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Published: 14-12-2011, 11:21

Isaac Blackford (1786–1859)

Isaac Blackford is best known for his thirty-five years as a judge on the Indiana Supreme Court (1817–1853) and, perhaps most significantly, for his collection of the court’s opinions, published as Blackford’s Reports. Often described as a quiet, somber, and reclusive man, Blackford led a very public life before, during, and after his long tenure on Indiana’s high court. He remains regarded as one of Indiana’s greatest judges and one of the greatest American judges of the frontier era.

Born in Bound Brook, New Jersey, on 6 November 1786, Blackford was the son of Joseph Blackford, a local merchant of English descent, and Mary Staats Blackford. In 1802, at age sixteen, he enrolled at Princeton College as “Isaac Newton Blackford,” but it appears that he added the middle name and did not continue to use it thereafter (Honeyman 1916, 4). He graduated from Princeton in 1806. At Princeton, he studied the classics, including Latin and Greek, but it was his study of Blackstone’s Commentaries during his senior year that inspired Blackford to choose a career in law (Withered 1998, 118). In a class of fifty-four—Princeton’s largest up to that time and for twenty years afterward—Blackford’s classmates included three future governors, three future U.S. senators, and four judges of state supreme courts (Alexander 1881, 2). Among these was James Iredell of North Carolina, who eventually served as governor, U.S. senator, and state supreme court judge and who was the son of United States Supreme Court justice James Iredell.

Upon graduating from Princeton, Blackford “read law” in the law office of Revolutionary War hero Col. George McDonald in Middlebrook, New Jersey (Honeyman 1916, 5). After about a year, Blackford left Colonel Mc- Donald and continued his training in the office of Gabriel Ford, of Morristown, whose home had been General Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War. Ford later became a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court. In 1810, Blackford was admitted to the New Jersey bar (5). Approximately one year later, however, he left New Jersey and emigrated westward.

According to historical accounts, the reasons behind Blackford’s decision to leave New Jersey for the Northwest Territory in 1811 are unknown (Withered 1998, 118). Upon moving to present-day Indiana, Blackford first resided and practiced law in Brookville, then became a cashier at the Vevay branch of the territorial bank, and shortly thereafter became editor of a newspaper in Vincennes. In 1813, he became clerk and recorder of Washington County. Later that year, Blackford was selected to be the clerk of the territorial House of Representatives, located in Corydon—the capital of the Indiana Territory at the time. Blackford resigned in 1814 when territorial governor Thomas Posey appointed him as the president judge of the First Territorial Circuit Court. When Indiana became a state in 1816, Blackford was elected to the state’s House of Representatives, as a representative of Knox County. On his thirtieth birthday, the twenty-nine members of the House convened and unanimously selected Blackford as the first speaker of the House.

Isaac Blackford
Isaac Blackford Library of Congress

Like his previous professional positions, Blackford’s tenure as speaker of the House was short lived. Less than a year into statehood, Judge John Johnson, one of three judges on the newly organized state Supreme Court, unexpectedly died. The young court had not yet issued any decisions. Under the 1816 Indiana Constitution, the governor appointed Supreme Court judges for seven-year terms. It is reported that during Johnson’s funeral, Gov. Jonathon Jennings

first signified to Blackford his intention to appoint him to that high office. They were walking arm in arm to the grave; and after discoursing in a low tone, and somewhat at length, upon the excellent traits of the deceased, Governor Jennings made known his purpose. Blackford was completely overcome by the announcement, and as usual on such occasions, lost his voice and all power of expression. Finally, regaining his composure, he besought the governor not to do so silly a thing. He urged his want of years, his inexperience, his limited knowledge of the law, and the superiority of other men, half a dozen whom he named. (Alexander 1881, 2)

The governor insisted, and the speaker relented. Blackford’s commission to the court was dated 10 September 1817.

After his initial appointment by Jennings in 1817, Blackford was reappointed to the bench four more times by four different governors and served more than thirty-five years—one year longer than Chief Justice John Marshall served on the United States Supreme Court. While on the Supreme Court, Blackford won the hand of his former mentor Colonel McDonald’s daughter Caroline, who was fourteen years younger than Blackford. They were married in 1820. A year later, Caroline died giving birth to a son named George, after his grandfather, the colonel. George Blackford died an early death in approximately 1839. The loss of his wife and only child are believed to have contributed to Blackford’s well-known “hermit like existence” and “reticent” disposition (Withered 1998, 19).

