Descended from an aristocratic British family dating back to the seventeenth century, Baldwin was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Michael Baldwin and Theodora Walcott. He is the half-brother of Abraham Baldwin. He attended Hopkins School, and received a B.A. at age 17 from Yale College in 1797. He also attended Litchfield Law School and read law in 1798. Baldwin then moved to Pittsburgh and established a successful law practice. He invested in iron furnaces north of the city, which sparked a move to Crawford County, Pennsylvania, of which he was elected the newly formed jurisdiction's first district attorney and served from 1799 to 1801. He was also the publisher of The Tree of Liberty, a Republican newspaper.
After the death of his first wife, Marana Norton, Baldwin married Sally Ellicott. Baldwin was elected to the United States Congress as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party in 1816, representing Pennsylvania's 14th congressional district; he was reelected twice, but he resigned in May 1822 due to poor health. Before resigning from Congress in 1822, Baldwin planted the seeds of a future political alliance with General Jackson by advising that Congress drop an investigation of unsanctioned military aggression in Florida. In 1828, Jackson rewarded Baldwin’s political services in Pennsylvania and advisory role in the presidential campaigns of 1824 and 1828 by nominating him to the cabinet post of Secretary of the Treasury. Jackson’s first attempt at nomination was blocked in the Senate by then Vice President John Calhoun, largely because of Baldwin’s strong position in favor of high-tariff policy. Baldwin served in this role until late 1829. His political popularity can be traced to his private investment in the economic growth of Pittsburgh. In the House, he was a prominent advocate of protective tariffs. He received support from Independent Republicans and Federalists for his support of the protective tariff as a national measure. He strongly supported the election of Andrew Jackson in the election of 1824 and 1828. When Bushrod Washington died after thirty-two years of service on the Supreme Court, the president turned to Baldwin to replace him. On January 6, 1830, the Senate approved Baldwin’s nomination to the Supreme Court 41 to 2 despite the efforts of the Calhoun forces. The only dissenters were two Senators from Calhoun’s home state of South Carolina.
Baldwin considered resigning from the court in 1831. In a letter to President Jackson, he complained about the Court’s extension of its powers. Some historians believe that Baldwin suffered from mental illness during this period. However, he continued to serve on the court until his death in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Justice Baldwin was personally involved in cases deciding the issue of slavery. In the case of Johnson v. Tompkins, 13 F. Cas. 840 (C.C.E.D. Pa. 1833), he instructed the jury that although slavery's existence "is abhorrent to all our ideas of natural right and justice," the jury must respect the legal status of slavery. He was the sole dissenter in the case United States v. The Amistad, in which Associate Justice Joseph Story delivered the Court's decision to free the 36 kidnapped African adults and children who were on board the schooner, La Amistad. In Groves v. Slaughter, 40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 449 (1841), Justice Baldwin emphatically expressed his opinion that, as a matter of constitutional law, slaves are property, not persons.
In another federal case, Justice Baldwin interpreted the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Constitution. That case was Magill v. Brown, 16 Fed. Cas. 408 (C.C.E.D. Pa. 1833), in which Justice Baldwin stated: "We must take it therefore as a grant by the people of the state in convention, to the citizens of all the other states of the Union, of the privileges and immunities of the citizens of this state." This eventually became the view accepted by the Supreme Court, and remains so. He also interpreted the Clause that way, in dictum, when speaking for the Court in Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 657, 751 (1838) (each State "by the Constitution has agreed that those of any other state shall enjoy rights, privileges, and immunities in each, as its own do").
Even though Justice Baldwin's opinions on the Court and his treatise were politically, jurisprudentially contrary to Marshall's overarching influence on the Court, he was a friend and admirer of Chief Justice John Marshall. He wrote of Marshall that "no commentator ever followed the text more faithfully, or ever made a commentary more accordant with its strict intention and language." Baldwin was at Marshall's bedside when the old Chief Justice died in 1835.
