About Henry Billings Brown
Henry Billings Brown (March 2, 1836 – September 4, 1913) was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from January 5, 1891, to May 28, 1906. He was the author of the opinion for the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, a decision that upheld the legality of racial segregation in public transportation.
Life and work
Brown grew up in a New England merchant family. He graduated from Yale in 1856, and received basic legal training at Yale and at Harvard, although he did not earn a law degree. His early law practice was in Detroit, where he specialized in admiralty law (shipping law on the Great Lakes). Brown hired a substitute to take his place in the Union Army during the Civil War, and served as United States Attorney.
On March 17, 1875, Brown was nominated by President Ulysses Grant to a seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan vacated by John Wesley Longyear. Brown was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 19, 1875, and received his commission the same day. He edited a collection of rulings and orders in important admiralty cases from inland waters, which is still used as a reference in Black's Law Dictionary.
He also compiled a case book on admiralty law for his lectures at Georgetown University. Brown also taught admiralty law classes at the University of Michigan. He was a Republican prior to joining the Supreme Court, and showed little or no partisanship.
President Benjamin Harrison appointed Brown to the U.S. Supreme Court on December 23, 1890, to a seat vacated by Samuel F. Miller. Brown was confirmed by the United States Senate on December 29, 1890, and received his commission the same day. His service to the Eastern District of Michigan was officially terminated on December 30, 1890.
Brown was against government intervention in business, and concurred with the majority opinion in Lochner v. New York striking down a limitation on maximum working hours. He did support the federal income tax in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co. (1895). Brown left diaries written from his college days until his appointment as a federal judge in 1875. They can be found in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library.
His diaries suggest that Brown was personally likeable (but ambitious), depressed and often full of doubt about himself. Brown is well-known for the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which he wrote the majority opinion - upholding the principle and legitimacy of "separate but equal" facilities for American blacks and whites. Near the end of his years on the Court he largely lost his eyesight. Brown retired from the Court May 28, 1906. He died of heart failure. Brown is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit.
In 1864, Brown married Caroline Pitts, the daughter of a wealthy Detroit lumber-man; they had no children.
In 1891, he paid $25,000 for land at 1720 16th Street, NW, in Washington, D.C., to the Riggs family, hired architect William Henry Miller, and built a five-story, 18-room mansion for $40,000.
Caroline died in 1901; three years later, Brown married a close friend of hers, the widow Josephine E. Tyler.
Brown lived in his 16th Street house, today known as the Toutorsky Mansion, until his death in 1913.
A biography from the period reads: "A very clean record and admirable as representing intellect, cultivation and a power to look upon things broadly and justly, is that of Henry Billings Brown, now an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was born in South Lee, Mass., March 2, 1836. He received a thorough preliminary education, and was graduated from Yale College in 1856, after which he studied law for some time in a private office, and later attended lectures at both Yale and Harvard law schools. He came west and was admitted to the bar of Wayne County, Michigan, in July, 1860, and in the spring of 1861, upon the election of Mr. Lincoln, was appointed United States Deputy Marshal, and subsequently United States Attorney for the eastern district of Michigan, a position he held until 1868, when he was ap---pointed judge of the circuit court of Wayne County, to fill a vacancy. He returned to active practice in partnership with John S. Newberry and Ashley Pond, of Detroit, each a man prominent in his profession. In 1875 he was appointed by President Grant United States District Judge for the eastern district of Michigan, to succeed Hon. John W. Longyear, and in December, 1890, was appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court to succeed Judge Samuel F. Miller. He entered upon the duties of his present office January 5, 1891. Since his advent in the Supreme Court, he has become recognized as a man of marked ability and one who is a credit even to that essemblage of leaders in the law. Honors have come upon him thick and fast. He was made an LL. D. by the University of Michigan in 1887, while Yale University conferred the same honor upon him in 1891. He occupies the front rank in his profession."
United States Supreme Court Associate Justice. Born in South Lee, Massachusetts, he studied law, and was admitted to the Michigan Bar Association in Detroit in 1860. Three years later became assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, serving from 1863 to 1868. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him to the United States Supreme Court. He was a hardworking justice, he worked during his tenure to reduce the court's backlog of cases. In 1894 he controversially argued that people of annexed territories were not entitled to constitutionally guaranteed rights and privileges. He retired from the court when he reached the age of 70 and died at age 70 in Bronxville, New York.
Henry Billings Brown, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court's Timeline
March 2, 1836
Lee, Berkshire, Massachusetts, United States
September 4, 1913
Bronxville, Westchester, New York, United States
Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, United States