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William McLean (Ohio politician)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

William McLean
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 3rd district
In office
March 4, 1823 – March 3, 1829
Preceded byLevi Barber
Succeeded byJoseph Halsey Crane
Personal details
Born(1794-08-10)August 10, 1794
Mason County, Kentucky
DiedOctober 12, 1839(1839-10-12) (aged 45)
Cincinnati, Ohio
Resting placeSpring Grove Cemetery
Political party

William McLean (August 10, 1794 – October 12, 1839) was a lawyer, legislator and businessman.

William McLean was born in Mason County, Kentucky and moved in 1799 with his parents Fergus and Sophia (Blackford) McLean and his older brother John McLean (who would become a Congressman from Ohio and a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) to a farm in Warren County, Ohio. There he attended the common schools, studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1814. He commenced practice in Cincinnati, Ohio and then was a lawyer at Lebanon, Ohio.

He removed from Lebanon to Piqua, Ohio about 1820 and was the first regular professional lawyer who settled in the village. He was receiver of public moneys and through his efforts a subsidy of 500,000 acres (2000 km²) of land was procured for building the Ohio Canal from Cincinnati to Lake Erie.

In 1822, William McLean was elected from Ohio's 3rd congressional district, which covered nearly all Western Ohio north of Warren County. He took his seat in the Eighteenth Congress. He was reelected to the Nineteenth, and Twentieth Congresses. In the Twentieth Congress, he served as chairman of the House Committee on Indian Affairs.

William McLean returned to Cincinnati where he engaged in mercantile pursuits and the practice of law. He was also interested in agricultural pursuits. When his health began to fail, he retired from business and spent several months in Cuba hoping to derive benefit for his pulmonary disease by a change of climate. His condition did not improve, and after returning to Cincinnati, he spent some time in revisiting several points in his old Congressional district.

William McLean died at his home in Cincinnati and was interred in the Catharine Street Burying Ground. In 1863, he was reinterred in Spring Grove Cemetery.

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  • ✪ Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Supreme Court & the Politics of Slavery
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>> From the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. >> Good afternoon, and welcome. My name is Mary Lou Reker and on behalf of the Library of Congress's John W. Kluge Center, I want to welcome you to a talk today by Dr. Rachel Shelden entitled, "Abraham Lincoln and the US Supreme Court and the Politics of Slavery". Now, before I get started here, I want to remind you that we are recording this for the library's website, so any questions you may ask at the end constitute your permission to keep that question in the recording. So, just be aware of that. Many of you know that the Kluge Center is located right through those doors, up here on Capitol Hill. And it strives to bring together scholars and researchers to make use of the collections of the Library of Congress and to communicate with policymakers across the city and around the country. And also to foster a collegial atmosphere in which scholarship can generate more scholarship and deeper scholarship. Dr. Rachel Shelden has been an integral member of the community here at the Kluge Center this past year. Her research at the library focuses on the US Supreme Court during the 19th century. Her talk will examine the Supreme Court before the Civil War, and in particular, a conspiracy charge to perpetuate slavery, which was levied by the then senatorial candidate, Abraham Lincoln, against a variety of members of the federal government. Shelden will reexamine Lincoln's conspiracy charge in the context of how the federal political system, and particularly the US Supreme Court, operated in the mid-19th century. Rachel Shelden is an assistant professor in American History at the University of Oklahoma. She is the author of "Washington Brotherhood, Politics, Social Life and the Coming of the Civil War". She is also coeditor of the book, "A Political Nation, New Directions in Mid-Nineteenth Century American Political Theory". She received her PhD from the University of Virginia, and as a Kluge Fellow, researched her future monograph, the third here. "On the Political History of the US Supreme Court from the Mid-1830s through the 1890s". Please help me welcome her, Dr. Rachel Shelden. [ Applause ] >> Thank you so much. And thank you, Mary Lou. Before I talk about Lincoln, which I know you're all here to hear about, I want to thank all of the wonderful folks at the Library of Congress for supporting my project. It has been an absolute privilege to be a Kluge Fellow. And the Kluge Center really is a special place to work. I want to thank all of the staff, and particularly Mary Lou. Jason Steinhauer, Joanne Kitchens, Dan Turello, Robert Gallucci and Travis Hensley, among others. As always, I had a wonderful experience researching in the Manuscript Division, and I want to thank Michelle Crowell, who's here, who helped me out in a number of ways, in addition to the incredibly knowledgeable reference staff for all of their help, and especially their good cheer. While in residence, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Kluge Center intern, Jack Femol [presumed spelling]. He helped with the database project on the Supreme Court cases and lawyers, which has proved tremendously useful in my research so far. And finally, I want to thank all of the fellows for their many, many pointed insights, their heartfelt support and engaging conversation. So, with that said, I want to tell you a little bit about the larger project that I have been doing here at the Kluge Center. I've been working on a political history of the Supreme Court in the Civil War era, from roughly the 1830s to the 1890s. My project is primarily concerned with the ways in which the Supreme Court was and acted as a political body during this period. And one of the key points that I intend to make is that we should think about the Supreme Court, not as a separate and isolated institution, but rather as an integral and interconnected part of the federal political apparatus in the 19th century. As the evidence here at the library demonstrated in the incredible sources in the Jefferson Building and in the Manuscript Division in numerous letters from Supreme Court Justices and the lawyers who tried cases in front of them, the experience and the context of serving