Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: Statesman of the Old Republic

Synopsis

The primary founder and guiding spirit of the Harvard Law School and the most prolific publicist of the nineteenth century, Story served as a member of the U. S. Supreme Court from 1811 to 1845. His attitudes and goals as lawyer, politician, judge, and legal educator were founded on the republican values generated by the American Revolution. Story's greatest objective was to fashion a national jurisprudence that would carry the American people into the modern age without losing those values.

Excerpt

It would be nice if every struggling scholar could experience a great moment of revelation in which his or her life's work would be made manifest—like Edward Gibbon's epiphany in Rome as he sat musing amid the ruins of the Capitol or Perry Miller's vision that came while unloading oil barrels in the Congo. The less gifted of us, I suspect, are doomed to discover the meaning of our life's work while doing it, to gain whatever inspiration we can from a gradual process of self-education that comes with research and writing. Such at any rate has been the nature of my years with Joseph Story, and I confess to a strange sense of gratitude to the old judge for being such a demanding teacher and such good company.

Most assuredly, I had no notion of the problems and the pleasures that lay in wait for me when in the late I950s I set out to study Justice Story's political and constitutional thought. I came to the chore with a vast ignorance of what I needed to know and with a bias as well. My heroes were Jefferson, Jackson, Wendell Philips, and Lincoln, though even then I found John Marshall hard to resist. The historians I most admired were Charles Beard, Carl Becker, and Vernon Parrington. Like Parrington, as much as I could be like him, I was quite prepared, as an unreconstructed Nebraska populist, to see Joseph Story and his friends with a cold and critical eye.

I have not lost affection for my old heroes (though Jefferson and Jackson have worn less well than Phillips and Lincoln) and the more I learn about Daniel Webster, the more I cherish my democratic prejudices. But twenty years in the trenches, so to speak, have left me with a deep admiration for Story—his seemingly superhuman accomplishments, his generosity, his idealism, his love of country, and his fundamental decency. What I discovered as I struggled to understand him, moreover, was the wisdom of the old-fashioned rules of historiography: the need for historians to get out of their own skin, to avoid anachronism, to judge by past, not present, standards. Studying Story transported me to an age quite distinct from that of Beard and Becker and even of Lincoln and Phillips (who was Story's student at Harvard Law School, class of 1833). The judge belonged to that generation touched by the idealism of the American Revolution. He grew up with the Republic, intermingled his ambition with its fate. Story brought to bear his own special genius, to be sure, but his singular talent would not have blossomed so brilliantly or produced so copiously except for the rich soil of republican culture.

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