History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  Amistad: The Federal Courts and the Challenge to Slavery — Historical Background and Documents

Joseph Story (1779-1845), Associate justice of the Supreme Court and author of the opinion in the Amistad case.

In the latter years of his career on the Supreme Court, Justice Joseph Story was the author of two of the Court’s most important decisions related to slavery. Both
Amistad and Prigg v. Pennsylvania upheld the nationalists’ consensus that the international slave trade should be strictly forbidden but that the Constitution protected domestic slavery and the private property rights of slaveholders. As one of the Court’s non-slaveholders and the leading authority on international law, Story was the likely choice to write the Amistad opinion. He upheld that portion of the circuit court decree that had affirmed that the Mende from the Amistad had been sold illegally into slavery in Cuba and could not be returned to the Spaniards who claimed them as property. Story, however, reversed the decision to return the Mende to Africa under the custody of the President of the United States. Since the Mende had arrived in the United States as free persons in possession of the ship, he maintained, they could not be considered illegally imported slaves and could not be returned to Africa under the terms of an act intended to prohibit the slave trade. Instead, Story declared that the Mende held in federal custody were free and should immediately be released from the custody of the court.

Story was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and attended Harvard College before reading law with Samuel Sewall. At the same time that he pursued a legal career, Story became involved in Republican politics. He served several terms in the Massachusetts legislature and a brief term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He also argued before the Supreme Court on the winning side in the famous case,
Fletcher v. Peck, involving the Yazoo land claims.

The youngest person ever to serve on the Supreme Court, Joseph Story was nominated by James Madison in 1811. His appointment to the Court came after three other nominees, including John Quincy Adams, had either declined the offer or failed to win Senate confirmation. Despite his political ties to the Republicans, Story quickly became a judicial ally and close personal friend of Chief Justice John Marshall. Like Marshall, Story was deeply committed to a strong national union. By the time of the
Amistad case, Story also was well-known as one of the most important legal teachers and scholars in the country. While sitting as a justice of the Supreme Court, he began teaching at Harvard Law School in 1829 and in 1833 published his Commentaries on the Constitution, which became an essential guide for American lawyers.

In 1842, the year following the
Amistad decision, Story’s opinion in Prigg v. Pennsylvania declared that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was constitutional and that individual states could not prevent the recapture of runaway slaves from other parts of the United States. Story served on the Supreme Court until his death on September 10, 1845.


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