as a Supreme Court Justice was inherently political. In essence, political history is about the Supreme Court, too. Reframing our understanding of the court in this context can tell us much about the way 19th century Supreme Court justices thought about their roles in promoting democracy, union and liberty. But the justices' political behavior also influenced their engagement with some of the most important issues of this period, particularly issues involving slavery and race. There are a number of ways to get at this relationship between politics, the Supreme Court and slavery and race in the mid-19th century, but given that we have just passed Lincoln's birthday late last week, I thought there was no better entry point into the political history of the Supreme Court in the Civil War era. So, I want to start with a famous political accusation that Lincoln made about an equally famous Supreme Court ruling. In June, 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address at Springfield, Illinois, that has come to be known as his "House Divided" speech. This was a speech many of you are undoubtedly familiar with. Lincoln began, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free." As Lincoln explained, the United States would have to go one direction or the other. Become an entirely non-slaveholding nation, or an entirely slaveholding nation. The opening section of the speech is the most famous piece, probably the piece you have heard. But the rest of the address is equally noteworthy. Here Lincoln developed and explained his theory that there was a conspiracy among four men to spread slavery throughout the United States. To make this an entirely slaveholding nation by making slavery legal not only in the southern states, but in the north, as well. The men in this conspiracy were Lincoln's chief rival in Illinois, Stephen Douglas, and three other federal leaders, former president Franklin Pierce, President James Buchanan and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney. According to Lincoln, the conspiracy began in 1854 when Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act into the Senate. Douglas's bill upended a 30-plus year ban on slavery in the US Territory above the 36' 30" Latitude, or what we think of as the line that separates south from north. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska act implemented the principle of popular sovereignty, or the ability of people in the territory to vote in favor or against slavery in their borders. According to Lincoln, three years later, the Supreme Court finalized and compounded the move toward nationalizing slavery in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. On March 6th 1857, Chief Justice, Roger Taney, read the majority opinion in Dred Scott, which denied African Americans the right to be citizens of the United States. And in the most consequential part of this particular ruling for Lincoln's charge, prohibited congress from restricting slavery in the US Territories. Now, in between these two monumental moves, outgoing president, Franklin Pierce, had encouraged acceptance of the Kansas-Nebraska legislation and any potential consequences that came from it. And a mere two days before the court issued its decision in Dred Scott, the incoming president, James Buchanan, pressed his inaugural audience to accept whatever the court might decide. Lincoln finally connected the circle back to Douglas, who was similarly insistent that the court receive its due. In the weeks before Buchanan's inauguration, Douglas had been asked by an Illinois colleague on the floor of the senate if it was constitutional for the people of a territory to ban slavery from their borders. Douglas replied that this was a question for the Supreme Court. So, with so many overlapping connections, Lincoln exclaimed in his "House Divided" speech, "We find it impossible to not believe that Steven and Franklin and Roger and James all understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first lick was struck." Now, on its face, this charge might seem outlandish. There is no evidence to suggest that these four men met in a room and hashed out a plan for Douglas to introduce the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and Taney to rule in Dred Scott. And in the formalized debates between Lincoln and Douglas that followed, the debates you're familiar with, I'm sure, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, Douglas repeatedly denied having spoken to Chief Justice Taney about the matter. He also pointed out, Douglas, that Buchanan was serving as Minister to London when he introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, making any conference among the four men in 1854 before the first of Lincoln's conspiratorial moves, wholly impossible. So, why did Lincoln make this charge? Or perhaps more pointedly, did Lincoln really believe that these men had colluded in a plot to spread slavery throughout the United States? Some Lincoln scholars have argued that Lincoln genuinely believed this. If for no other reason, than his abject distrust of his rival, Stephen Douglas. Other scholars have been less sure, suggesting instead that Lincoln made sort of a fanciful argument for the sake of making Douglas look bad. After all, Lincoln was in a heated campaign against Douglas for election to the US Senate from Illinois, and Lincoln was doing all he could to defeat his rival. In fact, earlier in the year, some republicans from the east had suggested that maybe they were going to support Douglas for his senatorial bid, and this really freaked Lincoln out and made him think, "Oh, I really need to show that the democrats are not in a good way on this issue." The political benefit, therefore, of this conspiracy charge, was substantial. And some evidence sustains this interpretation that Lincoln was simply playing a political game. In the joint debates with Douglas that followed his "House Divided" speech, Lincoln repeated the charge. But he was very careful to acknowledge that he could not prove the conspiracy. That he had only inferred that such collusion had taken place. Regardless of whether Lincoln believed the charge or not, the suggestion of conspiracy among federal politicians made for some great political theater. Much like today, charges of conspiracy in the Civil War era sent a powerful message that energized voters. And this particular conspiracy charge had rhetorical legs, because of the plausibility of the argument. Certainly, southern slaveholders were intent on preserving and promoting slavery in their states and in new federal territory. And anti-slavery men in the north had been thoroughly disgusted by Douglas's role in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Many saw the introduction of popular sovereignty into the territories as a victory for slaveholders. Certainly, the recent tendency to expand the power of slavery made a slaveholder conspiracy sound more likely. And in fact, several republicans in Washington had already been exploiting this northern fear of a slaveholder conspiracy by the time Lincoln delivered his "House Divided" speech. But Lincoln's description of the conspiracy was perhaps even more effective. Because it had the sound bite specifics that others had lacked. He fleshed out the details by naming the four co-conspirators who were directly responsible for this. Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James. The conspiracy featured democrats from all three branches of the federal government, working in concert over some time, culminating in a case before the Supreme Court. And in many ways, this part of the conspiracy, Taney's role in the Dred Scott case, is the part that looks most ethically questionable to all of us. We're used to the idea that the president and members of congress might work together to promote an agenda or a piece of legislation, though, especially these days, that might rely on a president and congress being of the same party. What was really galling about Lincoln's charge, to us at least, is that at least one member of the Supreme Court was in on it. But Lincoln was no less certain that Roger had played a critical role. And I think this is really important. We could simply assume Lincoln was exaggerating the level of the Supreme Court's rule, as some historians have. But I think that misses what was really going on. For Lincoln, the conspiracy was plausible, not just because of recent pro-slavery moves, but because of who was involved in those moves. And the "who" included Roger Taney. The key here is that Lincoln recognized that the Supreme Court was not simply a legal body deciding cases in the vacuum of the court chamber. Rather, he knew first hand that the court was intimately connected to the other branches of government, both in personnel and in operation. There were no stark lines separating senators from justices or even judge from lawyer. In fact, this is an aspect of Lincoln's life that does not get enough attention. Lincoln is known for his brilliant political mind both in the debates with Douglas and then, of course, in his years as president during our nation's most difficult moment, the Civil War. But Lincoln spent most of his career, before becoming president, as a lawyer. Perhaps we have ignored this, in part, because our perception of lawyers is not always very positive today. And this was actually true in the 19th century, as well. Lincoln acknowledged as much in preparing some notes for a law lecture in 1850. He noted, "There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. The impression is common, almost universal." [Laughter] So, perhaps, given this perception in our rush to celebrate Lincoln's important role in our national story, we sometimes minimize his legal contributions. But Lincoln had intimate knowledge, not only of the law, but also the structures of the Judicial System. Lincoln and his several law partners over the years had a bustling business, trying cases in the Illinois Court System. Historians estimate that Lincoln's law practice was involved in nearly 5,000 cases on the state level. And he was also involved in nearly 350 cases on the federal level, including several that reached the Supreme Court. Although Lincoln only made oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court once during his career, in all likelihood, this was not his only experience with the court's proceedings. Until the 20th century, as you may know, the court's chamber was located in the chamber of the Capitol. And Lincoln had spent enough time in the Capitol building during his single term as a US Congressman, to know that the line between legislative and judicial branches was often blurry. In essence, Lincoln was intimately experienced with the ways in which the federal system operated at each level. Ultimately, from this experience in Washington, and in trying cases in the Illinois state and federal courts, Lincoln understood that the 19th century judiciary often operated in fluid and informal ways. Whether he actually believed his own accusations or not, Lincoln's understanding of the Supreme Court as a political body gave even more plausibility to the idea that a conspiracy had occurred. And Lincoln clearly framed his charge with this understanding in mind. So, in the remainder of my time here, I want to show you just how important this judicial context was by highlighting some of the political and legal relationships of the mid-19th century. Relationships that Lincoln would have been familiar with when making his conspiracy charge. In particular, I want to focus on the two types of relationships that I just mentioned, that would have given Lincoln the special knowledge to see collusion. First, the Washington political community and second the community of lawyers and judges that practiced both in Washington and throughout the federal court system. By the end, perhaps you will be as convinced as Lincoln purported to be that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James were colluding in the Dred Scott decision. So, I'll start with the Washington political community. A community that very much included the Supreme Court. Today, we often assume a very strict level of separation between the Supreme Court and the Legislative and Executive Branches. But, as Lincoln would have noted, in the 19th century, the boundaries between these bodies were much blurrier. To begin with, there was no stark line separating Supreme Court Justices from members of Congress. The fact that the court chamber was located in the Capitol itself, helped to ensure that congressional and judicial business sometimes overlapped. And overlapped is perhaps the best word. A number of congressmen served as lawyers before the Supreme Court in the era of Dred Scott. In fact, Congressmen were paid so little for their legislative services that it was a happy coincidence if a sitting senator or representative could take care of some profitable legal business in front of the court while in Washington. Lincoln understood this well, having argued his only case in front of the Supreme Court at the close of his term in the House of Representatives in 1849. Occasionally, congressmen argued Supreme Court cases in the midst of pressing congressional business, requiring them to work with the justices to schedule arguments for days when congress was in recess, or to simply miss the legislative meetings entirely. Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of juggling at an important moment was when New York Senator William Henry Seward was arguing a case in front of the court in December, 1860. If you know anything about what was happening in December 1860, this is right in the midst of South Carolina threatening to secede from the union and, as a senator, William Henry Seward was very involved in trying to prevent this from happening. So, he's juggling these things. In the case of Dred Scott, Lincoln was undoubtedly aware that Henry Geyer, a sitting congressman from Missouri, was one of the lawyers from the named parties, John Sanford. Congressmen were not the only ones to blur the lines between government branches. Just as legislative members engaged in judicial business, so too did judiciary members engage in legislative business. There are numerous examples in this period of a justice working on congressional legislation behind the scenes. Often, but not always, this meant helping congressmen to craft laws regarding the federal court system or other legal matters. But sometimes, this was completely separate from legal issues. Supreme Court Justices and Congressmen also interacted in more social ways than they do today. In the 1840s and 1850s, Supreme Court Justices often lived in boarding houses and hotels throughout the area between the White House and the Capitol Building. And while some on the Dred Scott Court like Taney confined themselves to small houses with just a few other justices, others were more inclined to mix with other members of the Washington community, including members of congress. For example, associate justice, John McLean, often rented rooms at Mrs. Carter's Boarding House, where he lived with upwards of ten congressmen. And in the late 1840s when Lincoln served in the House of Representatives, one of McLean's mess mates was Lincoln's good friend, Alexander Stephens. If the Supreme Court Justices did not live with members of the Washington community, they were still sure to interact with them on a wide variety of occasions. This happened most frequently at the dinner table of friends or prominent city residents. On more formal occasions, the justices went to state dinners at the White House or to various celebrations, like the annual Birthnight Ball, which honored George Washington's birthday. But still, other times, their dinners took place in more casual circumstances. Sometimes, such dinners featured both justices and the lawyers who were making oral arguments in court that week. If the social and professional interaction between congressmen and justices does not convince you that the line between the judicial and legislative branches were blurry, perhaps I can state the case more definitively. There is significant evidence that members of the Supreme Court discussed open cases with the senators and representatives who tried cases in front of them. Sometimes, these discussions involved a justice simply filling in a friend that he had lost a case a couple of days before the decision was made, but others featured conversations about a case still under consideration. Lincoln did not have personal experience with this kind of conversation. At least, there's no evidence to suggest that in the records. But he certainly would have been aware of this kind of thing from his time serving in Washington, or heard about it from friends in the House who were regular court attendees. So, this is one kind of relationship. This very fluid relationship between the legislative and judicial branches. The relationships between judges on the Supreme Court and sitting presidents in the 19th century were also far more intimate than we might expect. One reason for this is that justices did not have the same kinds of credentials that they do today. Supreme Court nominees had to be lawyers, but there were very few law schools in the 1850s. Most American Lawyers had received their formal training by serving in an apprentice role from a more experienced lawyer, though you did not have to do this. And Lincoln himself had almost no legal training. He'd not even apprenticed. He'd learned the law primarily from reading Blackstone's Commentaries and by trying cases. Moreover, justices did not typically enter the Supreme Court from a previous position on the Bench. There were no feeder courts from which presidents could find a farm team of suitable judges as the often do today. Of the nine justices who served on the Dred Scott Court, only five had experience as judges before they joined the Supreme Court. And of those five, only two were serving as judges when they were nominated to the court. So, as a result of this relatively informal legal and judicial training, political experience was often the best indicator for who would join the Supreme Court. Nineteenth century presidents typically made Supreme Court nominations based squarely on partisan reasoning, rewarding political friends with a job in the judiciary. Among the seven Dred Scott justices who were not serving as justices when they were nominated to the Supreme Court, two were serving in the Executive Branch, one was a US Congressman, and a fourth held a prominent state position as Lieutenant Governor or Virginia. These men were rewarded for their political commitments, not their judicial service. Roger Taney, himself, had received his nomination for Chief Justice from President Andrew Jackson in 1836 as a result of Taney's support for Jackson's banking policies. Taney was certainly a qualified lawyer, but he was also a strong democrat, and a confident of Andrew Jackson's. In 1846, James K. Polk had actually toyed with the idea of making James Buchanan a Supreme Court nominee while Buchanan was serving as Secretary of State. Buchanan was a strong democrat, but he'd also been giving Polk some headaches in the cabinet, and so he thought, Polk thought, putting Buchanan on the court would make perfect sense. It would give him an ally and it would get him out of the cabinet. Ultimately, Buchanan decided against accepting the nomination, but the possibility was there. And Buchanan's political experience was a positive in Polk's considerations. The Supreme Court might actually have looked slightly different and decided Dred Scott slightly differently, had Millard Fillmore been successful in nominating one of his partisan friends to the court in early 1853. Fillmore was a Whig and he hoped to get his friend and former senate colleague, George Edmund Badger of North Carolina, on the court to replace Associate Justice, John McKinley, who had died the July before. But the democratic congress rejected Badger and the next president, Franklin Pierce, successfully nominated John Archibald Campbell of Alabama. Although Badger was a southerner, following the decision, Badger came out against the court's