Despite his affinity for the law and his taciturn temperament, Blackford was a candidate for several elected offices while serving on the court. In 1825, the Whig Party nominated Blackford for governor, although he was not consulted prior to being nominated (Honeyman 1916, 8). He lost the election to James Brown Ray by a popular vote of 13,040 to 10,418. And the following year he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, but he lost to William Hendricks by a single vote in the Indiana General Assembly. Although he lost both of these elections, Blackford was a popular public figure in Indiana. In 1836, a new county was carved out of the existing Jay County in east-central Indiana and named Blackford County in honor of the judge.

Of his many accomplishments during his long life of public service, Blackford is most well known for his Blackford’s Reports. Having studied Blackstone at Princeton, Blackford was committed to the common law method of legal reasoning, hence his insistence on the use of precedent. In fact, he has been described as a “classical precedent judge” (Withered 1998, 19). One of his contemporaries once wrote of him: “The principal characteristic of the mind of Judge Blackford is caution. He never guesses. He is emphatically a book judge. Declamation with him is nothing, precedent and good authority, everything” (Smith 1858, 85). At the time he was appointed to the Indiana Supreme Court, there were no provisions for publishing the court’s opinions. In his early opinions Blackford relied on precedent from England and occasionally from state courts whose opinions were published. He thought it imperative, however, that Indiana’s court opinions be published and widely disseminated. By the middle of the 1820s, Blackford was single-handedly collecting and editing the opinions of the court, taking painstaking efforts to assure accuracy, clarity, and grammatical precision (Alexander 1881, 2). He selected and edited those opinions he believed to be the most important legal decisions of the court and intermittently published eight volumes between 1930 and 1950.

In the preface to the first volume of Blackford’s Reports, published in 1830, Blackford wrote:

This volume of Reports, containing the decisions of the Supreme Court of the State during the first ten years of the government, is respectfully submitted to the Public. The adjudications of the Court, constituting a part of the law of the country, should be generally known; and it is hoped that their publication will be satisfactory and useful. It is not anticipated that the work will be found free from imperfections. The Reporter, however, has spared no exertion to render it accurate and acceptable; and he confides it, with cheerfulness, to the liberality of his fellow citizens. (Blackford’s Reports 1817, 1:2)

Blackford’s Reports were not only essential to the development of law in Indiana but “were acknowledged as some of the finest in the field and were widely quoted in both the United States and Britain” (Withered 1998, 119).

In addition to Blackford’s Reports, Judge Blackford was well respected for his own legal ability and opinions and his influence in the opinions of his brethren. In Blackford’s first term, the Indiana Supreme Court decided three cases. In the first case, Averil v. Dickenson, 1 Blackf. 3 (1817), the court unanimously dismissed an appeal from Switzerland County Circuit Court because the clerk of the Circuit Court had not executed an appeal bond. In addition to being the first case decided during Blackford’s tenure on the court, the case is noteworthy because it marked the first use of precedent by the court (Withered 1998, 16). Per Justice Jesse L. Holman, the opinion of the court cited Hardin v. Owings, 4 Ky. 214, 1 Bibb. 214 (1808), a Kentucky Court of Appeals ruling that had dismissed an appeal for the same reason. Although Blackford did not author the opinion, his influence is evidenced by the strict reliance on precedent.

Only a few years into Blackford’s first term, the Indiana Supreme Court heard two appeals involving the contentious issue of slavery and involuntary servitude. Under federal law, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 proscribed slavery and involuntary servitude in the Northwest Territory. Federal officials, however, had interpreted the ordinance to forbid only the introduction of new slaves into the territory, and thus the status of slaves already residing in the territory was unaffected. When Indiana was admitted to the union as a state, the antislavery forces made up a majority of the new state’s Constitutional Convention. As a result, the 1816 constitution explicitly prohibited slavery. Article 11, Section 7 read: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this State, otherwise than for punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

In 1820, the Indiana Supreme Court was first asked to rule on the legal status of slaves in The State v. Lasselle, 1 Blackf. 60. Polly, “a woman of color,” had petitioned the Knox County Circuit Court to issue a writ of habeus corpus. She claimed that she was being unconstitutionally held as a slave by Col. Hyacinthe Lasselle, who was “the principal tavern keeper in Vincennes and whose family was one of the oldest French families in Indiana” (Withered 1998, 17). Lasselle argued that his family had purchased Polly “from the Indians in the Territory northwest of the river Ohio” prior to the ordinance of 1787, and therefore his “ownership rights” preexisted the ordinance and could not be negated (1 Blackf. 60). The Circuit Court judge ruled for Lasselle without mention of the Indiana constitution.

