Samuel Nelson spent his youth in upstate New York. Though he planned a career in the ministry, he changed his mind after graduating from Middlebury College and studied law instead. He practiced law and was active in political affairs. He held state judicial commissions for 22 years before his elevation to the Supreme Court in 1845.
Nelson's appointment came as a complete suprise. President Tyler had failed in two attempts to fill this vacancy (to replace Smith Thompson); the Senate rejected both choices. Nelson, a Democrat, was viewed as a careful and noncontroversial judge who would be more appealing to the Democratically- controlled Senate, and indeed he was.
Nelson spent 27 unspectacular years on the nation's highest court. To the extent that he achieved notoriety, Nelson (along with Justice John A. Campbell) attempted to avoid the Civil War though conciliation efforts between north and south in 1860-61. Nelson retired from the Court in 1872 and died a year later.