About Reverdy Johnson
Reverdy Johnson (May 21, 1796 – February 10, 1876) was a statesman and jurist from Maryland. In 1865, he defended Mary Surratt before a military tribunal. Surratt was convicted and executed for plotting and aiding Lincoln's assassination.
Born in Annapolis, Johnson was the son of a distinguished Maryland lawyer and politician, John Johnson (1770 - 1824). He graduated from St. John's College in 1812 and then studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1815, and then moved to Baltimore, where he became a legal colleague of Luther Martin, William Pinkney and Roger B. Taney. From 1821 until 1825 he served in the Maryland State Senate and then returned to practice law for two decades.
Reverdy Johnson, along with John Glenn and Evan Ellicott were responsible for exacerbating the Baltimore bank crisis of 1835. Following the collapse of the Union Bank of Maryland, Johnson obstructed efforts to obtain a fair and objective accounting of the bank's assets in order to maintain his personal fortune. He falsely accused Evan Poultney and Thomas Ellicott of misconduct in order to create a smokescreen to obscure his own misconduct. Thus began an ignoble aspect to his career partially that culminated in Johnson's advocacy on behalf of Southern slaveowners in the infamous Dred Scott case, and which was only partially redeemed by his support for the Union during 1861-1865 War of the Rebellion.
From 1845 to 1849, he represented Maryland in the United States Senate as a Whig, and from March 1849 until July 1850 he was Attorney General of the United States under President Zachary Taylor. He resigned[clarification needed] that position when Millard Fillmore took office.
A conservative Democrat, he supported Stephen A. Douglas in the presidential election of 1860. He represented the slave-owning defendant in the famous 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sandford. He was personally opposed to slavery and was a key figure in the effort to keep Maryland from seceding from the Union during the American Civil War.
He served as a Maryland delegate to the Peace Convention of 1861 and from 1861 to 1862 served in the Maryland House of Delegates. During this time he represented Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter at his court-martial, arguing that Porter's distinguished record of service ought to put him beyond question. The officers on the court-martial, all handpicked by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, voted to convict Porter of cowardice and disobedience.
After the capture of New Orleans, he was commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln to revise the decisions of the military commandant, General Benjamin F. Butler, in regard to foreign governments, and reversed all those decisions to the entire satisfaction of the administration. After the war, reflecting the diverse points of view held by his fellow statesmen, Johnson argued for a gentler Reconstruction effort than that advocated by the Radical Republicans.
In 1863 he again took a seat in the United States Senate, serving through 1868.
In 1865, he defended Mary Surratt before a military tribunal. A member of the military commission trying the conspirators challenged Johnson's right to defend Surratt, as Johnson had objected to requiring loyalty oaths from voters in the 1864 presidential election. After much discussion, this objection was withdrawn, but damage was done to Johnson's influence and he did not attend most of the court sessions. Most of Surratt's legal defense was presented by two other lawyers, Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt. Surratt was convicted and executed for plotting and aiding Lincoln's assassination.
In 1866, he was a delegate to the National Union Convention which attempted to build support for President Johnson. Senator Johnson's report on the proceedings of the convention was entered into the record of President Johnson's impeachment trial. In the Senate, he also served on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In 1867, Reverdy Johnson voted for the Reconstruction Act of 1867, the only Democrat to vote for a Reconstruction measure in 1866 or 1867. In 1868 he was appointed minister to the United Kingdom and soon after his arrival in England negotiated the Johnson-Clarendon Treaty for the settlement of disputes arising out of the Civil War; this, however, the Senate refused to advise and consent to ratification, and he returned home on the accession of General Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency. Again resuming his legal practice, he was engaged by the government in the prosecution of cases against the Ku Klux Klan as well as work compiling the reports of the decisions of the Maryland Court of Appeals.
In 1876, he fell from a balcony at the Maryland Governor's Mansion in Annapolis and was killed instantly. He is buried in Greenmount Cemetery at Baltimore. Johnson had been the last surviving member of the Taylor Cabinet.
In popular culture
In the 2011 film, The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, Johnson is portrayed by British actor Tom Wilkinson.
Reverdy Johnson, U.S. Senator and Attorney General's Timeline
May 21, 1796
February 10, 1876