Samuel Nelson, Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court

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Chief Justice Samuel Nelson

Birthdate: (81)
Birthplace: Washington County, New York, United States
Death: December 13, 1873 (81)
Cooperstown, Otsego County, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of John Rodgers Nelson and Jane Jean Nelson Nelson
Husband of Pamela Woods and Catherine Ann Nelson
Father of John Woods Nelson; Benjamin Nelson; Samuel Woods Nelson; Rensselaer Russell Nelson; Katherine Russell Nelson and 6 others
Brother of Janette Nelson; Josiah Nelson; Mary Nelson; Isabel Craig; William Nelson and 6 others

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About Samuel Nelson, Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court

Samuel Nelson (November 10, 1792 – December 13, 1873) was an American attorney and an Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Born in Hebron, New York, Nelson attended Middlebury College in Vermont in 1813 and read law to be licensed to practice law in 1817. He entered private practice in Cortland, New York in 1817. Nelson married Pamela Woods in 1819. In 1825, after Pamela's death, he married Catharine Ann Russell. He had two children from his first marriage and six from his second. His fourth child with Catharine, Rensselaer Nelson, was the first United States District Court Judge for the District of Minnesota.

Nelson was a postmaster in Cortland from 1820 to 1823, and then served as a state circuit judge from 1823 until 1831, when he became associate justice of the Supreme Court of New York. In 1837, he was elevated to Chief Justice. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the United States Senate from New York in 1845.

On February 4, 1845, Nelson was nominated by President John Tyler to a seat as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States vacated by Smith Thompson. Nelson was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 14, 1845, and received his commission immediately. Nelson's confirmation in the last month of Tyler's presidency was a surprise. The unpopular Tyler had failed repeatedly to fill the vacancy left by Thompson, as the Whig-controlled Senate rejected his nominations of John Canfield Spencer, Reuben Walworth, Edward King and John M. Read. The Whigs found Nelson acceptable because, although he was a Democrat, he had a reputation as a careful and uncontroversial jurist.

Nelson served as a Justice for 27 years, until his retirement on November 28, 1872. His tenure was generally viewed as unremarkable.

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Nelson to serve on the joint high commission to arbitrate the Alabama claims. During this time he took a leave of absence from the bench. Soon thereafter, Nelson became ill. He resigned from the commission in 1872, shortly before his death.

Samuel Nelson died in Cooperstown, New York, in 1873.

The Court led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had more than its share of mediocre jurists, men who had enjoyed some measure of political or judicial respect prior to joining the Court but whose names history has mostly forgotten. Samuel Nelson must be numbered among these. Fifty years of judicial service, first at the state and subsequently at the national level, produced scarcely a ripple across the surface of American law. Though he authored nearly 350 opinions during his time on the Court, these mostly occupy dusty pages that few people ever find the need to consult. He is best known perhaps for the restrained position he took in the Dred Scott case, but since his restraint vindicated the rights of slaveholders, few observers today characterize it as a virtue.

The son of farmers, Samuel Nelson was born on November 11, 1792, in Hebron, New York. His parents, John Rodgers Nelson and Jean McArthur Nelson, entertained hopes of a ministerial career for their son and arranged for his education in private academies and ultimately at Middlebury College in Vermont. But Samuel chose to pursue a career in law after graduating from college in 1813. He apprenticed in a law office in Salem, New York, for two years before migrating to Madison County and entering into a law partnership with one of his former mentors. In 1818 he was admitted to the bar, and two years later he married his partner's daughter, Pamela Woods.

Nelson's wife died within three years after giving birth to a son. Nelson then left his law partnership to set up a practice of his own in Cortland, New York. He soon earned a measure of prominence as an attorney and also secured a position as the town postmaster. At the same time, he embarked on a brief political career, serving as a presidential elector in 1820 and as delegate from his county at the State Constitutional Convention in 1821. Two years later, in 1823, Nelson began what would eventually become a 50-year judicial career when he accepted an appointment to the Sixth Circuit Court of New York. He moved to Cooperstown and married again, this time to Catherine Ann Russell. Three children would be born to this union, and one of them—Rensselaer P. Nelson—would one day follow in his father's judicial footsteps by becoming a federal district court judge in Minnesota.

After eight years as a state circuit court judge, Nelson received an appointment in 1831 to the New York Supreme Court. Six years later he replaced John Savage, one of his original legal mentors, as chief justice of the court. Nelson's steady advance in his career as a judge seems to have owed a great deal to solid ability and a judicial temperament. "Nature intended him for a judge," one biographer wrote. "His opinions are pervaded by a humane and liberal spirit. They were read and admired for their terseness, directness, lucidity and practical comprehension of the cases under consideration…"

After 20 years of distinguished service on the New York bench, Nelson found himself belatedly considered for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. When fellow New Yorker Smith Thompson died in 1843, however, Nelson was far from the first candidate to be considered for the vacancy Thompson's death created on the Court. President John Tyler proved remarkably incapable of finding a candidate willing to undertake an appointment to the Court and—more important—able to obtain confirmation from the U.S. Senate. The Senate rejected Tyler's first choice, Secretary of the Treasury John Spencer. A subsequent series of candidates declined to accept the appointment. When Chancellor Reuben H. Walworth of New York withdrew from consideration in the face of political opposition, Tyler turned at last to Samuel Nelson. The Senate easily confirmed his appointment, and the 52-year-old New Yorker took his seat on the Supreme Court on March 5, 1845.