In 1837, Justice Baldwin authored a treatise titled A General View of the Origin and Nature of the Constitution and Government of the United States: Deduced from the Political History and Condition of the Colonies and States. Baldwin opposed the two prevailing schools of Constitutional interpretation: the strict constructionists and the school of liberal interpretation. Likewise, his views followed a middle course between the extremes of states' rights on the one hand, and nationalism on the other hand.
A case that demonstrates Baldwin’s admittedly inconsistent record of writing opinions, political boldness, as well as his unique style of jurisprudence is Worcester v. Georgia (1831). The statute in question was one of the “Indian laws” passed by the state legislature of Georgia forbidding white men from residing in Cherokee territory without a license from the state. Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler, two missionaries who had been living with the Cherokees, were arrested in March 1831 for violating that statute. The Superior Court of Gwinnett County, Georgia, a trial court, which claimed that they were federal employees exempt from the law, subsequently released Worcester and Butler. Worcester and Butler were arrested again, convicted of violating the statute, and sentenced to four years in prison. They were offered a pardon, but refused, and appealed their case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court received this case because the clerk of the county court responded to this Writ of Error, although the judge never signed it. The state of Georgia never appeared in court, and publicly announced that it would disregard any decree of the court overturning the conviction.
The case was decided with five concurring in the majority (including Marshall), McLean in concurrence, and Baldwin in dissent. Johnson was absent because of ill health. Story and Thompson’s support for the Cherokees was on record, and Marshall’s sympathetic posture paralleled his prior Cherokee Nation opinion. The court issued its decision on March 3, 1832 that the Georgia statutes were unconstitutional as applied to the Cherokee tribes. Marshall wrote for Duvall, Story, and Thompson. Baldwin based his dissent on his conclusion that the court lacked jurisdiction, as the record had been returned by the Georgia court clerk, and not by the court itself. He agreed with Justice Marshall’s opinion exclusively on his holding that the Cherokees were a sovereign nation “which this court is bound to judicially know as such to have and possess a jurisdiction over the lands they occupy.” Continuing his dissent, Baldwin ruled that the “national existence of the Indian tribes,” according to the Constitution, was subject to the power of Georgia “by her own right and the Compact of 1802.” Yet Baldwin never delivered his opinion to Reporter Peters. On March 3, 1832, many newspapers undertook the publishing of the opinions of the Court. As part of its anti-Worcester campaign, the principal press organ of the Jackson administration published Johnson’s anti-Cherokee concurrence in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and promised to follow with Baldwin’s Worcester dissent. Marshall’s Worcester opinion appeared on March 22. Baldwin’s lone dissent, delivered by a Jackson appointee, in a significant challenge by the collective Court to the Jackson administration posed by Supreme Court had not yet appeared in print. Referring to the Court Report and an article published by the Washington Globe on March 3, 1832, one scholar concludes that the non-disclosure of his dissent is indicative of Baldwin’s awareness of the tense political climate over states rights at the time. Another case in which Baldwin dissented was United States v. Amistad (1841), but as was common throughout Baldwin’s career, the opinion was not released.
Baldwin issued a dissenting opinion concerning state sovereignty and interstate commerce in Groves v. Slaughter (1841). The facts of the case include that Groves, a Mississippian, purchased slaves from Slaughter of Louisiana. Groves signed a note of purchase for seven thousand dollars, but when the note was due he refused to pay it. Groves contended that the Mississippi Constitution of 1832, which prohibited the importation of slaves merchandise after May 1, 1833, voided the note. Slaughter brought the suit to federal court, and the differing citizenships as well as the amount of legal tender involved met the requirement necessary for an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. When Groves lost his case in the federal circuit, he appealed to the Supreme Court. Justice Smith Thompson held the majority of the court, and concluded that a statute was necessary before Mississippi’s constitutional provision would take effect, affirming the lower court ruling. Thompson avoided the question of whether the Mississippi Constitution violated the United States Constitution by infringing on the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. After McLean and Taney gave their opinions on the subject, Baldwin came forth with his own opinion “lest it be inferred” that his opinions coincided with that of the other justices. Baldwin, in one of his few opinions actually issued, vacated his usual moderate position in his defense of slave transit.
