Daniel, Peter Vivian


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Daniel, Peter Vivian

Peter Vivian Daniel served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1841 to 1860. A prominent lawyer and Democratic politician from Virginia, Daniel adhered to a Jeffersonian political philosophy that favored States' Rights and disfavored large economic institutions. A minor figure in the history of the Supreme Court, Daniel joined the majority in dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1857), which held that freed black slaves could not be citizens under the Constitution because they had originally been property, not citizens.

Daniel was born in Stafford County, Virginia, on April 24, 1784. He came from a wealthy family and was educated at Princeton University, graduating in 1805. He read the law in the Richmond offices of edmund randolph, who helped draft the Constitution. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1808.

Although Daniel maintained a law practice, his focus was on politics and government. He was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1809. In 1812 he was appointed by the house to serve on the Privy Council, which acted as an advisory board for the state governor. Daniel remained on the council for twenty-three years, serving as lieutenant governor for much of his term.

Daniel was active in the Democratic Party and was a strong supporter of President Andrew Jackson. In 1836 Jackson appointed Daniel as a judge to the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia. Five years later President Martin Van Buren appointed Daniel to the U.S. Supreme Court. This move sparked controversy because it occurred at the end of Van Buren's term of office. The Whig Party's presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, was elected president. Whigs in Congress tried to block the appointment of Daniel so Harrison could choose a justice. Daniel was confirmed by the Senate on March 3, 1841, in the last moments of the Van Buren administration.

"The mere grant of power to the [federal]government cannot … be construed to be an absolute prohibition to the exercise of any power over the same subject by the states."
—Peter V. Daniel

Throughout his years on the Supreme Court, Daniel maintained his commitment to Jeffersonian government. Thomas Jefferson's view of republican government valued an agricultural economy and a limited role for government. Daniel also adopted the Jacksonian variation, which included hostility to banks, corporations, and the federal government. A southerner and a believer in states' rights, he supported the right of states to maintain the institution of Slavery.

Daniel was known more for his dissents than for crafting majority opinions. He did, however, join the majority in the Dred Scott case. Dred Scott was a slave owned by an army surgeon, John Emerson, who resided in Missouri. In 1836 Emerson took Scott to Fort Snelling, in what is now Minnesota but was then a territory where slavery had been expressly forbidden by the Missouri Compromise legislation of 1820. In 1846 Scott sued for his freedom in Missouri state court, arguing that his residence in a free territory released him from slavery. The Missouri Supreme Court rejected his argument, and Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court heard arguments on Dred Scott in 1855 and 1856. A key issue was whether African Americans could be citizens of the United States, even if they were not slaves. Daniel was a loyal southerner, holding in his concurring opinion that African Americans who had been freed since the enactment of the Constitution could never be citizens. The Framers had not contemplated the prospect of granting citizenship to persons who were legally recognized as property when the Constitution was drafted.

During his term on the Supreme Court, Daniel's adherence to his principles led him to drift further from the mainstream. As the national economy expanded, and with it both big business and the federal government, Daniel's Jeffersonian beliefs lost relevance.

Daniel died May 31, 1860, in Richmond, Virginia.