Isaac Blackford from Who-When-What Book, 1900
|Clerk of the Indiana Territory House of Representatives|
|Judge of 1st Circuit of the Indiana Territory|
|Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives|
December 16, 1816 – December 19, 1817
|2nd Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice|
September 10, 1817 – January 3, 1853
|Preceded by||John Johnson|
|Succeeded by||Andrew Davison|
|United States Court of Claims|
March 3, 1855 – December 31, 1859
|Born||November 6, 1786
Bound Brook, Somerset County, New Jersey
|Died||December 31, 1859
|Resting place||Crown Hill Cemetery|
|Residence||Indiana Governor's Mansion in Indianapolis, Indiana|
|Alma mater||Princeton University|
Isaac Newton Blackford (November 6, 1786 – December 31, 1859) was the second Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, the court's longest serving Justice, and among the longest serving jurists in the history of the United States. He wrote an eight-volume work entitled Blackford's Reports recording all the early decisions of the court. The books became a staple legal source among Indiana’s lawyers and received national and international acclaim for its style, accuracy, quality, and concision in dealing with common law. As a jurist, Blackford was the most influential ever to serve on Indiana's courts, according to former Chief Justice of Indiana Randall Shepard. He was nicknamed the "Indiana Blackstone" because of a comment made by Washington Irving regarding the popularity of Blackford’s books. During his lifetime he was nationally renowned as one of the most prominent jurists in the United States.
After graduating from Princeton University, Blackford moved to the Indiana Territory to practice law in 1812. After holding several civil service positions, he was appointed a circuit court judge but resigned just before the territorial government was dissolved in 1816. Elected as a representative to the first session of the Indiana General Assembly, he was chosen to serve as the first Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives. Following the death of Indiana Chief Justice John Johnson in 1817, Blackford was appointed as his replacement by Governor of Indiana Jonathan Jennings. Blackford’s early important cases included Polly v. Lasselle, the decision in that case freed all slaves in Indiana. Nominated without his knowledge or permission, in 1825 he was the Whig candidate for Governor of Indiana, but was defeated in the election because of his refusal to campaign publicly. Again nominated without his knowledge to become a United States Senator, he lost the election in the Indiana General Assembly by only one vote.
Blackford was beset by a number of personal tragedies during the 1820s. Following the death of his wife in childbirth, his young son a few years later, then his mother, and narrowly escaping death himself, he became emotionally distraught. He began to live a reclusive lifestyle in a one-room apartment in the Indiana Governor's Mansion, where he remained for over twenty years. There he spent his time with only the companionship of his servant. He left for occasional meals, to attend court sessions, and rarely for business and church, but otherwise remained locked away. It was during his solitude that he began writing the reports for which he became renowned.
He was reappointed to his seat on the Supreme Court four times, serving until the adoption of the 1851 Constitution of Indiana, which made his position subject to election rather than appointment. Defeated for the Whig party nomination to run for his office, he left the court in 1852. He was defeated again in the 1853 election to become Supreme Court Reporter, which led him to seek a position on the federal courts after briefly attempting to practice law. Appointed by President Franklin Pierce, he served as a federal court judge of the newly created United States Court of Claims dealing with financial claims against the federal government from 1855 until his death. During his lifetime Blackford accumulated a small fortune through the sale of his reports which was left to his only living relative, his half-sister Charolotte Teresa Coons.
Family and background
Isaac Blackford was born on November 6, 1786, in Bound Brook, Somerset County, New Jersey, the son of Joseph and Mary Straats Blackford. Joseph was a merchant, and Mary was the daughter of a farmer. She had been a nurse during the American Revolutionary War and aided American soldiers as a during the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and continued to care for them when smallpox broke out among the army during the winter of 1780–1781. Both of Blackford's parents were Presbyterian, and he remained a member of the church his entire life.
Blackford received a basic education, learning to read and write, in local public schools. His father died on May 22, 1800, leaving a modest estate valued at $7,220.99 ($91,282 in 2009 chained dollars) to his mother, and directing that half of the estate should be given to Blackford for education and as an inheritance, provided he remained obedient unto her until he reached adulthood. Mary remarried in 1801 to Thomas Coon and the couple had a child, Charlotte Teressa, on August 3, 1802. Blackford at first disliked his stepfather, but the two developed a close relationship as he grew older. The family continued to prosper, and when Blackford finally inherited his portion of his father’s estate he received $5,550. On his stepfather’s advice he invested the money by granting a mortgage to earn interest.