restriction of congress's right to legislate for the territories in the case of slavery. So, had he been on the court, things might have looked very different. So, although partisanship clearly mattered when making nominations, what's most important here is that confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice did not actually bring an end to the close relationships between president and judge. Taney, for example, was close enough with Jackson to actually provide him with constitutional advice during his presidency. And he even helped the retiring president write his farewell address in 1837. Nor was Taney alone. Fellow associate justices on the Dred Scott Court, Peter Daniel and John Catron, similarly offered political advice to their friends, President Martin Van Buren and President James Polk, respectively. Justices also routinely advised presidents and their cabinets on judicial matters from who should fill court vacancies, to navigating sticky legal problems such as extradition. Lincoln may not have had first-hand knowledge of these conversations, but he would have known plenty of federal politicians who did. The line between the federal, judicial and executive departments was actually so blurry that several judges actively sought their own presidential nomination while sitting on the Supreme Court. The most consistent candidate for president among the Dred Scott court justices was John McLean of Ohio, a frontrunner for nomination in every presidential contest between 1832 and 1860, and, I should add, representing nearly every political party of the antebellum era, including anti-masons, Whigs, Free Soilers, Americans, Republicans and Constitutional Unionists [laughter]. Only nine months before the decision in Dred Scott, McLean had been a favorite to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Lincoln had been among the nominees for vice president at the 1856 convention, and he was therefore intimately familiar with this kind of cross branch behavior. So, I hope I've convinced you the Supreme Court that operated in Lincoln's time was not isolated. The lines between the highest US Court and the other two branches of government were blurry and sometimes fluid. And Lincoln made his conspiracy charge with this context in mind. Now, Lincoln also had additional proof of cross branch interaction in the Dred Scott case. Remember that on March 4, 1857, a mere two days before Taney issued the decision in Dred Scott, James Buchanan had been sworn in as the 15th president of the United States. And he told the inaugural crowd that they ought to accept whatever the Supreme Court decided. On his way up to the podium to deliver this inaugural address, the president elect stopped briefly to have a little conversation with Chief Justice Taney. Republican politicians and newspapers throughout the north commented on this very public discussion between the two men, suggesting that they exchanged words about Dred Scott. Lincoln did not know what was said, and neither do we. But it certainly looked like collusion. And with Lincoln's knowledge of the intimacies between the various branches of government, the events on inauguration day may have looked like a smoking gun. What Lincoln didn't know is that this short conversation between Chief Justice Taney and the president elect was just the tip of the iceberg. In the weeks before Buchanan's inauguration, he had exchanged several letters with one of the associate justices, John Catron of Tennessee. Catron had been keeping Buchanan apprised of the court's deliberations over Dred Scott. But his correspondence went beyond just sharing information. Not all of the justices had yet decided how they were going to rule on the Missouri Compromise issue. That's the issue regarding whether Congress had the right to legislate for the territories regarding slavery. Among the undecideds was Associate Justice, Robert Grier of Pennsylvania, a friend of Buchanan's. Catron wrote to Buchanan and asked him to "drop Grier a line" to suggest he fall in with Taney's majority position. Here, then, is one link in the conspiracy that Lincoln had anticipated, even without direct knowledge of the Buchanan-Catron correspondence. You might say that Taney and Buchanan were in on it together. We don't have any solid evidence that Pierce or Douglas would have discussed the details of Dred Scott with members of the Supreme Court. But their knowledge of the case may have stemmed from another part of the legal community, the relationship between lawyers and judges throughout the federal system. Now, the relationship between these federal judges and the lawyers who tried cases in front of them was understandably intimate. In the 19th century, the Supreme Court Bar was relatively small and justices repeatedly saw the same lawyers in case after case. While there were certainly cases involving first timers before the bar, there were some standard-bearers. Daniel Webster, Richard Cox, George Bibb, John Sergeant, John Crittenden and Henry Stanbery show up repeatedly in the records as having argued cases from a vast number of original jurisdictions. Several lawyers, many of whom were former congressmen, set up law offices in Washington for the simple purpose of attracting Supreme Court cases. And as one Washington resident remarked, a congressman turned lawyer was expected to have some influence with the justices. We've seen this already with some of the congressmen who tried cases in front of the justices. But the men who served as attorneys general in the antebellum years also tended to develop intimate relationships with the Supreme Court members returning to the Supreme Court repeatedly in the years after they left office. In the 1850s, one of the favorites on the Supreme Court was Reverdy Johnson, one of the lawyers for John Sanford. Johnson was an intimate friend of Chief Justice Taney, and had been trying cases in front of the Supreme Court for as long as most of the members had been sitting on the bench. In fact, Johnson was well known in Washington for his influence with the justices, as they spent time together at public and private parties, state dinners and more intimate affairs. While there is no direct evidence that Johnson had ex parte communication with the justices about the Dred Scott Case, his reputation suggested he often knew the court's proclivities in other matters. Lincoln would have understood well that judges sometimes had close relationships with the lawyers who tried cases before them. He had undoubtedly witnessed this while serving as a congressman in Washington. But perhaps more importantly, he had personal experience with a close lawyer-judge relationship on a state and local level. One of Lincoln's best friends in Illinois was