Samuel Nelson

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For the Northern Irish footballer, see Sammy Nelson.
Samuel Nelson
Samuel Nelson - Brady-Handy.jpg
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
February 14, 1845 – November 28, 1872
Nominated by John Tyler
Preceded by Smith Thompson
Succeeded by Ward Hunt
Personal details
Born (1792-11-10)November 10, 1792
Hebron, New York, U.S.
Died December 13, 1873(1873-12-13) (aged 81)
Cooperstown, New York, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Pamela Woods (1819–1822)
Catharine Russell (1825–1873)
Alma mater Middlebury College
Religion Episcopalianism

Samuel Nelson (November 10, 1792 – December 13, 1873) was an American attorney and a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Early life[edit]

Nelson was born in Hebron, New York on November 10, 1792, the son of Scotch-Irish immigrants John Rodgers Nelson and Jean McArthur. Nelson’s family was upper middle class, and their income came from the family farm that Nelson grew up on. He obtained his early education in the common schools of Hebron, with an additional three years in private schooling. He then entered Middlebury College in Vermont.

Upon graduation in 1813, Nelson decided on a legal career and read law at the firm of John Savage & David Woods in Salem, New York. Two years later, Savage & Woods dissolved their practice, and Nelson moved to Madison County to enter into partnership with Woods. Nelson received his license to practice law in 1817, and entered private practice in Cortland. He developed a very successful practice, specializing in real estate and commercial law.


Nelson was a presidential elector in 1820, voting for James Monroe and Daniel D. Tompkins. While Nelson made a number of separate speeches at this convention, he primarily upheld the opinions of Martin van Buren as a member of Van Buren's political faction in New York politics. During his time at the convention, two of the most significant arguments that Nelson made was one in support of the expansion of suffrage and another the need for a restructuring of the state judiciary.

Nelson was Postmaster of Cortland from 1820 to 1823.

Nelson began his judicial career in 1823, when Governor Joseph Yates appointed him Judge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. This circuit was one of eight new circuits created by the reorganized state judiciary outlined in the revised state constitution that came out of the constitutional convention. After spending eight years as a circuit court judge, Nelson was appointed to the New York Supreme Court in 1831 by Governor Enos Throop. Six years later Governor William Marcy additionally promoted him to the position of chief justice, succeeding John Savage. He was an unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senator from New York in 1845.

On February 4, 1845, Nelson was nominated by President John Tyler to a seat as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States vacated by Smith Thompson. President Tyler tried and failed many times previously to nominate a candidate to fill the seat on the court left vacant by Justice Smith Thompson. The appointment of Samuel Nelson in the last few weeks of his presidency was a very wise choice on behalf of President Tyler. Nelson was a highly respected chief justice on the New York Supreme Court, and during his time on the court Nelson acquired a reputation of fairness and directness. In addition to that, Nelson had a reputation of staying out of partisan conflict. Further reflecting this sensible appointment of President Tyler’s was the fact that it took the Senate only a couple of days to confirm his appointment. Samuel Nelson was the only Supreme Court Justice to be appointed by President Tyler.

Nelson was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 14, 1845, and received his commission immediately. Nelson's confirmation in the last month of Tyler's presidency was a surprise. The unpopular Tyler had failed repeatedly to fill the vacancy left by Thompson, as the Whig-controlled Senate rejected his nominations of John C. Spencer, Reuben Walworth, Edward King and John M. Read. The Whigs found Nelson acceptable because, although he was a Democrat, he had a reputation as a careful and uncontroversial jurist.

