Monday, February 1, 2010

The random monthly pick: Mr. Joseph Story, following his best principles, sets the country more firmly on a tragic path

Joseph Story by Gilbert Stuart, Boston 1819

From Lawrence Park:
Joseph Story 1779-1845
Joseph Story was a son of Doctor Elisha and Mehitabel (Pedrick) Story of Marblehead, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1798 and in 1821 received the degree of L.L.D. From 1818 to 1825 he was an overseer of Harvard, and from 1829 to 1845 was Dane Professor of Law. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society and a Fellow of the American Academy. In 1808 he was a member of the Congress, and from 1811 to his death a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He married in 1808 Sarah Waldo Wetmore of Salem, Massachusetts, and their son, William Wetmore Story (1819-1895), was the well-known sculptor.

This month’s random pick is a particularly interesting one as it ties in well to the post on Captain Samuel Meeker (father of the sitter click here) who placed an add in the Weekly Advertiser (Philadelphia), for a runaway slave in the year 1763.
Then again, what small percentage of people in those times did this issue not touch?

Paid slavecatchers crossed state borders, used force and violence to capture runaway slaves, sometimes nabbing freed slaves as well. Federal law sanctioned the capturing & return of fugitives by the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793, and later in 1850 these laws were reinforced. Increasingly the free states enacted laws to counter these federal laws; “personal-liberty laws” entitled slaves to a jury trial and the ‘underground railroad’ grew in opposition. By the 1840s slavery had become a national issue with passions raging hot on both sides, pitting slave states/owners against the non-slave states/abolitionists. It was only a matter of time before the consitutional laws, providing legal status to the capturing of slaves, ran head-on into state laws with the aim of protecting freed slaves.

On April 1 1837, Edward Prigg led an assault and abduction of a black woman named Margaret Morgan and her children. She had moved in 1832 from Maryland to Pennsylvania, in Maryland she had lived in freedom but had not been formally emancipated. The heirs of her former owner John Ashmore decided to claim her as a slave, and hired slavecatcher Prigg. But Pennsylvania had laws stating No negro or mulatto slave ...shall be removed out of this state, with the design and intention that the place of abode or residence of such slave or servant shall be thereby altered or changed and Prigg was arrested under kidnapping charges. Prigg pleaded not guilty, and argued that he had been duly appointed by John Ashmore to arrest and return Morgan to her owners in Maryland. However, in a ruling on May 22 1839, the Court of Quarter Sessions of York County convicted him. Prigg appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the Pennsylvania law was not able to supersede federal law.

In 1842, US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote and issued the majority opinion in the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania. It was a landmark decision in which the court upheld fugitive slave recaption as an historically necessary constitutional provision that had to be protected at all costs, even in the face of contradictive state law (ie reversed Prigg's conviction). Story was opposed to slavery on moral as well as policy grounds (in The Amistad 1841, he freed the Africans who had been sold into slavery by a narrow reading of the treaty with Spain), but tragically he was also firmly convinced of the primacy and importance of upholding the Constitution, the Law of the Land. The decision was crucial because it announced that slavery was a national issue that could not be challenged by state action, and that slavery was woven into the Constitution. The decision caused a powder-keg explosion and rippled across the country, eventually cascading along with other motivating forces... into civil war. Story was the Court's most aggressive champion of federal jurisdiction, and was most successful in expanding federal jurisdiction in the areas of maritime and commercial law. But this controversial case led to personal attacks and a professional bruising, ultimately tarnishing his legacy. Story served on the Supreme Court for thirty-three years. He died on September 10, 1845, at the age of sixty-five.

Portrait of Joseph Story by George P. A. Healy
from the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Supreme Court History Profile:
JOSEPH STORY was born on September 18, 1779, in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He was graduated from Harvard College in 1798. Story read law in the offices of two Marblehead attorneys and was admitted to the bar in 1801. He established a law practice in Salem, Massachusetts. In 1805, Story served one term in the Massachusetts Legislature, and in 1808 he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. After one term, he returned to the Massachusetts Lower House, and in 1811 he was elected Speaker. On November 15, 1811, President James Madison nominated Story to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Senate confirmed the appointment on November 18, 1811. At the age of thirty-two, Story was the youngest person ever appointed to the Supreme Court. While on the Supreme Court, Story served as a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820 and was a Professor of Law at Harvard, where he wrote a series of nine commentaries on the law, each of which was published in several editions.

The truely sad ending to this tale of misplaced notions of best principles, Morgan and her children were subsequently sold to slave traders and disappeared from the historical record.



Maureen said...

In school I found this era tedious, but it is in fact fascinating.

Love following your blog, and PS, I'm a salesperson at the hotel gift shop, boring but it leaves my head free to work on my novel.

emikk said...

This guy seems like he was a mover and a shaker.

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