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Return Jonanthan Meigs Jr.

Return Jonathan Meigs Jr. held many prominent government posts during his life, including the first chief judge of the Supreme Court of Ohio, Ohio’s fourth governor and the fifth U.S. postmaster general. In addition, Meigs County in southeastern Ohio is named after him.

Meigs was born in Middletown, Conn., on Nov. 17, 1764 to Col. Return J. and Joanna Winborn Meigs. Col. Meigs won distinction during the Revolutionary War at the battle of Sag Harbor. Return Jr. graduated from Yale in 1785, studied law and was admitted to the Connecticut bar. His father, a surveyor for the Ohio Company of Associates, founded Marietta in April 1788. Arriving in Marietta soon after its founding, the younger Meigs practiced law, kept a store and engaged in farming.

When the Northwest Territory court system was organized at Marietta, Meigs was appointed on July 30, 1788 by Territorial Gov. Arthur St. Clair to be prothonotary (chief clerk) of the county court of common pleas, which handled civil cases, and clerk of the General Quarter Sessions of the Peace, which had criminal jurisdiction. He also was commissioned as justice of the peace for Washington County.

In 1794, he was appointed the first postmaster at Marietta. From 1794 to 1798, Meigs also served as prosecuting attorney of Washington County. On Feb. 9, 1798, President John Adams appointed Meigs to be a judge of the territorial court known as the “General Court” of the Northwest Territory. The U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination on Feb. 12, 1798, and he served until Ohio was admitted into the United States in March 1803. In 1799, Meigs was elected to the House of Representatives to represent Washington County. Meigs also served in the second session of the first territorial legislature, which met from Nov. 3 to Dec. 9, 1800. He was defeated when he sought election in 1802 to serve as a delegate to the Ohio Constitutional Convention.

On April 2, 1803, Meigs was appointed chief judge of the newly organized Supreme Court in a joint meeting of the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House of Representatives. Gov. Edward Tiffin commissioned him on April 15, 1803. His colleague, Judge John W. Campbell of the U.S. District Court for Ohio, wrote of Meigs:

“It is said his judicial opinions were brief, perspicuous, and to the point; more strongly characterized by good practical sense, than by the authorities of other tribunals. When and where he assisted on the bench, very little aid was derived from books, as they were not to be obtained; not did the speed with which the Judges were required to travel admit of much time being devoted to the consideration of questions, however important."

Meigs submitted his resignation to Gov. Tiffin on Dec. 4, 1804, to accept appointment as commandant of the U.S. troops and militia in the St. Charles district of the Louisiana Territory. The position required exercising civil and military authority in the governance of the district. President Thomas Jefferson appointed him on March 11, 1805 to be one of the judges of the Louisiana Territory. He accepted the position on July 4, 1805, and began his duties. Louisiana Territorial Gov. James Wilkinson commended Meigs to Secretary of State James Madison as ...“A most valuable Officer, and is well calculated to conciliate and attach this mixt (sp.) community.” On April 2, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Meigs to become a judge in the Michigan Territory. Although he received the commission on July 4, 1807, he returned to Ohio to become a candidate for governor of Ohio and resigned the commission without assuming the duties of judge of the Michigan Territory.

On Oct. 13, 1807, Meigs was elected governor. His opponent, Nathaniel Massie, challenged his election on the grounds that the Ohio Constitution required the governor to reside in Ohio for four years before his election. Massie argued that Meigs did not live in Ohio when he served as commandment and judge in the Louisiana Territory. Meigs argued that he served in these positions for specified terms, and he always returned to his family living in Marietta. His absence from Ohio, he argued, amounted to a total of 11 months. The Ohio General Assembly sided with Massie and declared Meigs ineligible to be governor. The same legislature, however, appointed him to fill an additional judgeship on the Supreme Court on Feb. 13, 1808. He received his commission from Gov. Thomas Kirker on Feb. 17, 1808

The Ohio General Assembly elected Meigs to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate on Dec. 12, 1808. He submitted his resignation as Supreme Court judge the next day and also received his commission. He served from Dec. 12, 1808, to Dec. 8, 1810.

During the summer and fall of 1810, Meigs campaigned to be governor. A significant issue before the newly formed state was the power of the courts to declare legislative acts unconstitutional. Meigs believed the Supreme Court was coequal with the Ohio General Assembly, while his opponent, Thomas Worthington, believed that the Court was subservient to the legislature. Allying himself with conservative Democrat Republicans and Federalists, Meigs was elected governor on Oct. 9, 1810. Taking the oath of office on Dec. 8, 1810, Meigs declared in his inaugural address:

“Where the structure of government rests on public opinion, knowledge is of vital interest. Public opinion, to be correct, must be enlightened; and the culture of understanding, is the preserver of republican principles. Man, informed of his political rights, becomes reluctant to renounce them. Tyrants govern the ignorant; Intelligence alone is capable of self-government.”

Meigs was re-elected for a second term on Oct. 13, 1812, over Thomas Scott. Although the power of early Ohio governors was strictly limited, Gov. Meigs provided leadership in the War of 1812 by recruiting 1,200 state militia and providing supplies and weapons for the U.S. Army. Under the leadership of Gen. William Hull, the army was badly defeated by the British at Detroit, Mich. This defeat left the Ohio frontier unprotected. Meigs rapidly provided for the defense of the frontier settlements by appealing for volunteers, constructing blockhouses and distributing arms.

In recognition of his war services, President James Madison nominated Meigs to be postmaster general on Feb. 24, 1814. The Senate confirmed and commissioned his appointment on March 17, 1814, and after resigning as governor, he began his duties in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 1814, continuing to serve at the request of President James Monroe in 1816. Meigs managed a period of rapid expansion of the postal system: the number of post offices doubled from 2,437 in 1810 to 4,834 in 1823, and the number of letters doubled from about 4 million to 8 million. Meigs served as postmaster general until June 30, 1823, resigning due to ill health.

In 1788, Meigs married Sophia Wright and they had one daughter, Mary. After resigning as postmaster general, Meigs returned to Marietta, where he died March 29, 1825. He is buried in Mound Cemetery, where his grave is marked by a monument bearing a long inscription reciting his public services and family devotion. Sophia Meigs died Nov. 18, 1838 and is buried next to her husband.

William Howard Taft

b. Nov 17, 1764

d. March 29, 1825

1st Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio

See All Justices

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