Nelson served as a Justice for 27 years, until his retirement on November 28, 1872. His tenure was generally viewed as unremarkable. Justice Nelson arrived on the Supreme Court in 1845, at a time when the Court was composed mainly of Jackson appointees. Over the course of his twenty-seven years on the Court, Nelson upheld his reputation for being a fair and respectable judge. As a result of Nelson’s non-partisan nature, he wrote mostly uncontroversial opinions. Justice Nelson was a constitutionally conservative Democrat. He could also be described as a judicial minimalist, meaning he frequently took a moderate stance in cases offering a small, case-specific interpretation of the law and placed a heavy emphasis on precedent. While Nelson was a strong supporter of the Union, he often criticized President Lincoln’s policies and did not believe that the Union could be saved in any worthwhile state through the use of force. While Justice Nelson remained relatively non-partisan, he did side frequently with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Justice John A. Campbell. Nelson also rather frequently disagreed with Justice Benjamin Curtis. Justice Nelson remained good friends with Chief Justice Taney throughout his lifetime.

One of Justice Nelson’s most important opinions can be found in the case of Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company in 1855. This case concerned the conflict that arose as a suit was brought forth declaring that the new Wheeling Bridge was a nuisance due to the fact that it prevented the passage of large steamboats that in turn threatened interstate commerce. This dispute came before the court three different times totally six years of litigation before Justice Nelson’s opinion ended the suit. Originally the majority of the justices held the opinion that the bridge chartered by Virginia did in fact qualify as a public nuisance. In response to that, Congress passed a piece of legislation claiming that the bridge lawfully existed at its current height. In conclusion, Nelson wrote the majority opinion, deferring to the legislative branch, overruling the court’s previous decision, and declaring that the bridge was not an obstruction to interstate commerce. Nelson drew this conclusion stating, “So far, therefore, as this bridge created an obstruction to the free navigation of the river, in view of the previous acts of congress, they are to be regarded as modified by this subsequent legislation; and, although it still may be an obstruction in fact, is not so in the contemplation of law.”[1]

Justice Nelson was one of the most prolific opinion writers of the Taney era but very few of his opinions and decisions concerned the most important constitutional questions of the day such as: slavery and states rights. While most of Justice Nelson’s decisions did not include such matters, one case in which his opinion was profound was that of Dred Scott. While Samuel Nelson served on the New York Supreme Court the majority of the notable decisions that he made were related to commerce issues, but there is one case specifically that Nelson heard on state court that could have foreshadowed his views that would follow when he heard Dred Scott v Sandford as a Justice of the Taney court.

This case was that of Jack v. Martin in 1834. The case of Jack v. Martin called for an interpretation of the constitutional issue of the fugitive slave clause. In 1830 Mary Martin of Louisiana filed to bring Jack, a man that she claimed was her slave under law in Louisiana, to appear before the court in New York so that she could bring him back to Louisiana. Jack Martin resisted, claiming that because both he and Mary were currently residents of New York, that he had by law become free. The court ordered in favor of Mary Martin, but the case was appealed to the New York Supreme Court. Here Nelson heard the case and upheld the position that the right to legislate on the subject of the fugitive slave clause resided exclusively with Congress. This is also the position that would later be upheld in Prigg v. Pennsylvania. In addition to that, throughout Nelson’s time on the court his opinions followed a pattern of failing to enforce the federal prohibition of the slave trade. Therefore, the fact that Nelsons opinion ultimately sided with Taney against Dred Scott was not an unexpected conclusion.

In the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, Justice Nelson was originally supposed to write the opinion of the majority. In this opinion Justice Nelson upheld the decision of the state court against Dred Scott, but Justice Nelson did not think that the case brought up the question of black citizenship. Sticking true to Nelson’s tendency to stay out of partisan conflict, Nelson hoped to rule on the narrow grounds of whether or not Dred Scott became free as a result of his temporary residence in a free state. When Justice Nelson was tasked with writing the majority opinion, he was assigned to write an opinion that followed the precedent set by Strader v. Graham and upheld the ruling in Scott v. Emerson denying that Dred Scott and his family were free. While Justice Nelson was preparing his opinion it came to light that if such an opinion were written at least one dissent would follow bringing up the issue of black citizenship and the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. As a result of this, the southern justices led by Justice Wayne united around the view that Chief Justice Taney should write a majority opinion that addressed the constitutional issue of slavery within the area obtained by the Louisiana Purchase.