On appeal, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Circuit Court and ordered the release of Polly. In Justice James Scott’s opinion for the court, the ruling was based entirely on the Indiana constitution of 1816. Citing Article 11, Section 7, as well as provisions securing individual rights to “life and liberty” and the pursuit of “happiness and safety,” the court declared: “It is evident that by these provisions, the framers of our constitution intended a total and entire prohibition of slavery in this State; and we can conceive of no form of words in which that intention could have been more clearly expressed” (1 Blackf. 4). According to the court, the clear language of the constitution precluded any claim of preexisting ownership rights. A year later, the court extended the Lasselle holding to indentured servants, in The Case of Mary Clark, A Woman of Color, 1 Blackf. 122 (1821).

Although Blackford did not author the court opinions in those cases, it is probable that he had considerable influence in the decisions (Withered 1998, 19). Blackford’s abhorrence for slavery was passionate and well documented (Woollen 1883, 350). In fact, Blackford later refused to support fellow Whig and Indiana resident William Henry Harrison’s candidacy for the presidency in 1836 and 1840 largely because of pro-slavery positions taken by Harrison when he was territorial governor (Withered 1998, 19). Blackford even took the rather drastic measure of leaving the Whig Party and joining the Democrats in order to distance himself from Harrison’s candidacy (Woollen 1883, 350).

Blackford also played an important role in defining the reach of juries in criminal cases under the 1816 constitution, and his judicial opinions on the matter had a later impact on related provisions in the 1851 constitution. The 1816 constitution was nearly identical in form and substance to the Kentucky constitution of 1799 and the Ohio constitution of 1802 (Rucker 1999, 456). Section 10 of the Bill of Rights provided in relevant part, “n all indictments for libels, the jury shall have the right to determine the law and the facts, under the direction of the court, as in other cases.” In Townsend v. State, 2 Blackf. 151 (1828), a divided court ruled that the right of juries to determine matters of law was not a general power of juries and did not apply other than in libel cases. Justice Blackford dissented in the two-to-one decision and argued that juries could determine issues of law as well as facts in all criminal cases. Eight years later, the court reconsidered the issue in Warren v. State, 4 Blackf. 150 (1836). Writing for a unanimous court, Blackford effectively overruled Townsend in a four-sentence opinion that declared that a jury in a criminal case had the power to determine issues of law as well as fact. In effect, the ruling established a constitutional right to jury nullification.

When a second Constitutional Convention convened in 1850 for the purposes of drafting a new constitution, a committee on rights and privileges was formed. Among other provisions for the new Bill of Rights, the committee considered revisions of the old Section 10. Referring to relevant Indiana Supreme Court decisions, one delegate stated: “It is now admitted to be well settled law, that, in a criminal case, the jury has an unquestionable right to decide upon questions of law as fact, although they may differ from the Court in doing so” (Rucker 1999, 459). The committee decided to draft two separate provisions to the Bill of Rights—one to address libel and the other to address the role of the jury. When ratified in 1851, Article I, Section 19, of the new Indiana constitution read: “In all criminal cases whatever, the jury shall have the right to determine the law and the facts.” Blackford’s interpretation of the role of the jury under the 1816 constitution was now made explicit in the 1851 constitution.

The 1851 constitution also ended the practice of gubernatorial appointment of judges and instead provided for judicial elections. Blackford was defeated in his electoral bid to remain on the court by his colleague, Judge Samuel E. Perkins, who had originally been appointed to the court in 1846. Blackford’s last term on the court expired 3 January 1853, after which he opened a private law practice in Indianapolis, his home for the previous twenty years. The transition from thirty-five years on the bench to private practice was not a smooth one (Honeyman 1916, 8). Two years after Blackford had left the Indiana bench, Pres. Franklin Pierce appointed Blackford as a judge on the newly created Court of Claims in Washington, D.C. He served on that court until his death in 1859.

J. Mitchell Pickerill