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Reverdy Johnson
(May 21, 1796ĖFebruary 10, 1876)

 

Reverdy Johnson was a U.S. attorney general, U.S. senator, and diplomat.  As a War Democrat during the Civil War and a respected jurist, his endorsement in February 1864 of the proposed Thirteenth Amendment was important for gaining the measure press attention and a sympathetic ear among his fellow Democrats.

Johnson was born on May 21, 1796, in Annapolis, Maryland, to Deborah Ghieselen Johnson and John Johnson, state legislator and member of a prominent legal family.  Reverdy Johnson graduated from St. Johnís College (Annapolis) in 1811, served briefly in the War of 1812 at the rank of private, and then began reading law under his fatherís tutelage.  After being admitted to the Maryland bar in 1815, he began practicing law in Upper Marlboro.  In 1816-1817, he worked as the stateís deputy attorney general, and then established a law practice in Baltimore. 

Johnson soon earned recognition as a skilled trial lawyer in civil suits, known for his thorough preparation, cogent reasoning, rigorous cross-examination, and articulate expression.  In 1827, he argued his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Maryland, which began his reputation as a leading constitutional lawyer.  Johnson also served in the state senate from 1821 until 1828, when he resigned to dedicate himself to his expanding legal practice.  He accumulated great wealth as legal counsel to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  In 1835, Johnson faced public hostility for leading the legal effort to block payments from the failed Bank of Maryland (for which he was a director) to small depositors, who retaliated by burning down his house.

In 1845, the Maryland legislature elected Johnson to the U.S. Senate as a Whig.  The next year, he broke party rank to support the War with Mexico, declared by President James K. Polk, although the new senator criticized the Democratic presidentís policy of gaining territory from Mexico.  Having freed slaves inherited from his father, Johnson opposed both the expansion of slavery into the West and federal interference with the institution in the South, as advocated by the abolitionists.  In 1849, the new Whig president, Zachary Taylor, appointed Johnson as the U.S. attorney general, but he resigned following the presidentís unexpected death in July 1850.  During his brief tenure as attorney general, Johnson became embroiled in a public scandal when he decided a land dispute in favor of a Georgia family that was suing the federal government.  Johnsonís decision allowed Secretary of War George Crawford to earn a large legal fee as the claimantsí lawyer.  Johnson denied knowledge of Crawfordís role, and a congressional investigation cleared him of all charges of wrongdoing. 

Returning full-time to his legal practice, Johnson won a patent case for the McCormick reaper before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1854.  In the Dred Scott case (1857), he served on the legal team that convinced the Supreme Court to rule against both the citizenship of blacks and federal government authority over slavery in the territories.  Johnson affiliated himself with the Democratic Party when the Whig Party collapsed in the mid-1850s, and he campaigned in 1860 for Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the presidential nominee of the Northern Democrats.  As Southern slave states left the union between the election and presidential inauguration of Republican Abraham Lincoln, Johnson stood firmly for national unity and condemned the secessionists as ďrebels and traitors.Ē  In early 1861, he was a member of the Washington Peace Conference, which failed to find a workable compromise between the sections.  He was instrumental in preventing his home state of Maryland from seceding. 

In 1860-1861, Johnson served in the Maryland lower house, and in 1862, the state legislature elected him again to the U.S. Senate, where he took his seat in March 1863.  During the Civil War, Johnson was unswervingly committed to the Union war effort, and backed President Lincolnís suspension of habeas corpus, the arming of blacks, and the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), which abolished slavery.  However, the senator used constitutional arguments to criticize Lincolnís Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and federal intervention in state elections. 

After the war, Johnson initially endorsed the lenient Reconstruction program of President Andrew Johnson (no relation) and voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1866 on constitutional grounds.  However, when Republican opposition proved insurmountable, Senator Johnson hoped to expedite the Reconstruction process by supporting the Republicansí major policies:  black manhood suffrage in the former Confederate states, the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, and the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), which granted citizenship to blacks.

After helping to convince Senate Republicans not to remove Andrew Johnson from office (1868), the president rewarded the senator with appointment as U.S. minister to Great Britain.  Reverdy Johnsonís primary task as U.S. minister was to negotiate a settlement over the Alabama claims, the American grievance against Britain for allowing construction of Confederate warships during the Civil War.  The resulting Johnson-Clarendon Convention only provided financial restitution to private American citizens for specific damages, and did not cover general harm caused by the British-built Confederate warships against the Union military cause.  Presented to the U.S. Senate in January 1869, the treaty was fiercely opposed by President-elect Ulysses S. Grant and was defeated decisively, 54-1. 

At the end of Andrew Johnsonís administration in March 1869, Reverdy Johnson returned to the United States to resume his law practice.  Although primarily involved with corporate litigation, he participated in some high-profile civil rights cases.  He defended members of the Ku Klux Klan and, in U.S. v. Cruikshank (1875), successfully convinced the U.S. Supreme Court that the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment only applied against states, not individuals.  The Cruikshank decision was a major setback to enforcement of Reconstruction and the federal protection of civil rights.  Johnson died on February 10, 1876, when his skull was crushed after an accidental fall in Annapolis. 

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