Joseph Story

US Supreme Court justice 1779-1845

Joseph Story (September 18, 1779 – September 10, 1845) was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, serving from 1812 to 1845. He is most remembered for his opinions in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee and United States v. The Amistad, and especially for his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, first published in 1833. Dominating the field in the 19th century, this work is a cornerstone of early American jurisprudence. It is the second comprehensive treatise on the provisions of the U.S. Constitution and remains a critical source of historical information about the forming of the American republic and the early struggles to define its law.

He who seeks equity must do equity.

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[O]ur constitutions of government have declared that all men are born free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are the right of enjoying their lives, liberties, and property, and of seeking and obtaining their own safety and happiness.
  • Here shall the Press the People's right maintain,
    Unawed by influence and unbribed by gain;
    Here Patriot Truth her glorious precepts draw,
    Pledged to Religion, Liberty, and Law.
    • Motto of the Salem Register. Adopted 1802. Reported in William W. Story's Life of Joseph Story, Volume I, Chapter VI.
  • [O]ur constitutions of government have declared that all men are born free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are the right of enjoying their lives, liberties, and property, and of seeking and obtaining their own safety and happiness. May not the miserable African ask, "Am I not a man and a brother?"
  • It has often been matter of regret in modern times that, in the construction of the Statute of Limitations, the decisions had not proceeded upon principles better adapted to carry into effect the real objects of the Statute; that instead of being viewed in an unfavourable light as an unjust and discreditable defence, it had not received such support as would have made it what it was intended to be, emphatically a Statute of repose. It is a wise and beneficial law, not designed merely to raise a presumption of payment of a just debt from lapse of time, but to afford security against stale demands after the true state of the transaction may be forgotten, or be incapable of explanation by reason of the death or removal of witnesses.
    • Bell v. Morrison, 1 Peters, Sup. C. Rep. (U. S.) 360 (1828).
  • I will not say with Lord Hale, that "the law will admit of no rival, and nothing to go even with it;" but I will say, that it is a jealous mistress, and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favours, but by a lavish homage.
    • A Discourse Pronounced upon the Inauguration of the Author, as Dane Professor of Law in Harvard University on the Twenty-fifth Day of August, 1829 (1829), p. 29.
  • Be brief, be pointed, let your matter stand
    Lucid in order, solid and at hand;
    Spend not your words on trifles but condense;
    Strike with the mass of thought, not drops of sense;
    Press to close with vigor, once begun,
    And leave, (how hard the task!) leave off, when done.
    • "Advice to a Young Lawyer", The American jurist and law magazine: Volume 5 (1831), p. 298.
  • The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the rights of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them. And yet, though this truth would seem so clear, and the importance of a well regulated militia would seem so undeniable, it cannot be disguised, that among the American people there is a growing indifference to any system of militia discipline, and a strong disposition, from a sense of its burthens, to be rid of all regulations. How it is practicable to keep the people duly armed without some organization, it is difficult to see. There is certainly no small danger, that indifference may lead to disgust, and disgust to contempt; and thus gradually undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights.
    • Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833), p. 708.
  • Indeed, in a free government, almost all other rights would become utterly worthless, if the government possessed an uncontrollable power over the private fortune of every citizen.
    • Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Volume 3, Joseph Story, Hilliard, Grey (1833), § 1784, p. 661
  • He who seeks equity must do equity.
    • Equity Jurisprudence, 1st ed. (1836), § 59.
  • I am not able to understand how it can be correctly said in a legal sense, that an action will not lie even in the case of a wrong or a violation of a right, unless it is followed by some perceptible damage which can be established as a matter of fact; in other words, that injuria sine damno is not actionable. On the contrary, from my earliest reading I have considered it laid up among the very elements of the common law, that wherever there is a wrong there is a remedy to redress it; and that every injury imports damage in the nature of it; and if no other damage is established, the party injured is entitled to a verdict for nominal damages.
    • Webb v. Portland Manufacturing Co., 3 Sumn. Rep. 189 (1838).
  • If these Commentaries shall but inspire in the rising generation a more ardent love of their country, an unquenchable thirst for liberty, and a profound reverence for the constitution and the union, then they will have accomplished all that their author ought to desire. Let the American youth never forget that they possess a noble inheritance, bought by the toils, and sufferings, and blood of their ancestors; and capable, if wisely improved, and faithfully guarded, of transmitting to their latest posterity all the substantial blessings of life, the peaceful enjoyment of liberty, property, religion, and independence. The structure has been erected by architects of consummate skill and fidelity; its foundations are solid; its compartments are beautiful as well as useful; its arrangements are full of wisdom and order; and its defences are impregnable from without. It has been reared for immortality, if the work of man may justly aspire to such a title. It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, THE PEOPLE. Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens. They fall, when the wise are banished from the public councils, because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded, because they flatter the people in order to betray them.
    • Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 2d ed. (1851), vol. 2, chapter 45, p. 617. This passage was not in the first edition, but in all later editions.

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