Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833)

by Joseph L. Story


I NOW offer to the public another portion of the labours devolved on me in the execution of the duties of the Dane Professorship of Law in Harvard University. The importance of the subject will hardly be doubted by any persons, who have been accustomed to deep reflection upon the nature and value of the Constitution of the United States. I can only regret, that it has not fallen into abler hands, with more leisure to prepare, and more various knowledge to bring to such a task.

Imperfect, however, as these Commentaries may seem to those, who are accustomed to demand a perfect finish in all elementary works, they have been attended with a degree of uninviting labour, and dry research, of which it is scarcely possible for the general reader to form any adequate estimate. Many of the materials lay loose and scattered; and were to be gathered up among pamphlets and discussions of a temporary character; among obscure private and public documents; and from collections, which required an exhausting diligence to master their contents, or to select from unimportant masses, a few facts, or a solitary argument. Indeed, it required no small labour, even after these sources were explored, to bring together the irregular fragments, and to form them into groups, in which they might illustrate and support each other.

From two great sources, however, I have drawn by far the greatest part of my most valuable materials. These are, The Federalist, an incomparable commentary of three of the greatest statesmen of their age; and the extraordinary Judgements of Mr. Chief Justice Marshall upon constitutional law. The former have discussed the structure and organization of the national government, in all its departments, with admirable fullness and force. The latter has expounded the application and limits or its powers and functions with unrivalled profoundness and felicity. The Federalist could do little more, than state the objects and general bearing of these powers and functions. The masterly reasoning of the Chief Justice has followed them out to their ultimate results and boundaries, with a precision and clearness, approaching, as near as may be, to mathematical demonstration. The Federalist, being written to meet the most prevalent popular objections at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, has not attempted to pursue any very exact order in its reasonings; but has taken up subjects in such a manner, as was best adapted at the time to overcome prejudices, and win favour. Topics, therefore, having a natural connexion, are sometimes separated; and illustrations appropriate to several important points, are sometimes presented in an incidental discussion. I have transferred into my own pages all, which seemed to be of permanent importance in that great work; and have thereby endeavoured to make its merits more generally known.

The reader must not expect to find in these pages any novel views, and novel constructions of the Constitution. I have not the ambition to be the author of any new plan of interpreting the theory of the Constitution, or of enlarging or narrowing its powers by ingenious subtleties and learned doubts. My object will be sufficiently attained, if I shall have succeeded in bringing before the reader the true view of its powers maintained by its founders and friends, and confirmed and illustrated by the actual practice of the government. The expositions to be found in the work are less to be regarded, as my own opinions, than as those of the great minds, which framed the Constitution, or which have been from time to time called upon to administer it. Union subjects of government it has always appeared to me, that metaphysical refinements are out of place. A constitution of government is addressed to the common sense of the people; and never was designed for trials of logical skill, or visionary speculation. The reader will sometimes find the same train of reasoning brought before him in different parts of these Commentaries.

It was indispensable to do so, unless the discussion was left imperfect, or the reader was referred back to other pages, to gather up and combine disjointed portions of reasoning. In cases, which have undergone judicial investigation, or which concern the judicial department, I have felt myself restricted to more narrow discussions, than in the rest of the work; and have sometimes contented myself with a mere transcript from the judgments of the court. It may readily be understood, that this course has been adopted from a solicitude, not to go incidentally beyond the line pointed out by the authorities.

In dismissing the work, I cannot but solicit the indulgence of the public for its omissions and deficiencies. With more copious materials it might have been made more exact, as well as more satisfactory. With more leisure and more learning it might have been wrought up more in the spirit of political philosophy. Such as it is, it may not be wholly useless, as a means of stimulating abler minds to a more thorough review of the whole subject; and of impressing upon Americans a reverential attachment to the Constitution, as in the highest sense the palladium of American liberty.

January, 1833.