In the decade after the Civil War, the task of defining the rights of state and national citizenship, in the context of the Reconstruction Amendments, fell to a relatively small number of federal judges. This dissertation focuses on one of the most influential judges in the initial stages of that process, Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley of New Jersey.
Bradley's was the most analytic and the most disciplined mind on the Court in the 1870s and 1880s. His tightly reasoned arguments were reflected in the more than 400 opinions he wrote over the twenty-two years of his tenure. An examination of relationships among the Court's members in this period suggests that Bradley's influence was considerably greater than that immediately apparent in his quiet, private demeanor. Bradley was the first federal judge to comment on the scope and meaning of the Reconstruction Amendments. The occasion was the Slaughterhouse Cases in 1870. That opinion underscored the Amendments' broad reach as well as the authority of the Congress to secure their aims in law.
This dissertation traces Bradley's civil rights jurisprudence from his circuit opinion in Slaughterhouse and his exchanges with Judge William Woods reflected in Woods' decision in U.S. v Hall in 1870, through his opinion in the Civil Rights Cases in 1883. Initially, Bradley had been a powerful advocate of the supremacy of federal authority in protecting the rights of all citizens under the post-war Amendments. By the mid-1870s, Bradley had begun to vacillate on the value of congressional efforts to fulfill the Amendments' goals. After his experience on the Commission to settle the disputed election of 1876, in which Bradley cast the deciding vote for Hayes, Bradley sat in virtual silence while his Supreme Court colleagues chipped away at the civil rights enforcement program's constitutional underpinnings. By 1883, Bradley had joined the majority. The occasion was the Civil Rights Cases. The effect of Bradley's decision was to deny to Congress primary authority for protecting citizens in their fundamental rights and to return that responsibility to its prewar locus--the states.
For historians of the Reconstruction era, the Civil Rights decision is the symbolic culmination of the Compromise of 1877, the revolutionary "deracializing" of the post-war Amendments. For Bradley, it was also the end of an era, the terminus of the civil rights odyssey he had begun within months of his appointment to the Court in 1870.
This dissertation traces the evolution of Bradley's civil rights jurisprudence between 1870 and 1883. It is a biographical treatment. The beginning chapters examine Bradley's early life, his pre-Court career as an influential New Jersey lawyer, his several forays into elective politics in the 1860s, and the politics of Bradley's appointment to the Court. Other chapters examine the decisions through which Bradley's jurisprudence evolved and detail his participation in the settlement of 1877.
This dissertation's central argument is that Bradley's political views and subsequently, much of his civil rights jurisprudence were shaped by his enduring passion for the Union, the goal he prized above all. By 1883, the enforcement program had become, in his view, a divisive tool rather than one of reconciliation. Bradley's Civil Rights decision in 1883 acknowledged what had become a fact of American political life twenty years after Appomattox. The civil rights issue had been substantially wiped from the nation's agenda until the "second Reconstruction" of the 1960s.