Peter Vivian Daniel was born on April 24, 1784, at Crow’s Nest, a family estate near the mouth of Potomac Creek in Stafford County. He was the son of Travers Daniel, a prominent planter, and Frances Moncure Daniel. He almost always signed his name with a middle initial, and although relatives and namesakes used the spelling Vivian, there are indications, including a surviving calling card, that he himself may have preferred Vyvian. Among the many family members whom Daniel influenced later in life were two grandnephews, the reformer and writerand the journalist and diplomat .
Educated by private tutors, Daniel briefly attended the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), where he joined the Cliosophic Society, many of whose members went on to distinction in politics and law. From 1805 to 1807 he studied law in Richmond with Edmund Randolph, a former governor and. On April 21, 1810, Daniel married Randolph’s daughter, Lucy Nelson Randolph. They had two daughters and one son, , who became president of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad Company. A nephew, , also lived with him, studied law under his direction, and became a member of the Council of State during the 1840s and attorney general of Virginia after the (1861–1865).
Daniel qualified to practice law in Stafford County on May 11, 1807, and began practicing in Falmouth. In November 1808 he fought a duel with John Seddon, possibly over political differences. Daniel was unhurt in the exchange of pistol shots at a site in Maryland, but he mortally wounded Seddon. That same year Daniel won election to the first of two consecutive one-year terms representing Stafford County in the House of Delegates. He served on the Committees for Courts of Justice and of Privileges and Elections during his first term and on the Committees for Courts of Justice and of Finance during his second. From the start, Daniel was more successful in politics than in law. He became a champion of agrarianism, states’ rights, and strict construction of the Constitution, principles associated with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.
On January 7, 1812, the General Assembly elected Daniel to the Council of State. He took office two days later and served without interruption until March 31, 1835, when his term under the new state constitution concluded. He was elected president of the Council in 1818, and thereafter when the governor was absent he presided as lieutenant, or acting, governor. One of the longest-serving members of the Council of State, Daniel lived in Richmond and became an influential member of the so-called Richmond Junto, which adhered to old Republican principles of states’ rights and a very limited role for the federal government. Almost one-third of the members of the assembly voted for him for governor in January 1830. Whenenjoyed a slim majority in the General Assembly in January 1835, they refused to reelect Daniel to the Council, but after Democrats regained control of the assembly in the next election, they elected him on the following December 16 to fill a new vacancy.
U.S. Supreme Court
Daniel supported the presidential candidacies of William H. Crawford in 1824, Andrew Jackson in 1828 and 1832, and Martin Van Buren in 1836. For Daniel’s party loyalty, more than for his legal acumen, in 1833 Jackson offered to appoint him attorney general, but Daniel declined. On April 6, 1836, Jackson nominated him judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, an appointment confirmed by the Senate on April 19. Daniel presided over the court for five relatively undemanding years until February 27, 1841, when Van Buren nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court to succeed Philip Pendleton Barbour, a Virginian who had died in office. Facing strong opposition, Daniel’s Democratic supporters in the Senate outmaneuvered the Whigs. Late at night on March 2, two days before Van Buren’s term as president ended and with only a few Whig senators present, they rammed through his confirmation by a vote of twenty-two to five.
Daniel was appointed to the Supreme Court’s fifth circuit during the 1841 term and joined the Court at its next session, which began in January 1842. He ascended the bench with confidence that he would bring true constitutional principles to the Supreme Court, which in his view had long since permitted the encroachment of national power on state authority. Daniel took a particularly restrictive view of Congress’s power to regulate commerce. He sharply dissented in the Passenger Cases (1849), in which the majority of justices invalidated state efforts to regulate and tax immigrants as violating the Constitution’s commerce clause. Fearing the majority’s interpretation of that clause, as well as his colleagues’ strict reliance on the language of treaties guaranteeing the rights of British subjects in American ports, Daniel bluntly warned of the implications of allowing the commerce clause to override the authority of the southern states: “if it should suit the commercial speculations of British subjects to land within the territory of any of the States cargoes of negroes from Jamaica, Hayti, or Africa, it would be difficult, according to the broad interpretation of the commercial privileges conferred by those stipulations, to designate any legitimate power in the States to prevent this invasion of their domestic security.” Such concerns demonstrated the way in which Daniel identified southern interests with state and local autonomy.
Daniel’s views, which some observers and historians interpreted as narrow provincialism, were also evident in his attempts to restrict the reach of the federal courts. In Propeller Genesee Chief et al. v. Fitzhugh et al. (1852), when the rest of the justices voted to expand federal admiralty jurisdiction to include navigable inland waterways, Daniel dissented and based his opinion on the traditional common-law rule that admiralty law was confined to the high seas and tidal waters. Moreover, in a series of cases regarding corporations, he wrote that corporations lacked the right to sue or be sued in federal courts. Thus, for Daniel, national power in any form posed a threat to state and local interests. His unswerving devotion to these principles prompted him to dissent at a higher rate than any of his colleagues—nearly a third of all of his written opinions were dissents.
Daniel spoke for the majority of the Court in West River Bridge Company v. Dix et al. (1848), a major constitutional case involving eminent domain, the power of a state to take private property, with compensation, for the sake of the public good. A 1795 Vermont charter had authorized a company to maintain a toll bridge for a hundred years, but the state later decided to turn the bridge into a free public highway and compensated its owners. The owners contended that the state’s action violated the Constitution’s contract clause. Daniel’s opinion sustained the state’s actions on the ground that no difference existed between incorporated and unincorporated property when it came to eminent domain. His hostility to corporations (even though at the time of his death he owned stock in several railroad companies) and his belief in state sovereignty lay behind his opinion. Although the majority did not share Daniel’s extreme views on these subjects, they agreed on the need for states to have extensive power of eminent domain in order to promote economic development.
Known for his dry wit and acerbic tongue, Daniel clung tenaciously throughout his life to his political principles. Remaining a staunch proponent of traditional agrarianism and strict construction of the Constitution, he was the most conservative Supreme Court justice of the mid-nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, Daniel was a strong supporter of slavery, which he viewed as the foundation of southern society. A slave owner himself, he believed that state control over slavery was the only way to preserve the region’s way of life. In Prigg v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1842), Daniel concurred in upholding theand invalidating Pennsylvania’s personal liberty law. Daniel wrote a separate opinion denying the national government’s exclusive and highlighting the role of individual states and slave owners in the process.
Over time, Daniel became more strident in his support of slavery and more sectional in his constitutional positions. A visit to New England in 1847 confirmed his worst opinions of the region, for he detested its bustling mercantilism and uncouth incivility. By 1857, when Daniel wrote a separate opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), he was the most pro-southern and proslavery of all the justices. Like most of his colleagues, he denied that African Americans, enslaved or free, could be citizens, and he held that Congress lacked the power to legislate on slavery in the territories. But unlike his fellow justices, Daniel even maintained that the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which had banned slavery north of the Ohio River, was unconstitutional. That position made Daniel’s opinion even more extreme than the infamous proslavery opinion of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney.
Daniel was not wealthy, but he furnished his Richmond residence well, kept a fine wine cellar, and accumulated a library of nearly 600 volumes in addition to the very large law library that he owned, which alone was appraised after his death at $853. The last years of Daniel’s life were difficult ones. His wife died on November 14, 1847. Daniel married Elizabeth Harris, of Philadelphia, on October 20, 1853. They had one daughter and one son. In their Washington residence on January 4, 1857, she accidentally set her clothing on fire with a candle and died of the burns, leaving Daniel bitter and lonely for the remainder of his life. Daniel died in Richmond on May 31, 1860, and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in that city.