In a concurring opinion, Baldwin rejected Taney’s classical states’ rights position that “the action of the several states upon this subject cannot be controlled by Congress…” Taney protected slavery in the South by cautioning Congress, while Baldwin was protecting the property rights of masters who might travel to free states by a shrewd states-rights assessment of the Constitution and rights of Congress delineated in Article I, Section 8. Responding to Justice McLean’s pronouncement that “Ohio could not proscribe the productions of the south, nor the fabrics of the north, no one doubts its power to prohibit slavery.” Baldwin agreed that Ohio (McLean’s native state, which he had referred to) could ban the slave trade and even slavery itself, but he countered that transit of property including slaves, “is lawful commerce among the several states, which none can prohibit or regulate, which the constitution protects, and Congress may, and ought to preserve from violation.” Baldwin further reserved the right to “prohibit the importation of slaves” by virtue of its police power. Contrary to McLean’s interpretation of slaves as “persons,” Baldwin looked to the “law of the states before the Constitution, and from the first settlement of the colonies” to show that they were property. Baldwin’s shrewd and cogent dissenting opinion was a harbinger of Taney’s Dred Scott decision to come, and his concurrent opinion would be the strict Constitutional model followed by lower federal courts and the United States Supreme Court in the years to come.
Baldwin was aware that his style of jurisprudence was inconsistent, often extreme, and politically inconsistent with his appointment. He acknowledged this in his 1837 work on the origin and nature of the United States Constitution and Government that “I am well aware of departing from the modern mode of construing our ancient charters.” Strikingly, the eccentric Baldwin nearly mirrors the structure-oriented, original-intent approach of Justice Antonin L. Scalia. Baldwin speaks on issues such as territory rights, the Articles of Confederation, State Sovereignty, Contract Cases, Definitions of A Corporation, etc. He holistically delineates his view on Constitutional issues beginning with the Founding of the nation. Further, despite his expressed affection for Marshall, Baldwin’s work counters Marshall’s expansive use of the Constitution to expand the prestige of the Court. Referring to McCullough v. Maryland, Baldwin explains that “he has given no construction to the constitution; he has only declared what it says, by carrying out the general terms it uses, and making a practical application thereof, to the various cases, in which he has delivered the opinion of the Court.” Baldwin’s work is based on the Constitution and the Federal Government as instruments of the people, his interpretation of the original intent of the Founders, the influence of English Common Law as a “standard rule by which to measure the different parts of the Supreme Law,” and, lastly, the federal government holding a ‘grant’ of power that can be defined explicitly by the supreme law of the Constitution. Justice Story saw this work as imposing “severe strictures” on his work, Commentaries on the Constitution, and on the Constitution itself.
Baldwin’s time on the court was punctuated by physical and mental health problems as well as a tendency to shed the legal, social, and political norms of the court. One scholar has suggested that Baldwin’s lack of “any historical reputation” results not from any lack of intrinsic interestingness, but from his “incoherence as a jurist.” Though White is particularly unforgiving, this is the general consensus of modern scholarship for Baldwin’s 15-year term on the court. The most complimentary of scholarly opinion on Baldwin praises his role as an “unyielding champion of the Constitution and the federal system,” but at the same time labels him a “political maverick.”
Justice Baldwin suffered from paralysis in later years and died a pauper, aged 64. Historian William J. Novak of the University of Chicago has written that, "Baldwin’s jurisprudence has been treated rather shabbily by historians."
Justice Baldwin's remains were initially interred at Oak Hill Cemetery (Washington, D.C.). His remains were later disinterred and moved to Greendale Cemetery, Meadville, Pennsylvania. He is the namesake of Baldwin, Pennsylvania.
He was the half-brother of United States Constitution signatory Abraham Baldwin.
His retirement home is now a museum and is on the National Register of Historic Places.Baldwin, Henry (1837). A General View Of The Origin And Nature Of The Constitution And Government Of The United States, Deduced From The Political History And Condition Of The Colonies And States, From 1774 Until 1788. ISBN 1-4460-6139-6.