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Portrait of Joseph Philo Bradley
Portrait of Joseph Philo Bradley.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Joseph Philo Bradley

b. March 14, 1813, Berne, NY
d. January 22, 1892, Washington, D.C.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

The eldest of 11 children, Joseph Philo Bradley was raised on a small farm in upstate New York, attended a country school, and began teaching when he was 16. He found a local tutor to instruct him in Latin and Greek and was accepted at Rutgers College on the strength of these studies. He graduated in 1836, worked in the Office of the Collector of the Port of Newark, where he read law for six years, and was admitted to the bar in 1839.

He married the daughter of the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and built a successful legal practice handling commercial and patent matters. Over the years he argued important cases in a variety of national courts and gained the attention of several associates of Ulysses Grant.

President Grant appointed Bradley to the Supreme Court on February 7, 1870, in the midst of an ongoing crisis over the Legal Tender Act. The act had been passed during the Civil War so the government could issue paper money to pay off its debts, but the Supreme Court had ruled it invalid. President Grant's first appointees to the Court, Bradley and William Strong, were both known to support the Legal Tender Act, and the following year the Court reversed its earlier decision.

Bradley's self-directed education gave him intellectual self-confidence and made him reluctant to rely on the opinions of others. It was said that he liked to use novel rationales for deciding cases whenever possible. An avid reader with broad interests, he gathered a library of 16,000 books and wrote essays on the works of philosophers, including Hobbes and Carlyle. Meticulous in his research, he had little patience for those who were not. He was often obsessive, and if plans were upset he could become angry. In one incident he became so infuriated after missing a train because his wife insisted he wear new trousers, that he cut the pants to shreds with his penknife.

Together with Samuel Miller and Stephen Field, Bradley was one of three associate justices who set the tone of debate on the Court. All were strong-minded and formidable, and they did not shy from a fight. Three constitutional amendments had recently been passed, of which the Fourteenth Amendment was most significant. Written to overturn the Dred Scott decision (1857) and grant citizenship to all regardless of race, the amendment also prohibited states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Bradley, along with several of his colleagues, narrowed its protection of blacks while using it to grant broad protection to corporations and commercial interests.

As a member of the special commission appointed to resolve the disputed 1876 presidential election, Bradley cast the deciding vote granting the presidency to the Republican, Rutherford Hayes, although his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden, had received more popular votes. In 1883 Bradley wrote the majority opinion in the Civil Rights Cases, declaring unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875, thereby ending most judicial enforcement of Reconstruction.

Benjamin Curtis Stephen Field Joseph Bradley John Marshall Harlan view all biographies Roger Taney John Marshall