Blackford was enrolled in Princeton University at age sixteen and graduated at the top of his class in 1806. On his enrollment forms he entered his middle name as Newton, but never again used the name during his life. Among his fifty-four classmates were John Williams Walker, James Iradell, John James Marshall, and Patrick Noble. Blackford became fluent in Greek and Latin and excelled in history. He also spent a considerable amount of time reading legal books on English common law. After college he studied law for a year in the office of Revolutionary War hero Colonel George MacDonald before moving on in 1810 to complete his legal studies in the office of New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Gabriel Ford in Morristown. He was admitted to the bar in New Jersey that same year. He took only one case of his own and realized he needed to join a law firm if he was going to be able to earn a living at his profession. He returned to his hometown and joined MacDonald's firm.
In 1812 Blackford moved west. His reason for leaving New Jersey is unclear, as he had a potentially prosperous life in the east, his family was there, and the prospect of earning a living as a lawyer on the frontier was uncertain. Having spent most of his funds on education, Blackford could not to afford to take the stage coach and walked from New Jersey to the Allegany River where he traveled downriver by raft to Cincinnati and then continued on foot to Dayton. He lived only briefly in Dayton and continued further west, moving into the Indiana Territory and first living in Brookville. He carried with him letters of introduction to territorial Judge Isaac Dunn, a friend of George MacDonald. The letter helped him to quickly establish himself among the small legal community in the territory. Brookville was the administrative center of the eastern half of the territory, but Blackford had little chance of making a substantial income as a lawyer there, so he sought work in the civil service. He moved again to Salem where he was appointed by Governor William Henry Harrison to be clerk and recorder in the newly formed Washington County.
Blackford’s income was still not enough for him to subsist on. In 1813, he traveled to the territorial capital, Vincennes. There he was admitted to the bar with the help of his friend John Test; he was only the thirtieth lawyer admitted to the bar in the territory. The same year he was elected principal clerk for the Indiana Territory House of Representatives. He also became a cashier at the Corydon branch Bank of Vincennes, the same town the capital was moved to at the end of 1813. He became aware of corruption at the bank which later folded in the Panic of 1819; numerous investors lost their money and the scandalous abuses were revealed to the public. The experience influenced him to mistrust banks throughout his life, and led him to refuse to put any money in banks.
Governor Thomas Posey reorganized the territorial courts in 1813 creating three districts and appointing judges to preside in them. Judge Benjamin Parke was appointed to the 1st Circuit, but he resigned in 1814. Posey had become familiar with Blackford who as clerk of the House of Representatives was responsible for communications between Posey, who was residing in Jeffersonville, and the General Assembly, which was in Corydon. Posey appointed Blackford to succeed Parke as judge in the 1st Circuit Territorial Court. The first circuit at that time was the largest in the territory and consisted of the eight western counties of the territory. There were few roads in the region at the time, and Blackford rode cross-country between settlements to hold court. He made six circuit trips during his tenure and tried forty-nine cases, and dismissed a number of others.
When statehood was granted to Indiana in 1816, the territorial government was dissolved, including Blackford's position. He had moved to Vincennes during his term as judge to live centrally within his district. Upon leaving the bench, he was elected as a Democratic-Republican member to the first Indiana House of Representatives and served a one-year term from 1816 to 1817. In the House he was chosen Speaker, making him Indiana’s first. Although he came from the western and pro-slavery area of the state, he was in party with the anti-slavery Jennings' faction of assembly. As there was only one political party in the state at the time, the factions of the state Democratic-Republican Party vied for power. There is no record of Blackford's specific impact on any legislation, although he would have been heavily involved in laying the foundation of the state government, the framework of which was created during the first session of the assembly. Senator James Noble later recorded that Blackford was a popular member of the body, and was supported in each of his proposals by the majority.
In 1817, Blackford was appointed Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court by Governor Jonathan Jennings to replace Chief Justice John Johnson who had died after less than a year on the bench, and before the court had issued its first decision. Jennings informed Blackford of his decision as the two walked arm-in-arm from Johnson’s grave following his funeral service. Blackford at first refused, saying he was too young and inexperienced. However, there were less than seventy lawyers in the entire state at that time, the majority of which belonged to other factions of the party, or had not lived in the state long enough to qualify for the job. Jennings and Blackford were the only two members of the government who came from New Jersey, increasing Jennings’ sentimental desire to see Blackford appointed. Despite Blackford’s refusal, Jennings appointed him to the court and he was easily confirmed by the state senate to his first seven-year term.
