Significance: While serving on the Supreme Court, Woodbury wrote his most notable opinions in dissent, usually taking a states’ rights, strict constructionist view of the Constitution. He vigorously supported the improvement of education.
Woodbury graduated from Dartmouth in 1809, studied law at Litchfield Law School, and was admitted to the New Hampshire bar in 1812. In 1817 he was appointed to the state superior court and served until 1823, when he was elected governor of New Hampshire. From 1825 to 1831 he served in the U.S. Senate. President Andrew Jackson appointed him secretary of the Navy (1831-1834) and secretary of the Treasury (1834-1841). Woodbury provided strong opposition to the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, promoting instead the idea of an independent treasury. In 1841 he was again elected to the U.S. Senate. President James K. Polk appointed Woodbury to the Supreme Court in 1845. In the Passenger Cases (1849), Woodbury argued that states could legally regulate admitted immigrants without violating the commerce clause. Although he personally opposed slavery, he insisted that slavery was a state, not a federal, matter. On the bench, he strongly advocated free public education, systematic teacher training, and public facilities for adult education. His solid reasoning and hard work made Woodbury a valuable, respected member of the Court.