Despite this switch within the court, Justice Nelson’s views did not change. Upon the ruling of the court on March 6, 1857 seven justices confirmed that Dred Scott and his family remained slaves while two members of the court argued that they were free. While Justice Nelson agreed with the ruling he wrote a concurring opinion explaining his separate reasoning. Justice Nelson ruled based upon the principle that the question is one that each state is responsible in deciding for itself, “either by its Legislature or courts of justice, and hence, in respect to the case before us, to the State of Missouri – a question exclusively of Missouri law, and which, when determined by that State, it is the duty of the Federal courts to follow it. In other words, except in cases where the power is restrained by the Constitution of the United States, the law of the State is supreme over the subject of slavery within its jurisdiction.”[2] In a ruling as significant as Dred Scott it is important to take note of Justice Nelson’s opinion. While his reasoning may be different than Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, he still upholds the ruling that Dred Scott is not a citizen despite the fact that it is said that he was more inclined to antislavery forces, was a northern Democrat, and was a Unionist.

One of Justice Nelson’s more significant opinions arose in the Prize Cases. Leading into the 1860s Justice Nelson tirelessly worked to reach a compromise to prevent a civil war. In the winter of 1861 Justice Nelson joined Justice John Campbell in these efforts, serving as an intermediary between representatives form the South and the rising Lincoln administration and continued to work after the start of the war to try to meet a compromise to attain its end. Nelson was distressed at the failure of these efforts, but even though he was staunchly opposed to war and criticized many of Lincoln’s policies, he forever remained loyal to the Union.

The Prize Cases began in 1861 after President Lincoln declared a blockade of southern ports as a result of the internal conflict of the nation and the possibility that several southern states would secede. As a result of this blockade, Union ships seized ships carrying goods to the Confederate States. The question at hand then, was whether or not President Lincoln had the authority to issue a blockade of southern ports. In 1863 Justice Robert Grier wrote the opinion of the court stating that the blockade of southern ports by President Lincoln was constitutional. In this case Justice Nelson wrote the only dissenting opinion stating that the blockade of the southern ports was unconstitutional. Ultimately Nelson states that the ability to blockade ports, confiscate enemy property, and the other consequences of two countries at war are prescribed under international law only in the legal declaration of war. Nelson states that the problem in Lincoln issuing a naval blockade of southern ports was that, “war cannot lawfully be commenced on the part of the United States without an act of Congress, such act is, of course, a formal notice to all the world, and equivalent to the most solemn declaration”.[3]

Therefore, the blockade of southern ports by President Lincoln was unconstitutional. Nelson received a lot of criticism for this ruling because he was claiming that an act of the current President of the United States was unconstitutional because he did not have the power to declare war, and was doing so during a time of war. In addition to this, following the war Nelson urged the administration to reduce the penalties placed on the South after they rejoined the union. Despite Nelsons loyalty to the Union, many questioned this as a result of both of these opinions.

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Nelson to serve on the joint high commission to arbitrate the Alabama claims. During this time he took a leave of absence from the bench. Soon thereafter, Nelson became ill. He resigned from the commission in 1872, shortly before his death.

Death and burial[edit]

Samuel Nelson died in Cooperstown, New York, in 1873. He was buried at Cooperstown's Lakewood Cemetery.


In 1819 Nelson married Pamela Woods, the daughter of John Woods. In 1825, after Pamela's death, he married Catharine Ann Russell. He had two children from his first marriage and six from his second. His fourth child with Catharine, Rensselaer Nelson, was the first United States District Court Judge for the District of Minnesota.


Nelson received the honorary degree of LL.D. from Geneva College in 1837 and Middlebury College in 1841. He received honorary LL.D. degrees from Columbia University and Hamilton College in 1870.


His law office may today be seen at the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown.[4]


  1. ^ Pennsylvania v. The Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company, 59 U.S. 421, 435 (1852).
  2. ^ Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 460 (1857).
  3. ^ Prize Cases, 67 of U.S. 635, 687 (1863).
  4. ^ "Historic Structures - Samuel Nelson Law Office | The Farmers' Museum". Retrieved 2014-08-08. 

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Smith Thompson
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
Ward Hunt