Blackford quickly earned a reputation for being fair and impartial and is regarded as one of the most influential and pivotal members in the court's history. According to Chief Justice Randall Shepherd, he was the most important justice to have ever served on the state courts and was responsible for laying the legal foundation of the state. During his time on the three member court he wrote the majority opinion on 845 of the nearly 2300 cases he presided over. That was more than twice as many decisions authored by any other justice in the court's history and remains a record. Seven other men served with him on the court, including James Scott, Jesse Holman, Stephen Stevens, John McKinney, Jeremiah Sullivan, Charles Dewey, Samuel Perkins, and Thomas Smith.
As Chief Justice, he was responsible for overseeing many of the day-to-day functions of the court, and oversaw the court during its move from the capitol of Corydon to Indianapolis in 1825. In 1831 the General Assembly granted the court permission to hold sessions anywhere within Indianapolis that they should chose, due to crowding in the statehouse. Blackford petitioned to have a chamber made available in the Indiana Governor's Mansion which was at that time being used for office space. He oversaw a fourth move to the new Indiana Statehouse in 1839. The court remained there for the remainder of his time on the bench.
Among the many cases he presided over was the 1820 case of Polly v. Lasselle, in which he ruled to free all slaves in Indiana. Among his most important and impacting decisions was the case of State v. Tipton which severely limited the ability to appeal decisions to higher courts, but significantly decreased the Supreme Court's caseload. In Deming v. Bullit he ruled that parties could cancel contracts of sale even after payment was made, provided they refunded the fees. In Shanklin v. Cooper he ruled that contracts made in Indiana regarding assets outside of the state were still under Indiana's judicial jurisdiction, although he ruled to overturn his own precedent in the case of Hunt v. Standart. Because Indiana had only a very limited civil and criminal code during the nineteenth century, Blackford relied heavily on English common law treatises to base his own decisions on, including Coke's Reports and Blackstone's Commentaries. During his lifetime, he amassed a personal library with nearly 2,000 volumes of legal works.
George MacDonald, under whom Blackford had studied law, left his law practice in the east and moved to the Indiana in 1818. Blackford began courting his daughter Caroline, who was fourteen years younger than himself. They were married on December 23, 1819, in Vincennes by Reverend Samuel T. Scott. Their brief marriage was strained because of the age difference. Caroline wished to entertain and enjoyed the high society that Blackford's position brought, while Blackford preferred to live reclusively. They had one son, George, born on May 3, 1821. Caroline died in childbirth, a shock from which Blackford never fully recovered and leading him to become very protective and invested in his son. Blackford wrote to his mother of his unhappiness in marriage, and, after his wife's death, he vowed to never marry again.
Blackford's son became ill probably with malaria, the date and details of the sickness are unknown. Blackford took him to Lexington, Kentucky for medical treatment, but he died only a short time later. The death was an emotional blow to Blackford. He returned to Vincennes where he arrived in the night and entered the home of his friend John Coburn. He lay on the floor and wept till morning. He then locked himself away for two weeks in a room in Coburn's home, never speaking and only coming out to receive a meal. As he recovered, he sold his Vincennes estate and invested the money in land.
The General Assembly had granted boarding rooms in the Indiana Governor's Mansion for the Supreme Court Justices to use while in Indianapolis. Blackford left Vincennes and moved into his room in the mansion. He hired a servant, William Franklin, who was the child of emancipated slaves, to bring him meals and clean his room. Due in large part to his emotional distress, Blackford began a hermit’s lifestyle that he continued for twenty years. Franklin became Blackford's closest friend and remained with him throughout his life.
In 1827, Blackford’s mother died on August 18. Blackford shut himself away for six months and even stopped attending court sessions. He obtained a lock of her hair and carried it with him for the remainder of his life. Shortly thereafter while returning to Indianapolis after attending business in Vincennes, he attempted to ford the swollen White River on his horse as he neared Martinsville. The river proved to be too swift and he and his horse were swept away. He was able to catch himself on an island, but was unable to escape it. He remained there for two days without food before he was discovered by a farmer to rescue him. He was taken to his apartment where he was nursed by Franklin until his health returned.
Blackford’s salary began at $600 annually, and the constitution prevented it from decreasing during his term. At the time his salary was enough to sustain only a meager lifestyle. He invested some of his savings in land speculation around the state and made a large profit from his initial investment. He used the money to buy three city blocks in Indianapolis shortly after the city was platted in 1824. On one block he had a four-story brick building constructed during the late 1820s and he rented office space for income. By the 1830s he no longer needed his judicial salary to live and left it in the state treasury to draw interest at 6%. By the time he left office, he was earning $1,500 annually, and in total earned an estimated $50,000, including interest, from his salary. ($1,289,400 in 2009 chained dollars) He was reportedly very frugal with his money and amassed a small fortune during his lifetime.
After his personal tragedies while he remaining locked in his room, Blackford began working on a book to report the important decisions of the Supreme Court and provide a legal source to the state lawyers and judges. He was meticulous and precise in his writing. His biographer attributed his ability to write concisely to the fact that he never practiced law extensively, and never developed the habit of writing lengthy arguments, but instead kept his thoughts clear and precise. Each volume he authored covered a decade of court decisions and were published four years after the decade was complete. So careful was Blackford in ensuring the quality and accuracy of the work, he regularly held up printing to make corrections found after a few volumes were printed, and after they were printed, if an error was reported, he would destroy the existing copies and have new ones made. He used his own savings to have the books published with the intention of selling them to lawyers in Indiana. The sale of the books brought Blackford a substantial income, and he earned between $1,500 and $2,000 annually on royalties.
Blackford published the first of his eight volumes of Blackford’s Reports in 1830. It was immediately in demand among the state’s judicial establishment as there was at that time no other readily available source for Supreme Court decisions. The Indiana General Assembly later approved and funded the publishing of the two volume Indiana Reports, which was authored by the court reporter and reported the entirety of the decisions of the Supreme Court. Blackford’s Reports still remained more popular because of their superior style and quality. His reports were noted by readers for their concision, accuracy, and diction. They soon became popular in other US states where common law was used. Within a decade his reports had spread to Europe. As Great Britain used common law, his reports were also published in Britain and Canada where they were used as a legal resource.
Washington Irving, while at a post at the Court of St. James's, wrote to his superiors in Washington D.C. requesting information on Blackford and reported that Blackford’s Reports were well known in Westminster and regularly used by the judiciary, and Irving compared him to the William Blackstone. The attribution stuck with Blackford, and earned him the nickname “Indiana Blackstone.” His reports by then had become a staple in law schools and a necessity in most law firms in the United States.
Blackford's Reports were thorough and detailed thanks to Blackford's effort to keep them accurate. His reputation for accuracy became well known. On one occasion a lawyer arguing before the court seeking to delay a decision questioned Blackford on the spelling of the word "jenny", a female donkey, a word he knew would be in the report. Blackford responded with the spelling and lawyer again questioned him if he was certain that word was not spelt "jennie". Not wanting to be hasty and enter an incorrectly spelt word onto the record, Blackford delayed the decision for two days while experts were consulted as to the proper spelling. By the time the answer had come the court session had ended and decision was delayed for several months.
Between the time the books were published, and until 1930, his reports in were cited over 4,000 times by Indiana courts, over 3,000 times other state courts in the United States, over 1,400 times by federal courts and the United States Supreme Court, more than 350 times in Canadian courts, and more than 75 in British courts. Additionally, his decisions were cited over 400 times from Indiana Reports. It is estimated that since 1930, his reports have been cited an additional 4,000 times in court decisions. The use of his reports in law schools became less common beginning in the early 1900s as many states' civil codes began to become more developed. His reports, however, remain a regularly used tool in states where common law in still widely used.
In 1825 Blackford was nominated, without his knowledge, as the Whig candidate for governor of Indiana. Because of his position on the courts, he refused to campaign on his own behalf against his opponent. In the election he was defeated by James B. Ray with 13,140 votes to his 10,418. The same year, after his defeat, he was nominated for a U.S. Senate seat, again without his knowledge. He lost in the Indiana General Assembly by one vote and was defeated by former governor William Hendricks.