David Davis, a state lawyer who rode the circuit with Lincoln throughout the 1840s. But in 1848, Illinois residents elected Davis the judge of the 8th Judicial Circuit of Illinois. And Lincoln soon began trying cases in front of his friend. While there's no smoking gun that Lincoln had ex parte communications with Davis, several anecdotes and letters from the time suggest the two men may have discussed pending legal issues outside the courtroom. And in fact, the line between judge and lawyer blended even further when Davis needed to attend to personal business outside the circuit. And he put Lincoln on the bench temporarily to attend to judicial duties. This was no small matter. Lincoln acted as circuit court judge for Davis in over 300 cases. And Lincoln, as you may know, successfully nominated David Davis to the Supreme Court in 1862. So, they remained friends a long time. While the state court saw a greater rotation of lawyers, the Supreme Court bar was small enough that occasionally a relative of one of the justices would find himself trying a case in front of the bench. For example. Taney's brother-in-law, Francis Scott Key, occasionally made oral arguments in the court in the Dred Scott era. Taney recused himself in at least one of these cases, but the presence of a relative did not necessarily mean a recusal. One of the true oddities of the Dred Scott Case itself, at least to our modern eyes, is that one of Dred Scott's lawyers was George Ticknor Curtis, the brother of one of the associate justices, Benjamin Robbins Curtis. The judge did not recuse himself. And Benjamin Curtis actually received several compliments from his fellow justices for his brother's performance in court. Now, I see now contemporary complaints that Benjamin Curtis heard the case, in spite of his brother's presence. Lincoln did not point it out, perhaps because Curtis was one of the two dissenters in Dred Scott, and therefore had earned republican praise. But it certainly gives fodder to the argument that Supreme Court Justices and the lawyers who try cases in front of them, had more than a simple professional relationship. And finally, the second aspect of the federal court system that I would like to point out as relevant to Lincoln's charges, and this is the federal court system and its structure in this era, particularly the federal circuit courts. The intermediary federal judicial body between the district and Supreme Court. As some of you may know, in the antebellum era, there were no judges whose sole duty was to sit on the circuit court. Rather, the circuit court was composed of two justices who had other positions. A sitting district judge for the area, and a US Supreme Court member who was riding circuit. As a result of this arrangement, the circuit court only met a couple of specified times per year, and in order to have both justices present, they needed to account for the intense travel schedules of the Supreme Court men who were responsible for at least three different circuit courts in addition to handling business in Washington. The staffing of the circuit courts, with one man from the district and one man from the Supreme Court, lent itself to all kinds of manipulation and maneuvering among the justices. For example, a member of the Supreme Court who was riding circuit might purposely split with his fellow judge to make sure the case could be appealed to the highest body. Or, as in the case with Dred Scott, the absence of the Supreme Court Justice form the circuit during that body's deliberations could influence when and how quickly the case could be appealed. Lincoln, as I mentioned previously, would have understood this system well, having tried cases in the 7th Federal Circuit repeatedly for Justice McLean. So, how does this context factor into what actually happened in Dred Scott? Unlike our Buchanan-Catron smoking gun, there's no direct evidence that Douglas or Pierce knew about the court's decision in Dred Scott ahead of time, but if we look a little bit closer at Lincoln's charges, we might be able to see some connections. In his "House Divided" speech, Lincoln specifically made a link between the year that the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed through congress and when the Dred Scott Case first entered the federal court system. Although a version of the case had gone through the Missouri State Court since the late 1840s, the suit that we know as Dred Scott v. Sanford reached the 8th Federal Circuit in Missouri in early 1854. Lincoln emphasized that the 1854 date was not a coincidence, and perhaps he was right. The justice who was supposed to serve on the 8th circuit was John Catron, remember, the man who had written Buchanan for a little help with his colleague, Justice Grier. But Catron was not present for the circuit court session that began the first Monday in April. And although the district judge, Robert Wells, could have postponed the case until October, he decided to go ahead in April. Both Catron and Wells had been serving on the 8th Circuit Court since their appointments in the late 1830s, and they would have known each other intimately. It's possible that the two discussed how to proceed with the case, though there's no direct evidence to support that. Ultimately, I don't actually know why Wells didn't wait for Catron, and given that Wells was more sympathetic to Dred Scott's plea, I'm not sure he was really involved in any collusion with Catron to get the case moving so that it would coincide with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But you can see how this looked to Lincoln, a man who understood the federal legal system and its penchant for manipulation quite well. And so, here we can tie Douglas to the court, if not Taney specifically, perhaps just Catron. And what about the final piece of the puzzle, Pierce and Taney? Again, no direct evidence that Pierce knew how the court would decide. But if we extend out net a little bit further into Pierce's cabinet, we might have some answers. You might remember that the Supreme Court originally heard the Dred Scott Case in 1856 while Pierce was still in office. One prominent historian has suggested that Taney had been in direct conversation with Pierce's attorney general, Caleb Cushing. And they had talked about the case, and how it ought to be decided. Circumstantial evidence from after the decision may back this up. In November, 1857, after the case was published in Howard's reports, Taney wrote a letter to Cushing thanking him for his support for their decision. Cushing, who was from Massachusetts, was among a handful of northerners who had expressed their approval of the Dred Scott decision. But he may have known ahead of time. And certainly it would not be farfetched to