After years of demonstrated competence on the New York bench, Associate Justice Nelson undertook what would be a long but wholly unexceptional career as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Modesty, restraint, and precision characterized his service on the Court and cast him into a supporting role rather than a leading character on the Taney court. Thus, even though he was a prolific writer of opinions during his 27-year tenure on the Court, his impact on the course of American law was negligible.

History remembers Samuel Nelson most for his role in the Court's decision of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). When Dred Scott, a slave, argued before the Court that his travels with his master into free territory had made him free once he returned to Missouri, a slave state, a majority of the Court seemed initially poised to decide the case on technical grounds. Nelson took the position that Missouri law controlled the question of Scott's status as a slave and that the Court had no jurisdiction to override the state's determination in this matter—which was adverse to Scott's claim. In fact, Nelson prepared an initial draft of an opinion for the Court, resolving the case on this ground. But the other members of the Court eventually decided to address the core issues posed by the case: whether blacks were citizens of the United States and thus entitled to invoke the Court's jurisdiction; and whether the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which limited slavery in certain territories, violated the Constitution. At the suggestion of Justice James M. Wayne, a majority of the Court chose to decide these controversial questions, ultimately ruling that Dred Scott, because he was black, could not be a citizen of the United States and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Nelson, however, persisted in his belief that the case should be resolved more circumspectly and submitted his original opinion for the Court as his own separate opinion in the case. Though his opinion did not earn him the same blistering attacks heaped on Chief Justice Taney and the other justices who followed the reasoning of Taney, many Northern observers chastised Nelson for ruling against Dred Scott. An editorial from the New York Tribune dismissed him as a timid jurist who had failed to stand up for the truth: "… a New York Democrat of the perishing school… He hesitated to go with the Southern Judges in their revolutionary opinions, yet he had not sufficient virtue to boldy stand up against their heresies." History has not rescued Nelson from this judgment.

The national resolution of the slavery debate that Taney and his colleagues hoped to achieve through the Dred Scott decision never materialized. As the country stood on the precipice of war, Nelson again sought some intermediate resolution that would stave off conflict. He served for a time with Justice John Campbell of Alabama as an intermediary in discussions between President Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state, William Seward, and a confederate delegation concerning federal occupation of Fort Sumter in South Carolina. When Seward failed to keep a commitment to remove federal troops from the fort, Nelson abandoned his role as a mediator, and war soon followed.

In the face of Lincoln's vigorous attempts to subdue Southern rebellion, Nelson preferred strict adherence to constitutional principles even if this meant allowing Southern states to withdraw from the Union, which, he thought, could not be preserved by force. When Lincoln took the contrary view and blockaded Southern ports even before a congressional declaration of war, Nelson sided with the minority of the Court that thought the president had overstepped his constitutional bounds. In the Prize Cases (1863), he joined with justices Taney, Catron, and Clifford in a dissent from the majority holding that Lincoln's blockage was justified. Writing for the dissenters, Justice Nelson agreed that Congress alone had the constitutional power to declare war and that, in the absence of such a declaration, Lincoln's vigorous action was illegitimate.

After the war, President Ulysses S. Grant solicited Nelson to put his mediation skills to the service of his country once again by appointing the aged justice in 1871 to be a member of the Alabama Claims Commission. This commission sought reparations from England for damages caused by British-built ships, such as the Alabama, used by the Confederacy against the Union. Overtaxed by this final public service and plagued with insomnia and general ill health, Justice Nelson resigned from the Supreme Court in November 1872. He retired to Cooperstown, New York, and died there, just over a year later, on December 13, 1873.

Nelson's moderating influence on the Supreme Court failed to avert the crisis of war. In the fierce controversy over slavery and secession, he seemed always willing to perpetuate the South's "peculiar institution" and even the Union's disintegration before he would countenance the stern measures that eventually abolished the one and preserved the other. Whether labeled admirable restraint or cowardly timidity, Nelson's temperament earned him only the prize of being mostly forgotten. If there was a back row on the Court over which Chief Justice Roger B. Taney presided, then Samuel Nelson surely occupied one of its seats. History has tended to judge him neither a hero nor a villain of his age, only a minor footnote to the events over which he failed to exert any significant influence.

Source: From: Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary.

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Samuel Nelson, Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court's Timeline

November 10, 1792
Washington County, New York, United States
October 22, 1820
Age 27
Homer, Cortland, New York, United States
Age 29
Madison, NY, United States
May 12, 1826
Age 33
Cooperstown, Otsego, New York, United States
July 29, 1827
Age 34
Cooperstown, Otsego, NY, United States
March 31, 1828
Age 35
Cooperstown, Otsego, NY, United States
December 29, 1830
Age 38
Cooperstown, Otsego, NY, United States
Age 39
Cooperstown, Otsego, NY, United States