Governor Ray reappointed Blackford as Chief Justice in 1826 in an attempt to win electoral support from the Whigs on a number of laws he was advocating passage of. Blackford was reappointed again in 1833 by Governor Noah Noble and in 1840 by Samuel Bigger who were both of same party as Blackford. Democratic Governor Whitcomb at first refused to reappoint Blackford because of his age in 1847. He nominated four different replacements for Blackford but the Indiana Senate refused to confirm them, forcing Whitcomb to give in and reappoint Blackford. Whitcomb likewise had refused to reappoint the other two members of the court, leaving Blackford as the only justice on the court for nearly a year while the governor wrangled with the General Assembly over the issue. In both 1826 and 1847, Blackford was the only member of the court to be reappointed, based largely on his popularity and the fame of his reports. His fellow court members had been ejected because of their age, or their slow pace in making decision.
Blackford was a trustee for Indiana College (now Indiana University) from 1838 to 1841. During that time the college published his reports on their printing press. He continued serving on the Supreme Court until the new state Constitution of 1851 made the position of justice an elected office. He sought the nomination at the Whig convention to run to keep his seat, but his lack of political experience led to his defeat. In total he had been on the Supreme Court for over thirty-five years, seven and a half years longer than any other justice in state history. As late as 1930, he remained the longest serving jurist in any position in the United States.
Blackford still desired to be associated with the court so he could write the court reports. He was successfully nominated to run for the position of court reporter on the Whig ticket in 1853, but was defeated in the election by future Vice President of the United States Thomas Hendricks. After being defeated in his second election attempt after leaving the court, he briefly returned to private life. He opened a law office and took on one case which he argued before Judge David Wallace. He stumbled in making his arguments as he was unaccustomed to speaking publicly and he lost the case. He found the change of position embarrassing and was occasionally offended by the public and the court system for not showing him what he considered due respect. After the loss of his case he closed his law office.
With the aid of his friends, he sought to return to the bench. He had already become nationally renowned for his reports, and his availability to become a federal judge was reported to President Franklin Pierce. Congress created the federal United States Court of Claims to sit in Washington, D.C. in 1855, and Pierce nominated Blackford to become the first member of the court. Pierce remarked that there was no better qualified candidate in the nation, appointing him on March 3. Blackford accepted the appointment and was confirmed by the United States Senate a few days later.
The business of the court focused on financial claims against the government and was created as an investigative and deliberative body to help the Congress determine the validity of the claims and to lighten their workload. Given the type of cases dealt with, the decisions of the court received little attention and were primarily advisory in nature, recommending that Congress pay or not pay on the various claims. Blackford served on the court until his death on December 31, 1859, in Washington, D.C., aged 73.
Death and legacy
Blackford’s remains were returned to Indiana where he lay in state in the chambers of the Indiana Senate in Indianapolis. His bier was attended by thousands of citizens and numerous dignitaries. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery on the edge of Indianapolis. In 1866 his remains were disinterred and were reburied at Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana. There a 10 feet (3.0 m) high marble monument was erected over his grave in his honor. His entire estate was left to his half-sister Charlotte Teresa Coons and was worth an estimated $250,000 ($5,969,444 in 2009 chained dollars).
Blackford County, Indiana was named in honor of Justice Blackford in 1838. During his lifetime he became renowned for Blackford’s Reports and as the “Indiana Blackstone.” His reports remained in popular use many years after his death. Supreme Court librarian, circuit court judge, and historian William Wheeler Thornton states that after Blackford left the Indiana Supreme Court, and once the position was made elective, the prestige of the court that had been built up by Blackford was gradually lost as it became more political and less judicial. It was not until 1971 that the court position was again made appointive. Current Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard described Blackford as the “leading figure in shaping Indiana’s judiciary.”
|Independent||James B. Ray||13,140||55.8|
|National Republican||William Hendricks||30||50.8|
|National Republican||Jonathan Jennings||3||4.1|
- Thornton, p. 3
- Vile, p. 84
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- Funk, 140
- The year of George Blackford’s death is uncertain as Blackford refused to speak about the incident with anyone. The boy died sometime before August 1827.
- Thornton, p. 29
- Franklin lived until 1888 and Blackford’s biography by William Thornton was based in large part on his recounting of Blackford’s life. (Thornton, p. 31)
- Thornton, p. 31
- Thornton, p. 32
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- Gugin and St. Clair, eds. (2010), p. 15
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- Thornton, William W (2005). Fivecoat, Douglas, ed. Isaac Blackford: The Indiana Blackstone. Indiana Historical Bureau.
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- Isaac Newton at Findagrave