Levi Woodbury (American National Biography)

Judith K. Schafer, "Woodbury, Levi," American National Biography Online, February 2000, http://www.anb.org/articles/03/03-00548.html.
Woodbury wrote perhaps his most controversial decision in 1847 in Jones v. Van Zandt. The decision hinged on the constitutionality of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. John Van Zandt's attorneys, William H. Seward and Salmon P. Chase, argued that the act was unconstitutional because higher moral law took precedence over the slave-catching statute. Woodbury rejected this argument, contending that the original compromises of the Constitutional Convention required the strict enforcement of acts giving slaveholders the right of rendition of their fugitive slaves. This decision made him popular in the South, and indeed some historians have suggested that his presidential aspirations may have influenced him to support constitutionalism and forbearance in sectional matters. He also supported the Compromise of 1850, including the new and stronger federal Fugitive Slave Act that was a part of the compromise, an unpopular stand for a New Englander. Had Woodbury lived, he might have been the Democratic nominee for president in 1852. He died in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Levi Woodbury's career shows him to have been a man of talent and ability, although his considerable political ambition made his antislavery convictions seem contradictory to his support of states' rights and his defense of the South on the slavery issue. Although he was far from dynamic, he was sound, temperate, and hard-working in a great range of political offices.
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