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Daniel, Peter Vivian

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Birth: April 24, 1784, Stafford County, Virginia.

Education: Privately tutored; attended Princeton University, 1802–1803.

Official Positions: Member, Virginia House of Delegates, 1809–1812; Virginia Privy Council, 1812–1835; lieutenant governor of Virginia, 1818–1835; U.S. district judge, Eastern District of Virginia, 1836–1841.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President Martin Van Buren, February 27, 1841, to replace Justice Philip Barbour, who had died; confirmed by the Senate, March 2, 1841, by a 22–5 vote; took judicial oath January 10, 1842; served until May 31, 1860; replaced by Samuel F. Miller, nominated by President Abraham Lincoln.

Death: May 31, 1860, Richmond, Virginia.

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Peter Vivian Daniel
Noteworthy Opinions

Peter Vivian Daniel

Born in Stafford County, Virginia, nearly midway between Washington and Richmond, Peter V. Daniel was educated by private tutors and attended the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) for a few months. He moved to Richmond in 1805 to study law with Edmund Randolph, was admitted to the bar in 1808, and elected to the Virginia legislature the next year. He soon rose to membership in the Virginia Privy Council and became lieutenant governor in 1818. Daniel was active in leadership of the Old Dominion Democratic-Republicans, later the Jacksonian Democrats. He owned slaves, but was never a planter. Within the strictures of Virginia's slave system, he gave careful attention to details of fact and to opportunities for mercy in the Virginia Privy Council's review of trials of slaves for rape and of allegations that a slave suspect had been tortured.

Supporting William H. Crawford in 1824 and Andrew Jackson in 1828, Daniel became Jackson's, and later Martin Van Buren's, main supporter in Virginia. His own political career was only moderately successful. When he ran for governor in 1830, he lost to John Floyd. By February 1835 he was off the council, having been defeated for reelection under the new state constitution. Jackson finally found a way to reward Daniel; in March 1836 the president appointed Daniel federal district judge for the Eastern District of Virginia. The day Justice Philip Barbour (a Virginian) died in 1841, President Van Buren, with just nine more days in office, decided to appoint Daniel to the Supreme Court. Whigs mounted a fruitless effort to obstruct the appointment, but the Senate confirmed him, and Daniel served from January 1842 until his death in May 1860. He wrote seventy-four majority opinions, filed fifty dissents, and wrote a number of concurring opinions.

As a justice, Daniel had little lasting influence on the Supreme Court. He wrote more than twice as many lone dissenting opinions as did any other justice on the Taney Court. He had to, if he were to live up to Van Buren's description of him as “a Democrat ab ovo” who was “not in so much danger of falling off in the true spirit.” States' rights was his unbending position; hostility to banks and corporations and opposition to internal improvements were his tenets until his death. The reason that Justice Daniel frequently was in the minority on the Court—often a minority of one—was his extreme devotion to antifederalism and agrarianism. There are some clues concerning his zealous attachment to states' rights and lingering antifederalism. Daniel's first wife was the daughter of Edmund Randolph, who had displayed ambivalence about the Constitution of 1787. In addition, Daniel came of age and joined the Old Dominion government when fellow Virginian John Taylor of Caroline was publishing his passionate arguments against mercantile oppression of agriculture through control of federal power, and when Spencer Roane and other Virginians challenged the Marshall Court's decisions concerning federal judicial supremacy.

His background, however, does not fully explain Daniel's perseveration in the face of inevitable change. Randolph, Roane, and Taylor could exert no immediate influence on Justice Daniel: all were eulogized well before Daniel joined the Court. While justices such as Roger Brooke Taney led the Court in reinterpretation of the Constitution to remove obstacles to early corporate growth, other members of the bench and bar were expanding the coverage of federal admiralty jurisdiction, as steamboats changed the nature of waterborne commerce, corporations and banks asserted their legal rights in case after federal case, and a minority of northern jurists looked for ways to use the power of the federal government against slavery. Daniel fought a rearguard action against corporations and banks, attempted to limit federal admiralty jurisdiction to the traditional tidewater, strenuously opposed internal improvements, and vigorously championed state and federal protection of the “peculiar institution,” slavery. Only in the last two battles did he have a significant number of allies. Had Daniel lived beyond 1860, he would doubtlessly have joined another group—Confederate sympathizers or Confederates—whose cause was lost.

