Noah H. Swayne, Assoc. Justice of the U.S. Sup. Ct.

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Noah Haynes Swayne

Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Joshua Swayne and Rebecca Swayne
Husband of Sarah Ann Swayne
Father of Gen. Wager Swayne, Medal of Honor; Rebecca Swayne; Virginia Swayne; Sarah ann Swayne; Henry Stuart Swayne and 1 other

Managed by: Private User
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About Noah H. Swayne, Assoc. Justice of the U.S. Sup. Ct.

Noah Haynes Swayne (December 7, 1804 – June 8, 1884) was an American jurist and politician. He was the first Republican appointed as a justice to the United States Supreme Court.

Birth and early life

Swayne was born in Frederick County, Virginia in the uppermost reaches of the Shenandoah Valley, approximately 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Washington D.C. He was the youngest of nine children of Joshua Swayne and Rebecca (Smith) Swayne. He was a descendant of Francis Swayne, who emigrated from England in 1710 and settled near Philadelphia. After his father died in 1809, Noah was educated locally until enrolling in Jacob Mendendhall's Academy in Waterford, Virginia, a respected Quaker school 1817-18. He began to study medicine in Alexandria, Virginia, but abandoned this pursuit after his teacher Dr. George Thornton died in 1819. Despite his family having no money to support his continued education, he read law under John Scott and Francis Brooks in Warrenton, Virginia, and was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1823. A devout Quaker (and to date the only Quaker to serve on the Supreme Court), Swayne was deeply opposed to slavery, and in 1824 he left Virginia for the free state of Ohio. His abolitionist sentiments caused him to move to Ohio.

He began a private practice in Coshocton and, in 1825, was elected Coshocton County Attorney. Four years later he was elected to the Ohio state legislature. In 1830 he was appointed U.S. Attorney for Ohio by Andrew Jackson, and moved to Columbus to take up the new position.

While serving as U.S. Attorney, Swayne was elected in 1834 to the Columbus city council, and in 1836 to the state legislature. As U.S. Attorney, Swayne became close friends with Supreme Court justice John McLean. McLean, by the end of his career, was a strong Republican, and when the party was formed in 1855 Swayne had become an early member and political organizer.

In 1835, as escalating tensions in the boundary dispute between Ohio and Michigan Territory (the Toledo War) threatened to erupt into violent conflict, Ohio Governor Robert Lucas dispatched Swayne, along with former Congressman William Allen and David T. Disney, to Washington D.C. to confer with President Andrew Jackson. The delegation presented Ohio's case and urged the President to act swiftly to address the situation.

Supreme Court service

McLean was one of two dissenters in the Dred Scott case. He sought the Republican nomination for President in 1860, losing to Abraham Lincoln. However, he recommended to Lincoln on a number of occasions that Swayne be nominated to replace him on the court. This proved timely; McLean died shortly after Lincoln's inauguration, in April 1861. As the American Civil War began, Swayne campaigned for the vacant seat, lobbying several Ohio members of Congress for their support. As the Supreme Court media itself notes: "Swayne satisfied Lincoln's criteria for appointment: commitment to the Union, slavery opponent, geographically correct."

It is also believed that Swayne had also represented fugitive slaves in court. So eight months after McLean's death, Swayne was nominated in January 1862.

In the Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873) -- a pivotal decision on the meaning of Section 1 of the relatively new Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution -- Swayne dissented with Justices Stephen Field and Joseph Bradley. Field's dissent was important, and presaged later decisions broadening the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, four years later Swayne joined the majority in Munn v. Illinois, with Field and Bradley still dissenting.

Swayne's potential judicial greatness failed to materialize. He was first of President Lincoln's five appointments to the Supreme Court: Noah Hayes Swayne – 1862; Samuel Freeman Miller – 1862; David Davis – 1862; Stephen Johnson Field – 1863; and Salmon P. Chase – Chief Justice – 1864. He is also said to have been "the weakest". His main distinction was his staunch judicial support of the president's war measures: the Union blockade (Prize Cases, 67 U.S. 635 (1862)); issuance of paper money (i.e., greenbacks); and support for the presidential prerogative to declare martial law (Ex Parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866)).

He is most famous for his majority opinion in Springer v. United States, 102 U.S. 586 (1881), which upheld the Federal income tax imposed under the Revenue Act of 1864.

In Gelpcke v. Dubuque 68 U.S. 175 (1864) Swayne wrote the majority opinion, repudiating a claim that the Iowa constitution could impair legal obligations to bondholders. When contracts are made on the basis of trust in past judicial decisions those contracts could not be impaired by any subsequent construction of the law. "We shall never immolate truth, justice, and the law, because a state tribunal has erected the altar and decreed the sacrifice." He strongly supported "the contractual rights of railroad bond holders, "even in the face of repudiation sanctioned both by the Iowa state legislature and state supreme court. Obligations sacred to law are not to be destroyed simply because 'a state tribunal has erected the altar and decreed the sacrifice.'” For a later decision on impairment of contracts, compare Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905).

Swayne remained on the court until 1881, twice lobbying unsuccessfully to be elevated to the position of Chief Justice (after the death of Roger Taney in 1864 and Salmon Chase in 1873).

After his retirement, Swayne returned to Ohio.

Retirement, death and legacy

Swayne is not regarded as a particularly distinguished justice. He wrote few opinions, usually signing on to opinions written by others, and remained on the court well past his physical prime, being quite infirm at his retirement. Under pressure from President Rutherford B. Hayes, he finally agreed to retire on the condition that his friend and fellow Ohio attorney Stanley Matthews replace him.

His son, Wager Swayne, served in the American Civil War, rose to the rank of Major General, served as the military governor of Alabama after the Civil War, and subsequently founded law firms in Toledo, Ohio and New York City. Wager's son, named Noah Hayes Swayne after his grandfather, was president of Burns Brothers, the largest coal distributor in the U.S. when he retired in September 1932. Another of Wager's sons, Alfred Harris Swayne, was vice president of General Motors Corporation.

Another of Justice Swayne's sons, Noah Swayne, was a lawyer in Toledo and donated the land for Swayne Field, the former field for the Toledo Mud Hens baseball team.

Justice Swayne's remains were buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The Georgetown graveyard overlooks Rock Creek, and is shared with: Chief Justice Edward Douglass White; and "almost-Justice" Edwin M. Stanton (President Ulysses S. Grant's nomination of him was confirmed by the Senate, but Stanton died before he could be sworn in). Also, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase was buried there, but his body was transferred after 14 years to Cincinnati, Ohio's Spring Grove Cemetery.

The bulk of his legal papers are located at the Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Ohio. Other papers are at: Detroit Public Library, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit, Michigan; Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Illinois; Library of Congress, Manuscript and Prints & Photographs Divisions, Washington, D.C.; State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin; University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, Louisville, Kentucky; and University of Toledo, Canaday Center, Manuscripts: Politics & Government, Toledo, Ohio.

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Noah H. Swayne, Assoc. Justice of the U.S. Sup. Ct.'s Timeline

December 7, 1804
November 10, 1834
Age 29
Age 30
Age 36
Age 38
Age 40
June 8, 1884
Age 79