Significance: As a justice, Baldwin supported states’ rights and viewed slaves as property, without civil rights.
After receiving a Doctor of Laws degree from Yale University in 1797, Baldwin studied under Alexander J. Dallas in Philadelphia and was admitted to the bar. He then headed west to Ohio, getting only as far as Pittsburgh, where he settled, becoming a distinguished citizen. People there considered him intelligent, energetic, and witty. In 1805 he moved to Crawford County in northwestern Pennsylvania, where he ran for Congress and, in 1817, became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He supported high tariffs and disagreed vehemently with rural Jeffersonians. Suffering from ill health, Baldwin resigned from the House in 1822. By 1828 his health had improved, and he served as adviser to Andrew Jackson, subsequently elected president and, in 1829, inaugurated for the first of his two terms. Jackson rewarded Baldwin's support when the death of Bushrod Washington created a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Jackson passed over several promising jurists to nominate Baldwin, who was easily confirmed. Baldwin recounted his philosophical outlook as a justice in A General View of the Origin and Nature of the Constitution and Government of the United States (1837). In this booklet, he portrayed himself as moderate. He was a notable dissident in Chief Justice John Marshall's Court. Baldwin supported states’ rights, favoring interstate commerce unfettered by federal regulation. Although he voted with pronorthern justices on matters involving slavery, he nevertheless viewed slaves as property lacking the civil rights of America's white citizens. In cases that tested the right of the federal government to overrule the sovereignty of individual states, he consistently supported the rights of states to make and enforce their own laws. This attitude explains in part his stand regarding the ownership of slaves. Baldwin's spirited dissent in Ex parte Crane (1831) objected to strengthening the power of federal courts to issue writs of mandamus, orders issued by superior courts to lower courts. He was convinced that the Court, through judicial and political sensitivity, could determine which powers belonged to the individual states and which to the federal government. As he aged, Baldwin became increasingly irascible, often disturbing the much-heralded equanimity of the Marshall Court. In 1831 Baldwin dissented in seven cases, a record unparalleled in the Marshall Court. Baldwin's eccentricity eventually became an embarrassment. He sometimes resorted to violent behavior, presumably stemming from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Plagued for years by financial difficulties, Baldwin died in 1844, penniless and paralyzed, in Philadelphia.
- Abraham, Henry Julian. Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
- Clinton, Robert, Christopher Budzisz, and Peter Renstrom, eds. The Marshall Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, ABC-Clio, 2007.
- Huebner, Timothy S. The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
- Wagman, Robert J. The Supreme Court: A Citizen's Guide. New York: Pharos Books, 1993.