5.1.3. The Midwest, 1780-1820: Key Legal Figures


 INDIANA:  Isaac Blackford (Supreme Court, 1817-1853)    
  • Blackford was the first Midwestern jurist to gain national fame.  He was born in New Jersey in 1786 and migrated to Indiana Territory as a young man; after rising rapidly through the political ranks, he was appointed to the Indiana supreme court in 1817.   Blackford was a shy man who was more comfortable with ideas than people:  he spent much of his free time in his apartment in the state capitol poring over court papers and legal journals.  But Blackford was generally popular and was reappointed to the court several times in an era when frequent judicial turnover was common in Indiana.
  • Blackford’s strength was thoroughness, not brilliance; one contemporary described him as “emphatically a book judge” for whom “[d]eclarations … are nothing; precedent and good authority, everything.”  He frequently rewrote his colleagues’ opinions and thus shaped much of Indiana’s early case law.  Blackford also took it upon himself to prepare the first series of Indiana case reports, which was also the first set of law reports to issue from the Midwest.  As a result, Blackford became the face of Midwestern law for jurists in the older states and even in England.

MICHIGAN:  Augustus Woodward (Territorial Supreme Court, 1805-1824)

  • Most U.S. territorial judges labored in obscurity; Woodward is one of the few that left a permanent stamp on the place he helped govern.  Born in New York in 1774, Woodward moved to Washington as a young man and allied himself with the Jeffersonians; in 1805, he was rewarded with an appointment to the new supreme court of Michigan Territory.  
  • For many years, Woodward effectively controlled the territorial court by force of his personality.  In 1807, he held that the Northwest Ordinance did not free persons held as slaves before it went into effect in Michigan; as a result, vestiges of slavery persisted in the territory for many years.  As a member of the territorial council, Woodward played a key role in shaping Michigan’s early government.  He also played a key role in building up the young city of Detroit; Woodward Avenue is still one of Detroit’s main streets.  Woodward allied himself with older French and British settlers and was often at odds with newer settlers from New York and New England and other territorial officials.  All attempts to dilute his power failed until 1824, when President Monroe decided to remove him from Michigan and make him a judge of the new territory of Florida, where Woodward died in 1827.  

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Isaac Blackford
(courtesy Wikipedia)








Judge Woodward's city
plan for Detroit
(courtesy Wikipedia)




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