Joseph Story - Freed the Amistad Captives

Joseph Story - Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court American History Civil Rights Trials Tragedies and Triumphs Law and Politics

Justice Joseph Story authored the decision freeing the Amistad captives. He was persuaded, among other things, by the argument of John Quincy Adams (America's sixth President and lawyer for the captives).

Who was Joseph Story?  Beyond his famous opinion, in the Amistad case, he was a leading American jurist who wrote about the law in a way that everyone could understand.  Even his critics expressed admiration for his writing skills. (His father, parenthetically, participated in the famous "Boston Tea Party."

Joseph didn't have an easy start, at least in his school life. After a negative incident with his headmaster, he was forced to leave school. He didn't give up on his studies, however, and studied on his own. He did well-enough to get accepted at Harvard (in 1795), graduating second in his class.

The following information about Justice Story, and the case of United States v. Amistad, is from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law website:

 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 [of] United States v. Amistad ...

Story’s impact on the evolution of law in America reaches far beyond his  Supreme Court decisions.  He wrote eleven volumes [of] commentary on various branches of American law.  His frequent critic, Oliver Wendell Joseph 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.” 

A passionate supporter of education—an interesting fact, given his own personal issues as a young student—Joseph Story helped to start Harvard Law School:

Story pursued other interests while serving on the Supreme Court. For example, he took an active interest in higher education, and in 1819, Story was elected to the Harvard Board of Overseers. In 1829, he became Dane Professor of Law at Harvard, where he played a pivotal role in the foundation of Harvard Law School.

In addition to his work in education, Story was also an accomplished writer. Arguably his most famous written works were his nine Commentaries on the law, which advocated economic liberty and expressed his support for a strong national government.

Although Story had plans to leave the Court and continue his other pursuits, he died unexpectedly of an illness on September 10th, 1845. Despite his untimely death, Story’s historic written works and strong court opinions have left an indelible mark on American history. (See the "Oyez" biography of Justice Story.)

When Joseph Story died, people remembered him as one of America's greatest jurists.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5186stories and lessons created

Original Release: Sep 01, 2017

Updated Last Revision: Aug 08, 2018

Media Credits

Portrait of Justice Story by Mathew Brady, taken between 1844-45. Image online, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress: reproduction number LC-USZ62-110019 (b&w film copy neg. post-1992) LC-USZ62-62529 (b&w film copy neg. pre-1982).


Among other things, this portrait is part of "America's First Look Into the Camera:  Daguerreotype Portraits and View, 1839 to 1864."


The information about Justice Story, quoted above, is available at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law website.

To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Joseph Story - Freed the Amistad Captives" AwesomeStories.com. Sep 01, 2017. Apr 24, 2019.
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