John McLean was one of Ohio’s foremost jurists. After serving with distinction on the Supreme Court of Ohio, he served for more than 31 years as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
McLean was born on a small farm in Morris County, N.J. on March 11, 1785 to Fergus McClain and Sophia Blackford. Fergus, who later changed the family surname to McLean, immigrated to Wilmington, Del. from Northern Ireland in 1775 and fought under Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The family moved westward, eventually settling on a farm in Warren County, Ohio in 1797.
McLean was apprenticed on Sept. 1, 1804 to John Stites Gano, clerk of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas. During this time, he studied law with Arthur St. Clair Jr. In November 1806, McLean purchased the Western Star newspaper, which he moved from Cincinnati to Lebanon in 1807. McLean also resumed his legal studies and practiced law for five years. McLean turned operation of the Western Star newspaper over to his brother, Nathaniel, in 1810.
Over the early part of this decade, McLean served as examiner for the U.S. Land Office in Cincinnati and as the representative for the 1st Congressional District, which included Butler, Preble, Warren and Hamilton counties.
On Feb. 17, 1816, the Ohio General Assembly elected McLean to serve on the Supreme Court for a seven-year term. Gov. Ethan Allen Brown issued his commission on Feb. 20, 1816.
Supreme Court decisions were not published until 1823, but some newspapers throughout Ohio printed transcripts of several cases. The State of Ohio v. Thomas D. Carneal (1817) foreshadowed McLean’s future dissent in an important fugitive slavery case, Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Richard Lunsford was an African-American who brought a habeas corpus action through the state to secure his freedom from slavery from the administrator of the estate of his former owner, Thomas Carneal. The Ohio Constitution of 1802 forbade slavery in the state, and at issue was whether slaves owned by a man traveling in Ohio became free once they traveled to Ohio and whether a slave who resided in Kentucky could be sent to work in Ohio without gaining his freedom. The Court ruled that since the estate administrator sold Lunsford to James Riddle, who had him work in Cincinnati as a slave for eight to 10 days at a time, his slave owner forfeited his right to ownership. McLean, writing the majority opinion, expressed his personal distaste for slavery:
“Some important questions have been raised in the discussion of this cause, which are not necessarily involved in this decision. The abstract principle of slavery is not presented for deliberation in this case. Were it proper to consider it, the Court, as well as from the principles recognized by our Constitution and Laws, could not hesitate in declaring that SLAVERY (emphasis in original), except for the punishment of crimes, is an infringement upon the sacred rights of man: Rights, which he derives from his Creator, and which are inalienable.”
President James Monroe, in appreciation for McLean’s support in Congress during the War of 1812 for the Madison administration and his help in securing the presidential nomination in 1816, appointed McLean commissioner of the General Land Office on Sept. 7, 1822, and McLean resigned from the Supreme Court on Nov. 1, 1822. The position required supervising the 38 district land offices, reporting to the president and Congress concerning the public lands, issuing patents for lands sold and directing the settlement of accounts.
On June 26, 1823, President Monroe appointed McLean as postmaster general, to replace Meigs. Although he began his duties on July 1, 1823, he was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate until Dec. 9, 1823. President John Quincy Adams reappointed him after his inauguration on March 4, 1825. From 1823 to 1828, the number of post offices increased from 4,498 to 7,651. McLean estimated that in 1828, 26,856 were employed in the postal service, making the post office the largest executive branch department, including the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy.
President Andrew Jackson nominated McLean to become an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court on March 6, 1829. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 7, 1829 and took the oath of office on Jan. 11, 1830. He served until his death on April 4, 1861. During his 31 years on the U.S. Supreme Court, McLean wrote 160 majority opinions and 30 dissents. Perhaps his best known case was his dissent in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). The Court ruled in this infamous decision that an African-American, free or in slavery, was not a citizen. McLean argued in his dissent that a person born in the United States became a citizen when they obtained their freedom.
Throughout his life, McLean harbored ambitions to become president of the United States. In 1848, he sought the Whig Party’s nomination for the presidency, but was defeated by Gen. Zachary Taylor. He received votes for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination at the 1856 and 1860 conventions.
McLean’s membership in the Methodist Church shaped his character and reflected his opinions; he edited the biographies of two Methodist ministers and negotiated the division of the Methodist church into Northern and Southern denominations over the question of the morality of slavery.
McLean and Rebecca Edwards of Newport, Ky. were married on March 29, 1807. The couple became the parents of seven children. Following McLean’s elevation to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rebecca McLean and the children returned to Cincinnati, since McLean would only spend three to four months per year in Washington, D.C. In the fall of 1841, she became ill and died on Dec. 5, 1841. She was buried in the Methodist Cemetery in Cincinnati. On March 2, 1843, McLean married Sara Bella Garrard (1803-1882) of Cincinnati. She was the daughter of Israel Ludlow, one of the founders of Cincinnati. One son, Ludlow, who died in infancy, was born to them.
McLean became ill while on circuit in Cincinnati and died April 4, 1861. The Reverends J.T. Mitchess and D.W. Clark conducted the funeral services and McLean is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.
U.S. Attorney General Edward Bates eulogized McLean to the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 3, 1861. He said:
“I had not the honor of his intimacy, but I have known him personally for more than thirty years, and under circumstances which attracted and enforced my observation. I did not consider him a man of brilliant genius, but a man of great talents, with a mind able to comprehend the greatest subject, and not afraid to encounter the minuest analysis. He was eminently practical, always in pursuit of the truth, and always able to control and utilize any idea that he had once fully conceived. In short, he was a sincere, earnest, diligent man.”
b. March 11, 1785
d. April 4, 1861
11th Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio