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Henry Baldwin was a prominent Pennsylvania attorney and politician who later became an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served for fourteen years.
Descended from an aristocratic British family dating back to the seventeenth century, Baldwin was born January 14, 1780, in New Haven, Connecticut. He grew up on a farm near New Haven and later moved to the city to attend Yale College. After graduating with honors in 1797, he studied law in Philadelphia with alexanderj. dallas, a noted attorney. Admitted to the bar a short time later, Baldwin originally planned to establish a practice in Ohio, but instead settled in Pittsburgh. He then established a successful law firm with two other young attorneys. By his mid-twenties, Baldwin had established a reputation as a legal scholar, in part because of his thorough and well-researched law briefs. He had also developed an extensive personal law library, which contained a large collection of valuable English case reports and was among the finest and largest in the Northeast. Furthermore, Baldwin and his law partners were known for their political and civic leadership. The three published a newspaper, the Tree of Liberty, which supported the Democratic-Republican Party of western Pennsylvania. In addition to his political activities and his law practice, Baldwin found time for business, acting as part-owner of several mills in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
After the death of his first wife, Baldwin married Sally Ellicott, and they established a residence in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. In 1816, Baldwin was elected representative to the U.S. Congress for that area. As a congressman, Baldwin was active in trade issues and was a strong advocate of tariff protection. He was also involved in mediating boundary disputes between northern and southern states and their representatives. He was twice reelected to the House. In 1822, he was forced to resign his seat because of illness. He returned home to Pennsylvania, where he once again practiced law and was active in local political affairs.
"Words are but the evidence of intention; their import is their meaning, to be gathered from the context, and their connection with the subject matter."
Baldwin soon became an avid supporter of Andrew Jackson and was a trusted adviser to Jackson concerning Pennsylvania politics. After Jackson was elected president in 1828, Baldwin hoped to become secretary of the treasury, but the appointment instead went to Samuel D. Ingham. The following year, after the death of Justice Bushrod Washington, Jackson nominated Baldwin to the U.S. Supreme Court, against the wishes of his vice president, john c. calhoun, who preferred another candidate. Though Baldwin's protectionist views created some controversy, he was confirmed by the Senate with only two dissenting votes from southern senators who opposed his policies on tariffs.
On the bench, Baldwin was at first a strong supporter of the liberal views of Chief Justice John Marshall but gradually moved toward a more moderate interpretation of the Constitution, favoring neither state sovereignty nor federal supremacy. In 1837, he published a pamphlet, A General View of the Origin and Nature of the Constitution and Government of the United States, in which he set forth what he termed his "peculiar views of the Constitution." In this work, he emphasized his position as a moderate on the Court, stating that he tended to take the Constitution "as it is, and to expound it by the accepted rules of interpretation." Baldwin also believed that the Court must be politically sensitive when determining which powers belonged to the federal government and which remained with the states.
One of Baldwin's most influential majority opinions was United States v. Arredondo, 31 U.S. 691, 6 Pet. 691, 8 L. Ed. 547 (1832), in which the Court held that public policy prevented the government from violating federal land treaties. With respect to the issue of Slavery, however, Baldwin's views were considered to be much more radical than those held by other members of the Court. In Groves v. Slaughter, 40 U.S. 449, 15 Pet. 449, 10 L. Ed. 800 (1841), the Court considered the constitutionality of a Mississippi provision that prevented the importation of slaves into the state. The Court ultimately struck down the statute on technical reasons, but Baldwin, in a separate opinion, argued that slaves were property as well as persons and viewed the prohibition as an obstruction of interstate commerce. He was the sole dissenter in United Statesv. The Schooner Armistead, 40 U.S. 518, 15 Pet. 518, 10 L. Ed. 826 (1841), in which the Court held that slaves who had mutinied and taken over the slave ship transporting them from Africa should be set free. Though he did not write an opinion, Baldwin had earlier maintained that the slaves should be returned to the custody of the slave traders.
As was the practice in the Court at the time, Baldwin traveled the circuit he represented, which included Pennsylvania and New Jersey, to hear cases. He heard important cases involving the construction of a will that made a bequest for charitable purposes and also presided over the trial of John F. Braddel, who in 1840 was accused of robbing the mails.
In his later years, Baldwin was plagued by financial and personal difficulties. He never fully recovered from losing a great deal of money during the depression of 1820. He also suffered from the failure of several speculative businesses, and he had to support some of his adult children when they got into financial trouble. He was eventually forced to sell his renowned personal law library to the Library of Congress to raise money. He also published and sold volumes of the opinions he decided while traveling the circuit.
At the same time, Baldwin's behavior became erratic and he was widely reported to be suffering from mental illness. While on the bench, he was often restless, inattentive, and abusive to litigants and his fellow justices. While on the circuit, he also exhibited bizarre behavior at times, often having coffee and cakes brought to him while he heard cases. Chief Justice rogerb. taney was reported to be so concerned about Baldwin's unpredictable behavior that he advised President Jackson not to take action against the Bank of the United States because Baldwin, as presiding judge over the case in Philadelphia, would be unreliable.
Baldwin's tenure on the Court ended on April 21, 1844, when he died of paralysis at the age of sixty-four. He was deeply in debt at the time of his death, and friends and family took up a collection to pay for his funeral expenses.
Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.
Elliott, Stephen P., ed. 1986. A Reference Guide to the United States Supreme Court. New York: Facts on File.
Swisher, Carl B. 1974. The Taney Period, 1836–1864. Vol. 5 of History of the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Macmillan.