Top of page

A Birthday Card for Joseph Story

Share this post:

Today, September 18, is the birthday of Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Joseph Story, one of the most important figures in 19th-century American law. For Justice Story’s birthday, we would like to present a select list of Story’s publications in Library of Congress collections. Born in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1779, Story read law with Samuel Sewall, who later became the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; he practiced law in Salem, served in the the United States House of Representatives and the Massachusetts state legislature before becoming in 1812, at the age of 32, the youngest person in the history of the nation to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court. In 1829, he became Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University’s Law School.

Story’s stature in his time depended partly on his association with the Supreme Court, and also partly on his association with Harvard University’s Law School. But it was his books - the reputation of which certainly benefited from the prestige of Story’s places of employment – that brought his vision of the law to scholars and practitioners across the nation (Newmyer, p. 822).

Joseph Story in a daguerreotype produced by Matthew Brady’s studio between 1844 and 1845 [Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division]
The books he published were not an incidental part of his duties at Harvard, but were envisioned at the time of his hiring. Harvard’s law school was founded in 1815 as a part-time lectureship. The university added a full-time professor three years later, whose role was encumbered by administrative, librarian, and even maintenance duties. It is said that by 1828, there was only one student enrolled in the program. This changed when Nathan Dane, an important Massachusetts attorney, proposed to fund a new professorship for the law school. In addition to having a successful legal career, Dane had served in the Continental Congress, where he had a hand in drafting the Northwest Ordinance; he served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the state’s Senate. He had also composed what was at that time the most important treatise on American law at the national level: A General Abridgement and Digest of American Law. Dane’s work was a major financial success, and it was largely from the proceeds of its sales that he was able to endow the professorship that he proposed (Powell, p. 1288-1289). Dane conditioned his donation to Harvard on the hiring of Joseph Story for the professorship. His idea, which he developed with Story and Josiah Quincy (who later became president of Harvard), was that Story should both instruct students and publish works in the spirit of his General Abridgement and Digest. The university and Story agreed to the plan. Story’s teaching duties were to be scheduled so that they would not conflict with his duties at the Court. Meantime, Story was also to compose concise commentaries on the major areas of American law (Newmyer, p. 816). The commentaries were scaled to be no larger than a couple of volumes on each topic so that practitioners could afford to acquire only those books that were relevant to their field. But they were also designed to be a collection of related works that could supply, in their aggregate, a reference set broad enough to be comprehensive.

Story published the first of these commentaries, a work on bailments, in 1832, and he continued to publish at a rate of about one title every year or two until his death in 1845. First editions of these works – nine total – are available at the Law Library of Congress:

Commentaries on the law of bailments, with illustrations from the civil and the foreign law. By Joseph Story. Cambridge, Hilliard and Brown, 1832.

Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Boston, Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1833.

Commentaries on the conflict of laws, foreign and domestic, in regard to contracts, rights, and remedies, and especially in regard to marriages, divorces, wills, successions, and judgments. Boston, Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1834.

Commentaries on equity jurisprudence, as administered in England and America. By Joseph Story. Boston, Hilliard, Gray & company, 1836.

Commentaries on equity pleadings, and the incidents thereto, according to the practice of the courts of equity of England and America. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1838.

Commentaries on the law of agency, as a branch of commercial and maritime jurisprudence, with occasional illustrations from the civil and foreign law. Boston, C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1839.

Commentaries on the law of partnership. Boston, C. C. Little & J. Brown; [etc., etc.] 1841.

Commentaries on the law of bills of exchange, foreign and inland, as administered in England and America; with occasional illustrations from the commercial law of the nations of continental Europe. Boston, C.C. Little & J. Brown; [etc., etc.] 1843.

Commentaries on the law of promissory notes, and guaranties of notes, and checks on banks and bankers. With occasional illustrations from the commercial law of the nations of continental Europe. Boston, C. C. Little & J. Brown; [etc., etc.] 1845.

