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Supreme Injustice

Supreme Injustice

Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court

Paul Finkelman

ISBN 9780674051218

Publication date: 01/08/2018

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The three most important Supreme Court Justices before the Civil War—Chief Justices John Marshall and Roger B. Taney and Associate Justice Joseph Story—upheld the institution of slavery in ruling after ruling. These opinions cast a shadow over the Court and the legacies of these men, but historians have rarely delved deeply into the personal and political ideas and motivations they held. In Supreme Injustice, the distinguished legal historian Paul Finkelman establishes an authoritative account of each justice’s proslavery position, the reasoning behind his opposition to black freedom, and the incentives created by circumstances in his private life.

Finkelman uses census data and other sources to reveal that Justice Marshall aggressively bought and sold slaves throughout his lifetime—a fact that biographers have ignored. Justice Story never owned slaves and condemned slavery while riding circuit, and yet on the high court he remained silent on slave trade cases and ruled against blacks who sued for freedom. Although Justice Taney freed many of his own slaves, he zealously and consistently opposed black freedom, arguing in Dred Scott that free blacks had no Constitutional rights and that slave owners could move slaves into the Western territories. Finkelman situates this infamous holding within a solid record of support for slavery and hostility to free blacks.

Supreme Injustice boldly documents the entanglements that alienated three major justices from America’s founding ideals and embedded racism ever deeper in American civic life.


  • [Supreme Injustice] tells the story of three United States Supreme Court Justices…and their ‘slavery jurisprudence.’ Each of these men, Finkelman argues…shared the belief that antislavery agitation undermined the legal and political structures instituted by the Constitution… Finkelman insists that the legacy of Marshall, Story, and Taney had enormous implications…strengthening the institutions of slavery and embedding in the law a systemic hostility to fundamental freedom and basic justice. These are strong allegations… Yet the evidence adds up… Finkelman remains an important voice in legal education and has pushed scholarly conversations about slavery in new directions.

    —Allen Mendenhall, Los Angeles Review of Books


  • Paul Finkelman is President of Gratz College.

Book Details

  • 304 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press