Daniel faced the special uphill battle of anyone who wishes to limit the federal government's power. Where an omission from the Constitution is not obvious and there is no express denial of a power to the federal government, the necessary and proper clause can be cited to claim a federal power. So it was with internal improvements such as roads and canals. When the national government offered none of these improvements or services, nor was expressly required to, it was certainly a matter of argument as to whether the Constitution allowed it to. That Daniel held one of the more extreme positions about internal improvement—that it was never allowed—did not place him on the untenable side of the argument. He stood with millions of other Americans. Unelected, Daniel had no constituency, but his point of view did.

Daniel argued in Searight v. Stokes (1845), therefore, that the Constitution granted no power to the central government to create roads or any other internal improvement within the states. He chose a poor way to emphasize his point. The Constitution did, he admitted, confer on the government the power to establish post roads; but, in a tour de force of denial, he insisted that power did not extend beyond designating routes. Here was a perfect opportunity for someone to respond that the necessary and proper clause gave full power to the central government to build, own, and maintain post roads where there were none, or where existing roads frustrated the delivery of the U.S. mail. By Daniel's implication, however, the sovereign federal government was dependent on state or local governments or on private enterprise to provide the roads by which the mail was to be delivered.

Daniel carried his restrictive interpretation of the limits of federal power into his opinions in three of the most important regulatory cases that came before the Taney Court. In the License Cases (1847), he concurred with the majority that states could regulate the importation of liquor, but, true to form, he did so on the basis of his particularly intense states' right philosophy. He would not be open to later shifts in the Court's position concerning exclusivity of the federal commerce power. He dissented from the majority decision in the Passenger Cases (1849) that states could not tax immigrants to finance a hospital for ship passengers. That decision, he declared, was guilty of “trampling down …. some of the strongest defenses of the safety and independence of the States of this confederacy.” Daniel split the difference in his separate opinion in Cooley v. Board of Wardens (1851), concurring with the decision but dissenting from the majority's arguments. The issue was whether pilotage in harbors was within the federal power to regulate commerce. It was not, said five justices, because pilotage was of local rather than national importance. It was not, said Daniel, because the power to regulate pilotage always had been a state power and admitted neither federal interference nor even tolerance.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Daniel never explicitly pointed out the connection between the federal regulatory cases and the troublesome question of federal jurisdiction over slavery. But his opinion in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), a major fugitive slave case, shows that his attitude toward federal power over commerce was in uneasy harmony with his opinions concerning the domestic institution. He firmly believed that the states had the duty to carry out, by legislation if necessary, the legitimate powers of the central government. In Prigg, the Court majority appeared to hold any state legislation concerning fugitive slaves to be in conflict with the exclusive power of the federal government to aid owners in the return of their human property. But Daniel believed that state action to aid the capture and return of fugitive slaves upheld—indeed, must uphold—federal power to protect the property rights of owners. He never explicitly acknowledged the extent to which such state aid to the functioning of the federal government would increase the federal government's power. It increased that power over slavery, but Daniel understood the practical problem that motivated slavery supporters to campaign for adequate assistance from the central government to recapture runaway slaves until the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed—and after even it proved to be inadequate. There were not enough federal officials in the states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, so state government help was essential to make the fugitive slave provision of the Constitution effective. And Daniel was hardly alone in this dissent from part of Justice Joseph Story's opinion for the Court: Chief Justice Taney stood firmly with him.

Daniel's Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) opinion showed his most consistent thinking: he was both proslavery and opposed to the exercise of one kind of federal power, that of Congress over slavery in the territories. (Still, he recognized no right of a state to create a citizen of the national government.) Daniel emphasized the role of Congress as “agent or trustee” of the United States and the people thereof and concluded that Congress could not thereby take upon itself the power to confer on one group of citizens a privilege that it denied to another group. In other words, Daniel argued that Congress had no right to prohibit slave owners from bringing their human property into the area designated by the Missouri Compromise as free when Congress allowed nonslaveholders to bring in other kinds of property. To do so was discrimination against slaveholders and southerners and therefore went beyond the constitutional authority of any branch of the federal government. Daniel maintained another kind of consistency. If Congress had no power to legislate concerning slavery in the territories, then how could the Northwest Ordinance's prohibition of slavery be valid? Daniel was the only justice to say it was not—in fact, it was “ab initio void.” Daniel left nothing to chance in this concurring opinion. He found every way possible to deny federal power over slavery in the territories.

