Joseph Story was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1779. He graduated from Harvard in 1798, second in his class. He was admitted to the bar in 1801. From 1805 to 1811, Story served in the state legislature, Congress, and as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representative. His decision to get out of politics rested largely on his personal belief that allegiance to a particular party required too much sacrifice of opinions and feelings. At age 32 Story was appointed to the Supreme Court by James Madison.
Despite Story’s personal feelings on slavery (“unnecessary, unjust, and inhuman [and] repugnant to the general principles of justice and humanity”; “repugnant to...the dictates on natural religion, the obligations of good faith and morality and the eternal maxims of social justice.”), he often felt compelled to uphold slavery in his rulings. When possible, however, he would find ways to narrow its application. Such a possibility existed in the case in United States v. Amistad, and Story narrowly interpreted the Treaty of 1795 so as not to apply to the Amistad case, and thus justify an order releasing the Africans.
Story’s impact on the evolution of law in America reaches far beyond his Supreme Court decisions. He wrote eleven volumes on commentary on various branches of American law. His frequent critic, Oliver Wendell Holmes, conceded that Story had “done more than any other English-speaking man in this century to make the law luminous and easy to understand.” From 1829 to 1845, Story served as Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University. He almost single-handedly founded the law school (which had only one student the year before his arrival), and under his guidance the law school at Harvard became the model for national, university-based legal education in the United States.
While serving on the Supreme Court, Story would continue to ride the New England circuit twice a year, holding court in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. In order to do this, and maintain his teaching duties at Harvard and serve on the Supreme Court, he traveled more than 2000 miles a year over sometimes dangerous roads. Despite Story’s vast and varied duties, he seems to have liked best to teach at Harvard. He endearingly referred to his students there as his “foster children,” and one such student commented that “he never seemed to have been happier” than when he was at the law school. Historians have noted that “nowhere was his buoyant personality, his kindness, his gift for gab, his idealism more apparent than in the old Lecture Room of Dane Hall.”
At the time of his death Story was regarded as America’s greatest jurist. His body was buried in Mt. Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Mass.