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Levi Woodbury

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Woodbury cordially writes to Andrew Jacksonʼs future nemesis, Nicholas Biddle

Levi Woodbury, 17891851.  Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court, 18451851; United States Senator from New Hampshire, 18251830, 18411845; Secretary of the Treasury, 18341841; Secretary of the Navy, 18311834; Governor of New Hampshire, 18231824.  Manuscript Letter Signed, Levi Woodbury, one page, with integral leaf attached, 8” x 9¾”, Navy Department [Washington, D.C.], February 21, 1833.

Woodbury, then President Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of the Navy, sends a cordial letter to Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States, to return an earlier letter.  In full:  “I return herewith the original letter from this Department received in yours of the 19th inst., and have to express my thanks for your prompt attention to my request.”

Biddle became Jackson’s nemesis in Jackson’s opposition to renewal of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States.  Jackson opposed banks—notably, this bank—that issued paper money and thus were not entirely backed by gold or silver.  His hard-money opposition to the Second Bank put him squarely at odds with Henry Clayʼs National Republicans, who supported it.  In an election year ploy, Clay urged Biddle to seek renewal of the charter four years early in order to force Jackson to make what Clay hoped would be an unpopular decision that would cost him votes.  Once challenged, Jackson vetoed the bill renewing the charter, making the renewal a principal issue in Jackson’s 1832 reelection campaign.  Clay had hoped to divide Jackson’s supporters and thought that he could win Pennsylvania, where the Second Bank was located, but despite the Second Bankʼs heavy support for Clay, Jackson handily defeated him in both the popular and electoral votes. 

Woodbury, who had a long and distinguished public career, is one of the few people who served in all three branches of the United States government.  Along with Salmon P. Chase and James F. Byrnes, he was one of only three who not only served in all three branches of the federal government but also served as the governor of a state. 

An 1809 graduate of Dartmouth College, Woodbury read law and attended Litchfield (Tapping Reeve) Law School before being admitted to the bar in 1812.  He practiced law and then served six years as a New Hampshire superior court judge before being elected Governor of New Hampshire in 1823.  Two years later, he was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, where he became Speaker, and in 1826 the legislature elected him to the United States Senate.  He served five years until Jackson appointed him Secretary of the Navy, the position he held when he wrote this letter.  Jackson then appointed him Secretary of the Treasury in 1834, and he served until he was again elected to the United States Senate in 1841. 

President James K. Polk, whom Woodbury supported in the 1840 election, appointed him an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court in a recess appointment on September 20, 1845, following the death of Justice Joseph Story.  Woodbury was the first Justice who had attended law school.  On December 23, 1845, Polk formally nominated him, and the Senate confirmed him January 3, 1846.  He received his commission the same day.  He served only five years, until he died at age 61 on September 4, 1851, but in his short time on the Court he authored majority opinions in 43 cases, including some of the most significant cases of his time. 

As a Justice, Woodbury was a strict constructionist who supported states’ rights.  Thus, although he was personally opposed to slavery, he wrote for a unanimous Court in Jones v. Van Zandt, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 215 (1847), to reaffirm the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.  In his long concurrence in the License Cases, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 504, 631 (1847), Woodbury voted to sustain the constitutionality of state liquor licensing laws, writing that the states stand properly on their reserved rights, within their own powers and sovereignty, to judge of the expediency and wisdom of their own laws; and while they take care not to violate clearly any portion of the constitution or statutes of the general government, our duty to that constitution and laws, and our respect for States rights, must require us not to interfere.”  He expounded on his states’ rights views two years later in the Passenger Cases, 47 U.S. (7 How.) 283, 518 (1849).  Clearly preoccupied with the question of slavery, he dissented from the majority’s ruling holding state taxes upon arriving immigrants unconstitutional.  “If Congress, without a coördinate or concurrent power in the States, can prohibit other persons as well as slaves from coming into States,” he wrote, “they can of course allow it, and hence can permit and demand the admission of slaves, as well as any kind of free person, convicts or paupers, into any State, and enforce the demand by all the overwhelming powers of the Union, however obnoxious to the habits and wishes of the people of a particular State.”  Id. at 542.    

This is very nice letter.  Woodbury has signed it with a 2½” signature.  It has two horizontal and one vertical mailing fold, none of which affects the signature.  There is a bit of rippling above the lower horizontal fold that does not affect either the text or the signature, and there a re a couple of small stray ink stains in the blank lower right corner.  Woodburyʼs name is written in another hand at the upper right corner below an old collector’s pencil notation.  The integral leaf has been tipped to an album page.  Overall the letter is in fine condition, and the signature is excellent.

Unframed.  Please click here for information about custom framing this piece.

 

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