He graduated at Harvard in 1798, was admitted to the bar at Salem, Mass, in 1801, and soon attained eminence in his profession. He was a member of the Democratic party, and served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1805-1808, and in 1810-1812 for two terms as speaker, and was a representative in Congress from December 1808 to March 1809.
In November 1811, at the age of thirty-two, he became, by President Madison's appointment, the youngest appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. This position he retained until his death. Here he found his true sphere of work. The traditions of the American people, their strong prejudice for the local supremacy of the states and against a centralized government, had yielded reluctantly to the establishment of the Federal legislative and executive in 1789. The Federal judiciary had been organized at the same time, but had never grasped the full measure of its powers.
Soon after Story's appointment the Supreme Court began to bring out into plain view the powers which the United States Constitution had given it over state courts and state legislation. The leading place in this work belongs to Chief Justice John Marshall, but Story has a very large share in that remarkable series of decisions and opinions, from 1812 until 1832, by which the work was accomplished. In addition to this he built up the department of admiralty law in the United States federal courtss; he devoted much attention to equity jurisprudence, and rendered invaluable services to the department of patent law. In 1819 he attracted much attention by his vigorous charges to grand juries, denouncing the slave trade, and in 1820 he was a prominent member of the Massachusetts Convention called to revise the state constitution.
In 1829 he became the first Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University, and continued until his death to hold this position, meeting with remarkable success as a teacher and winning the affection of his students, whom he imbued with much of his own enthusiasm. His industry was unremitting, and, besides attending to his duties as an associate justice and a professor of law, he wrote many reviews and magazine articles, delivered various orations on public occasions, and published a large number of works on legal subjects, which won high praise on both sides of the Atlantic.
Among his publications are:
See The Life and Letters of Joseph Story (2 vols., Boston and London, 1851), by his son, WW Story.