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John Welch was remembered for his honesty, hard work and cheerfulness, as well as his love of music.

He was born on Oct. 18, 1805 to Thomas and Martha Daugherty Welch in Harrison County, Ohio. Born in a rural farming community, Welch attended the public schools, borrowed books and employed tutors to obtain an education. In 1821, at age 16, he began to teach school to pay for his tuition at Franklin College in New Athens. By the start of his senior year in 1828, he could not continue his studies due to lack of funds and ill health. Years later, he was surprised to learn that the college claimed him as its first graduate.

Welch left Harrison County in 1828 for a position as a tutor with a slave-owning family in Fort Gibson, Miss. Although he was paid well, he left after five months after discovering a dislike for slavery and the South. Returning to Ohio, he joined his father and brother in their new enterprise, a saw and grist mill in Athens County.

While working at the mills, Welch began in 1829 to make the 14-mile weekly trip to Athens to study law with Professor Joseph Dana, a non-practicing attorney who taught languages at Ohio University. In 1833, although he had not yet completed his legal studies, Welch petitioned the Supreme Court of Ohio to admit him to the bar. Unforeseen circumstances resulted in an absence of any practicing attorneys in Athens, the county seat, and Welch was admitted to the bar.

At this time, the common pleas courts and the Supreme Court were circuit courts and it was the practice of the legal community trying cases before them to travel the state along with the courts. This allowed Welch to study the methods of and make important professional contacts with some of the leading lawyers of Ohio. Welch soon built a large and profitable legal practice. Clients admired his honesty and hard work while juries liked his clear speech and lack of pretension.

In 1835, the Whig Party recruited Welch to run for Athens County prosecuting attorney. He served in this position from 1835 to 1839 and from 1841 to 1843. From 1845 to 1846, he represented Athens County in the Ohio Senate.

Welch was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent the 12th district of Ohio in 1850. He served from March 4, 1851 to March 3, 1853. He was defeated for re-election in a new district whose boundaries recently changed.

In 1862, Welch was elected to a five-year term as judge of the Court of Common Pleas of the Seventh District, Third Subdivision. For three years, he tried criminal and civil cases in this trial court.

On Feb. 23, 1865, Gov. John Brough appointed Welch to the Supreme Court of Ohio. Welch was elected in October 1865 to fill the remaining two years of Judge Rufus P. Ranney’s unexpired term. Welch was later elected to a full five-year term in 1867 and again in 1872. He chose not to seek another term in 1877. Welch served as Chief Justice from 1872 to 1873 and 1875 to 1877.

In the time before law libraries and legal journals, the legal community relied upon discussions and debates on the principles of law to hone their powers of analysis and logic. Welch’s Supreme Court memorial describes how he determined cases: “In his opinions, which were generally terse, it will be seen that he relied almost exclusively upon the principles of the law logically applied to the case. Being entirely satisfied of the correctness of the propositions he laid down, he rarely supported them by a citation of cases.” His opinions are in volumes 16 to 31 of Ohio State Reports.

An important opinion written by Welch was The Board of Education of the City of Cincinnati v. John E. Minor et al. (1872). The Cincinnati Board of Education prohibited religious instruction and the reading of the Bible in the public schools. The Court ruled that the Ohio Constitution does not require religious instruction or the reading of religious books in the public schools. Also, since the General Assembly placed the management of the public schools under the control of boards of education, the Court could not direct courses of instruction or what books should be read. Welch pointed out in the Court’s unanimous opinion that the proponents of religious instruction advocated that Christianity be taught to the exclusion of Judaism and other religions. He wrote:

“The only foundation-rather, the only excuse-for the proposition, that Christianity is part of the law of this country, is the fact that it is a Christian country, and that its constitutions and laws are made by a Christian people. And is not the very fact that those laws do not attempt to enforce Christianity or to place it upon exceptional or vantage ground, itself a strong evidence that they are the laws of a Christian people, and that their religion is the best and purest of religions? It is strong evidence that their religion is indeed a religion “without partiality” and therefore a religion “without hypocrisy”. True Christianity asks no aid from the sword of civil authority.”

After his retirement from the Supreme Court, Welch wrote An Index-Digest to the Reports of Cases Decided in the Courts of Ohio in 1887. His summary of cases was widely used by attorneys for many years. He completed a second edition shortly before his death in 1891.

An advocate of education, Welch served from 1848 to 1891 as a member of the board of trustees of Ohio University. He also was active in the temperance movement. For entertainment, he played the violin and the piano. His obituary mentioned, “…His children and grandchildren will ever remember the old man with his gray head bending over the keys as he sang the quaint songs of his boyhood.”

Welch married Martha L. Starr on June 3, 1830 and they had four children. Martha Welch died on Jan. 25, 1854 and is buried in West Union Street Cemetery in Athens. In 1856, Welch married Felicia Emerson. The couple had no children.

Welch died on Aug. 5, 1891. He was buried in West Union Street Cemetery in Athens, Ohio next to his first wife.

William Howard Taft

b. Oct. 18, 1805

d. Aug. 5, 1891

48th Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio

See All Justices

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