It was in admiralty cases that Daniel became most anachronistic and eccentric. The framers of the Judiciary Act of 1789 took the admiralty clause of the Constitution to mean that the federal courts must have exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty cases. This interpretation left common law cases concerning inland water transportation to state and local courts but shifted control of admiralty cases away from the states to the new federal government. The older that government became and the more miles of river and lake that could be covered by migrating people and faster boats, the more many people argued for the extension of admiralty jurisdiction beyond the tidewater to inland waterways, especially those connected with tidewater areas. Daniel had to uphold admiralty jurisdiction over the tidewater, but the moment anyone sought to move beyond that traditional realm, Daniel blocked the way as best he could. As inland, interstate, waterborne commerce grew in complexity, however, problems of jurisdiction began to affect commerce adversely. One commentator stated that purportedly corrective legislation of 1845 granted nothing more than “quasi admiralty jurisdiction” to federal courts because it applied only to lakes and their connecting rivers and relied for its legitimacy on the federal commerce power rather than on admiralty jurisdiction. When the denial of admiralty jurisdiction in The Thomas Jefferson (1825) was finally overturned by a nearly unanimous Taney Court in Propeller Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh (1852), Daniel predictably filed the sole dissent, even though the Court countenanced jurisdiction only over interstate waterborne commerce. (It may be pointed out that waterborne commerce in other regions of the United States outweighed such commerce in Daniel's native South by four to one.)

It would be a mistake to dismiss Daniel completely because he chose to fight a losing battle and exhibited a prickly stubbornness and partisanship seldom seen among the very best jurists. His brothers on the bench took him very seriously because he labored with care over all decisions, expending great time and industry in his research for them and exhibiting great learning in them. His opinion in the Passenger Cases is one of his most interesting because his position was almost as credible as those of the rest of the divided Court. When he was assigned to write an opinion for the Court, he obviously was in harmony with the majority on the issue at hand. His opinion for the Court in West River Bridge Co. v. Dix (1848), which upheld an eminent domain action, stands out for its clarity and forcefulness. Even on the point of prickly stubbornness, one can find something to praise. He was nothing if not independent of the pressure of general opinion, an achievement to be admired in principle in a member of the highest judiciary. That his intellectual independence often pitted him against inevitable change is the tragedy of his career. His stiff backbone attracted little love from friends, but being lovable has never been a requirement for appointment to the supreme tribunal.


The most comprehensive judicial biography is John P. Frank, Justice Daniel Dissenting: A Biography of Peter v. Daniel, 1784–1860 (1964). A succinct account of Daniel's agrarian philosophy is Lawrence Burnette Jr., “Peter V. Daniel: Agrarian Justice,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 60 (1954): 289. Carl Swisher effectively assesses Daniel's role in the major decisions of the Taney Court in The Taney Period, 1836–64 (1974), volume 5 of the Holmes Devise History. The best assessment of Daniel's Dred Scott opinion is in Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (1978). There is no major collection of Daniel papers, but important letters are in the Martin Van Buren papers, Library of Congress, and in scattered other collections.

Noteworthy Opinions

Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842) (Concurrence)

Searight v. Stokes, 44 U.S. 151 (1845)

License Cases (Thurlow v. Massachusetts) 46 U.S. 504 (1847) (Concurrence)

West River Bridge Co. v. Dix, 47 U.S. 507 (1848)

Passenger Cases (Smith v. Turner and Norris v. City of Boston), 48 U.S. 283 (1849) (Dissent)

Cooley v. Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia, 53 U.S. 299 (1851) (Concurrence)

Propeller Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh, 53 U.S. 443 (1852) (Dissent)

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857) (Concurrence)


Document Citation
Daniel, Peter Vivian, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 155 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18166-979180
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