assume he discussed the matter with Pierce. And there you have it. Buchanan and the court, Douglas and the court, and Pierce and the court. You can see why Lincoln might have believed this conspiracy actually happened. Now, I don't want to give you the wrong impression. I'm not actually suggesting here that these men really did conspire to perpetuate slavery. The evidence I sketched here probably wouldn't hold up in court today or in the 19th century. But I hope that I've convinced you that even if the Dred Scott conspiracy may not have happened, it was certainly possible that it could have happened, given the realities of federal, and particularly, judicial politics in the 1850s. of course, there are a number of important implications for how the judicial system operated in the Civil War era that go beyond Lincoln and this conspiracy theory. And I'll just point out a few here. First, we have to stop thinking about the Supreme Court as separate from the rest of the federal government in the 19th century. The judicial, executive and legislative branches operated in cooperative and overlapping ways. Lincoln might have been wrong that each of these conspirators were trying to nationalize slavery, but he wasn't wrong that there was a relatively free flowing conversation happening among members of the three branches about the future of slavery in the nation. Second, the federal judicial system operated in fluid and informal ways. Judges and the lawyers who tried cases in front of them often formed personal rather than strictly business relationships. Moreover, there was little consistency either in how the federal courts operated, or in the personnel present for federal cases at the circuit level. In essence, the formality of the legal system that we expect in the 21st century simply did not apply. Judges shaped the federal court system to suit their needs. Finally, there is a hint of elitism here. Or perhaps more than a hint. Members of the federal government believed that they had answers for what the United States should look like going forward. In Dred Scott alone, these answers included the future of slavery, citizenship, property rights and congressional power, among others. The people who were making these decisions were at the highest levels of government, making policy in private conversations and deals. This was not the popular democracy we think of in the age of Jackson. Public opinion simply did not factor in. And this is the last piece of the puzzle that we haven't really talked about. How was Lincoln's conspiracy charge actually received? The evidence here is mixed. While some partisans encouraged Lincoln to continue making his conspiracy charge throughout his campaign against Douglas in 1858, Lincoln had largely dropped the matter by the third joint debate. Some scholars have taken this as evidence that the voting public in Illinois thought Lincoln was delusional, or at least unconvincing. And perhaps he was. Even if Lincoln had intimate experience with the Supreme Court's political role his audience might not have. The extent to which average Americans understood the federal court system and how it operated is an open question. One that I hope to explore further in my research. Thank you so much. [ Applause ] >> ... a few questions, so [inaudible]. >> Any questions? >> First of all, thank you very much. >> Thank you. >> [Inaudible] Propositions you make about political nature of the interactions between branches, the suggestion is that, that was then, and not now. And I wondered if you would, I mean, if, for example, your model is that that's how it was then... >> Yeah. >> And it is pristine and pure now... >> Oh, no. I wouldn't say that... >> But if it were, then I wonder how the transition took place? And if it's not, how far along on the continuum is it? >> That's a very good question. I'm going to. I'm going to be a little bit hesitant to answer because I'm a historian of the 19th century, and the 19th century is quite different from the 21st century. Certainly, a lot of this stuff was happening well into the 20th century. You still had, for example, Supreme Court Justices running for president in the FDR era. But, there clearly was a change at some point. One reason for this is probably the actual implementation of law school as the sort-of starting ground for all lawyers. Some of it has to do with sort-of our growing concern about the Supreme Court and whether it should be making certain kinds of decisions, activist judging and that kind of stuff. I think there's a lot more political behavior that happens on the Supreme Court today, but that's more as an observer than as a historian. I think there's, there's a problem with thinking about the Supreme Court as separate, in large part, because it was not separate from the beginning. And so, if we have this originalist interpretation of the court as being this body that is completely outside the bounds of the rest of the federal government, we have a misunderstanding of the way the court operated originally. I'm not sure the justices think of it that way today. But certainly the public does, as you suggested. So, I'm sorry to not give you as complete an answer as you'd like, but as a 19th century historian, I think I'd better stick to my century [laughter]. >> It's not unusual to the 19th century mind to give out the slave power. >> Um-hum. >> If I knew that there was a conspiracy implication involving [inaudible] or slavery... >> That's right. >> But the problem with any conspiracy is that think about the execution. And here you have volumes, constantly bringing forth the multi-member bodies. So, assuming [inaudible] conspiracy, was there any other [inaudible] that Chief Justice Taney and others were able to lean on at last four other justices to, in order to get a majority in Dred Scott of 7 to 2, McLean and Curtis dissenting. >> That's correct. >> Assuming evidence of Taney an others leaning on other justices to get them to go along with this conspiracy. >> Certainly that happened in the case of Dred Scott. There was a move to try to get the other justices to get on board with Taney's opinion. And that's pretty common throughout the 19th century, that a Chief Justice, in particular, is going to try to get the other members of the court to be in line with the majority opinion. He wasn't actually as successful with it as he would have liked, because there are also quite a few concurrences in the Dred Scott decision. It's not a matter of just, oh, there's a decision, and there are a couple of dissents. There is not a lot of smoking gun evidence about Taney getting involved with congress and putting pressure on congress. But there were definitely conversations happening. So, it depends what you think of as pressure. There was at least an understanding that this was something that was open for discussion. I actually think Taney mistakenly believed that this would actually quiet all of the furor that was going on in the rest of the country about the slave power conspiracy. He thought, oh, the court's going to rule, and shut it down. And they're not going to talk about it anymore. It did the exact opposite. But, that doesn't mean his intentions weren't in this one particular place. And I think that's just a matter of him thinking that the Supreme Court was as important as he expected it to be in making people listen to what was going on. >> You mentioned Supreme Court Justices running for president? >> Um hum. >> In the FDR era, and that was certainly true of Charles Evans Hughes. >> Um hum. >> But he ran in 1916. >> Yeah. >> Has any justice run subsequent to that? >> Not actively. This is not my specific area of expertise but a lot of historians of the Supreme Court and the 20th century have said Hugo Black was interested in running. It's much more behind the scenes than in the 19th century, where it would have been much more obvious that someone like McLean was running. But, certainly, there were justices who were interested in running for president. And working behind the scenes to try to make it happen. >> You mentioned that Lincoln appointed one Supreme Court Justice in 1862. My question is, how many did he appoint, and can you talk a little bit about what the confirmation process was like in the 19th century? >> Sure. Lincoln appointed five, actually, and was successful in all of these. I bet you're surprised because republicans controlled congress. The process was actually very partisan in the 19th century also. Some of the best examples of this are John Tyler, who was president in the early 1840s. We think of him as a man without a party. He was vice president for William Henry Harrison. And he was supposedly a Whig but the Whigs hated him. And he tried to get nine Supreme Court Justices. He tried a couple of times with two different guys. And he only was successful with one. It did not go well. And one of the justices positions was open for two years while he was waiting for a nomination. And the very best example of this is Roger Taney himself, who was put up for Supreme Court Justice in an associate justice position by Andrew Jackson in 1835, was basically not confirmed by the senate at this time. It was a hostile senate. Mostly people who were opposed to Jackson. The next year, there's turnover. Get a new democratic senate. And he puts Taney up for Chief Justice, and it's confirmed. So, that, the original position that he was put up for, associate justice, stayed open for over a year while they were waiting to fill that. And so, it is a very partisan process. And was in the 19th century. Other questions? >> [inaudible] >> Might not be true. If Lincoln were correct about the conspiracy, was it, would it have been illegal? Would laws have been broken? Or just unethical? Or amoral? Or what? >> That's a really good question. And this is sort of at the heart of my research. Is to try to understand what was considered ethically appropriate in the 19th century. And most of what happened looks to be perfectly ethical from the position of most of the politicians who were working in this period. It's all legal, but they saw it as perfectly within the bounds. Whether this would have been the reaction of the public had they known really what was going on, I'm not sure. That's harder to figure out because there aren't a lot of examples of it becoming public knowledge. So, we don't get a ton of outcry about it, which means it's hard to know what would happen if it became more public. But certainly Taney in particular, saw himself as perfectly within the law and behaving in perfectly ethical ways. >> We have time for one more. >> [inaudible] ok. >> Hello. In your talk, there was one [inaudible] line, about regardless of whether the conspiracy actually existed, it's... [inaudible]. Regardless of whether the conspiracy actually existed, it seems, the existence of conspiracy seemed plausible and therefore had political value [inaudible] running for a position. One reason, that to me is the more interesting part about the political value of plausibility regardless of the underlying facts. Wonder if you can talk a little bit more about what the political value was, and wasn't, and how that played out... [inaudible] connections to seriously curious today. >> [Laughter] >> I also... >> Well, so, this is part of. This fellow right here. I appreciate mentioning the Slave Power Conspiracy. It was part of a tradition right around this time since the early 1850s to say that there was a conspiracy among slaveholders to perpetuate slavery, to do all they could to spread slavery to the north. And so, Lincoln is participating in this tradition. This Slave Power Conspiracy suggestion. And it was very effective among republican voters. They were very worried about losing their own liberty. They thought they were going to lose their liberty if slaveholders were able to get control of the north. Lincoln actually later made several references to another court case where he called the second Dred Scott. Which was going though the New York court system at this time. Lemons v. The People. Which was another case that involved New York, whether slaveholders could bring their slaves to New York. And the New York legislature had said no in 1841. And this case was appealed in the New York State Courts. And the New York State Courts had said no, it's totally fine to ban slaveholders from bringing their slaves into New York. And Lincoln was afraid this was going to get to the Supreme Court. So there would actually be a case where northern states had to allow slavery in their states. So, this is a situation where it actually plays well to the fears of northerners who think that our state is free, our state allows me to have the kind of liberty that I want. And now we're in a situation where slaveholders might change that. Because they're going to change the circumstances on the ground. It was a very powerful argument at that time. >> All right. >> Thank you all very much. [ Applause ] >> This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress. Visit us at

External links

  • United States Congress. "William McLean (id: M000552)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
  • William McLean at Find A Grave


U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Levi Barber
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 3rd congressional district

Succeeded by
Joseph Halsey Crane
This page was last edited on 13 May 2019, at 15:18
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