Story’s Commentaries on the United States Constitution was the most widely discussed antebellum treatise on the Constitution (Powell, p. 1285). It presented a nationalist and pro-business vision of the Constitution that stood in opposition to then-influential theories of the Constitution that emphasized states’ rights and agrarian interests (Powell, p. 1287). The Library has copies of the 1833 Boston edition, the 1833 Cambridge edition, the 1833 edition printed in Philadelphia, and editions printed in 1851, 1858, 1873 and 1891, as well as several editions from the 20th century.

The Law Library has copies of three editions of the Spanish translation of Story’s Commentaries on the United States Constitution by Nicolas Antonio Calvo, 1860, 1881, 1888, the first of which is a presentation copy, signed by the author and with an inscription to the president of Argentina, Julio Argentina Roca.

The Spanish translations are based on a French translation by Paul Odent, first published in in Paris in 1843 – the Library’s copy is from the 1845 edition – to which were added notes from the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville. Joseph Story met with Tocqueville when Tocqueville came to America, and later felt that Tocqueville never acknowledged he owed Story for his contribution to the Frenchman’s understanding of the Constitution (Powell, p. 1285m n. 2).

Story also published in 1840 an accessible single volume book on the Constitution called A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States. Boston, Marsh, Capen, Lyon and Webb, 1840 which enjoyed a great deal of commercial success and was printed many times throughout the 19th century. In addition to the 1840 edition, the Law Library owns editions from 1842, 1869 and 1884.

Joseph Story’s signature appears on the upper right hand corner of the Law Library’s copy of Rede’s Strictures on the lives and characters of the most eminent lawyers of the present day: including, among other celebrated names, those of the Lord Chancellor, and the twelve judges (London, 1790). [Photo by Ellie Korres]
In his work at the United States Supreme Court, Joseph Story is particularly remembered for – among other opinions during a long and immensely productive career – his opinions in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, and the United States v. the Amistad. The Amistad case was dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad, in which Justice Story was portrayed by retired Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Harry Blackmun. Resources at the Library of Congress related to the Amistad case include:

Trial of the prisoners of the Amistad on the writ of habeas corpus, before the Circuit Court of the United States, for the district of Connecticut, at Hartford, Judges Thompson and Judson, September term, 1839. New York: Published and for sale at 143 Nassau Street, 1839.

Argument of John Quincy Adams, before the Supreme Court of the United States: in the case of the United States, appellants, vs. Cinque, and others, Africans, captured in the schooner Amistad, by Lieut. Gedney, delivered on the 24th of February and 1st of March, 1841: with a review of the case of the Antelope, reported in the 10th, 11th, and 12th volumes of Wheaton’s Reports. New York: S.W. Benedict, 1841.

Argument of Roger S. Baldwin, of New Haven, before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of the United States, appellants, vs. Cinque, and others, Africans of the Amistad. New York: S.W. Benedict, 1841.

Story’s son, William Wetmore Story, a successful sculptor, published two volumes of his papers:

Story, William Wetmore, 1819-1895, ed. Life and letters of Joseph Story, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Dane professor of law at Harvard University. Ed. by his son, William W. Story … Boston, C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1851.

The Library of Congress Manuscript Division has a collection of Joseph Story’s correspondence.


Secondary Sources:

Newmyer, R. Kent. Harvard Law School, New England Legal Culture, and the Antebellum Origins of American Jurisprudence. The Journal of American History Vol. 74, No. 3, The Constitution and American Life: A Special Issue (Dec., 1987), pp. 814-835.

Presser, Stephen B.  Resurrecting the Conservative Tradition in American Legal History. Reviews in American History Vol. 13, No. 4 (Dec., 1985), pp. 526-533. (reviewing R. Kent Newmyer, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic (1985)).

Powell, H. Jefferson. Joseph Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution: A Belated Review. The Yale Law Journal Vol. 94, No. 5 (Apr., 1985), pp. 1285-1314 (book review).


Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.