Thomas Todd, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Thomas Todd

Birthdate: (61)
Birthplace: King and Queen County, VA, USA
Death: February 7, 1826 (61)
Frankfort, Franklin , Kentucky, United States
Place of Burial: Frankfort Cemetery Frankfort Franklin County Kentucky
Immediate Family:

Son of Richard Todd and Elizabeth Richards
Husband of Elizabeth Todd and Lucy Elizabeth Todd / Washington
Father of Charles Stewart Todd; John Harris Todd; Elizabeth Todd; Ann Maria Todd; Harry Innes Todd and 3 others
Brother of William Todd; Mildred (Todd) Tunstall and Richard Todd

Managed by: Noah Tutak
Last Updated:

About Thomas Todd, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Born in King and Queen County, Virginia, he served during the Revolutionary War when he was 16 years old as a Private in the Continental Army with a company of cavalry from Manchester, Virginia. In 1783, he graduated from Liberty Hall College (later became Washington and Lee University) where he studied surveying. He moved to the frontier in the west and settled near Danville in a region of Virginia that would later become Kentucky.

He studied law under his cousin, Harry Innes, was admitted to the bar in 1786, and worked in the court system as a recorder. When Kentucky was seeking its statehood, he served as clerk at all ten constitutional conventions from 1784 to 1792. In 1791, he was commissioned by Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph as a Captain of a cavalry detachment in Lincoln County. A few months later, he was appointed as a Lieutenant. When Kentucky was admitted to the Union in June, 1792, Todd was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel of Militia by the new commonwealth's first Governor, Isaac Shelby. He also became secretary of the Kentucky Legislature.

After the Kentucky Court of Appeals was created in 1799, he was appointed by Governor James Garrard as its chief clerk and later became a justice of the court. In 1807, Todd was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to fill a new seat that was added to the U. S. Supreme Court. As a Supreme Court Justice, he was mostly involved with land and survey claim disputes. He served in that capacity until his death in 1826. Todd was also a Freemason and enjoyed breeding horses in Kentucky.

He was married to Dolly Madison's younger sister, Lucy Payne Washington.

Paternal grandparents were Thomas Todd and Elizabeth Bernard Todd.

Thomas Todd (January 23, 1765 – February 7, 1826) was an American attorney and U.S. Supreme Court justice. Raised in the Colony of Virginia, he studied law and later participated in the founding of Kentucky, where he served as a clerk, judge, and justice. He was married twice and had a total of eight children. Todd joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 1807 and his handful of legal opinions there mostly concerned land claims.

Early life

Todd was born in King and Queen County, Virginia, on January 23, 1765. He was the youngest of five children. Both of his parents died when he was young. He was raised Presbyterian. At the age of sixteen, Todd served in the American Revolutionary War for six months and then returned home. He attended Liberty Hall Academy in Lexington, Virginia, which is now Washington and Lee University, and graduated in 1783.

Todd then became a tutor at Liberty Hall Academy in exchange for room and board and instruction in the law. Todd studied surveying before moving to Kentucky County (then part of Virginia) in 1783 when his first cousin, Harry Innes, was appointed to the Kentucky district of the Virginia Supreme Court. Todd read law to gain admission to the Kentucky bar in 1786, but he gained positions of influence by becoming a recorder.


Todd served as the clerk at five constitutional conventions between 1784 and 1792 where Kentucky was seeking statehood. He served as secretary to the Kentucky State Legislature when Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792. When the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the State's highest court, was created in 1789, Todd became its chief clerk. He also maintained a private practice in Danville, Kentucky from 1788 until 1801, when Todd was appointed a Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. In 1806 he was elevated to Chief Justice.


Todd married Elizabeth Harris in 1788 and they were the parents of five children: Elizabeth (Mrs. John Hanna), Ann Maria (Mrs. Edmund Starling), Harry Innes, Charles Scott, and John Harris. On March 29, 1812, Todd married Lucy Payne Washington, the youngest sister of Dolley Madison and the widow of Major George Steptoe Washington, who was a nephew of President George Washington. It is believed to be the first wedding held in the White House. Their three children were William J. Todd, Madisonia Todd, and James Madison Todd.

Appointment to the Supreme Court

Todd was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Thomas Jefferson on February 28, 1807, after Congress raised the number of seats on the court to seven by 2 Stat. 420, 421. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 2, 1807, and received his commission the following day. He is one of 19 Presbyterians to have served on the Court. Todd served as a Supreme Court Justice until his death in Frankfort, Kentucky on February 7, 1826 at the age of 61. Todd was buried in the Innes family cemetery but later exhumed and reinterred in the State Cemetery at Frankfort.

Court opinions

Todd served under Chief Justice John Marshall. Politically, Todd was a Jeffersonian. Although they had different political beliefs, Todd adopted Marshall's views on judicial interpretation, but did not write a single constitutional opinion. He was labelled the most insignificant U.S. Supreme Court justice by Frank H. Easterbrook in The Most Insignificant Justice: Further Evidence, 50 U. Chi. L. Rev. 481 (1983). Todd wrote only fourteen opinions--eleven majority, two concurring and one dissenting. Ten of his eleven majority opinions involved disputed land and survey claims.

Todd's first reported opinion was a dissent to the opinion of Chief Justice Marshall in Finley v. Lynn. He concurred in all other opinions written by the Chief Justice. One of the more interesting of these cases was Preston v. Browder, where Todd upheld the right of North Carolina to make land claim restrictions on filings that were made in Indian territory and violated the Treaty of the Long Island of Holston made by the state on July 20, 1777. His opinion in Watts v. Lindsey's Heirs et al., explained confusing and complicated land title problems which plagued early settlers of Kentucky.

Todd's only Court opinion which did not involve land law was his last. In Riggs v. Taylor, the Justice made the important procedural ruling, now taken for granted, that if a party intends to use an original document as evidence, then the original must be produced. But if the original is in the possession of the other party to the suit, who refuses to produce it, or if the original is lost or destroyed, then secondary evidence will be admitted.

Death and legacy

Todd's remains are reinterred at historic Frankfort Cemetery, overlooking the Kentucky River and the capitol of Kentucky.

Upon his death, Justice Todd was vested with substantial real property, particularly in Frankfort, Kentucky. He was a charter member of the Kentucky River Company, the first business formed to promote Kentucky waterway navigation. The inventory of his estate revealed he was a shareholder of the Kentucky Turnpike, (the first publicly improved highway west of the Alleghenies), and the Frankfort toll bridge, crossing the Kentucky River. In addition to his home, he owned more than 7,200 acres (29 km2) of land throughout the state and another twenty or so pieces in Frankfort. After his children were provided for, as he put it, in "their full proportion", the remainder of his estate valued at more than $70,000—a large sum at the time.

Todd's papers are kept in three locations:

Cincinnati Historical Society, Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

University of Kentucky, Margaret I. King Library, Lexington, Kentucky.

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Thomas Todd, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court's Timeline

January 23, 1765
King and Queen County, VA, USA
January 22, 1791
Age 25
Lincoln Co., KY
Age 29
Age 51
February 7, 1826
Age 61
Frankfort, Franklin , Kentucky, United States