber's "Cyclopaedia Americana" a series of important articles on legal topics, ranging through the alphabet from "Common Law" and "Congress of the United States," to "Prize" and "Usury." In 1832 appeared his "Commentaries on the Law of Bailments," and the following year the three volumes of his "Commentaries on the Constitution." In 1834 appeared another installment of his labors at Harvard, in his "Commentaries of the Conflict of Laws," In 1835, to these learned literary labors was added a collection of his miscellaneous writings, and in the following year a volume of "Commentaries on Equiity Jurisprudence." Some years later appeared his work on "Promissory Notes," the last of the long series. Its publication shortly preceded his death. On September, 1845, he was overtaken by a sudden illness, a cold, followed by stricture and stoppage of the intestinal canal, which in a few days terminated his life. He died on September 10, 1845 at the age of sixty-six, at his home in Cambridge, and was buried in the neighboring cemetery of Mount Auburn." source unknown

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Joseph Story, Assoc. Justice of the US Supr. Court's Timeline

September 18, 1779
Marblehead, Essex, Massachusetts, United States
September 26, 1779
Marblehead, Massachusetts
June 7, 1810
Age 30
June 29, 1811
Age 31
November 18, 1811
Age 32
Commissioned to the United States Supreme Court; Sworn in: February 3, 1812; Time served: 33 years, 7 months, 7 days
Age 32
Youngest person ever appointed to the Supreme Court. Appointed by President Madison at the age of 32
April 9, 1814
Age 34
April 4, 1815
Age 35