Samuel Huntington served as one of the first three judges of the Supreme Court of Ohio and authored the opinion in the first case brought before the Supreme Court to challenge the authority of the Ohio General Assembly, Rutherford v. McFadden (1807, unreported).
Huntington was born on Oct. 4, 1765 to the Rev. Joseph and Hannah Devotion Huntington. At age 6 or 7, following the death of his mother, Huntington was adopted by his uncle, Samuel Huntington, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Connecticut from 1786 to 1796.
Between 1779 and 1781, young Samuel accompanied his uncle to Philadelphia, where the elder Huntington served as a member of the Continental Congress. Young Samuel entered Dartmouth College in 1781 and attended until the end of his junior year before transferring to Yale College and graduating in 1785, at age 20. Huntington was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1793.
In 1800, Huntington, convinced he would be ostracized politically for switching his allegiance from the Federalists to the Jeffersonian Republicans and eager to prosper as a land agent, journeyed by horseback to the Ohio Territory, stopping first in Youngstown, before traveling to Marietta, where he spent the summer. Huntington returned to Connecticut to gather his wife and family and eventually settled in Cleveland.
In 1802, Huntington was elected one of the supervisors of roads in Trumbull County, and that same year was appointed by Gov. Arthur St. Clair as a justice of the peace. Also in 1802, Huntington, after vacillating between supporting Gov. St. Clair’s position to delay Ohio statehood and backing Jeffersonian Republicans’ desire for Ohio statehood, allied himself with the group of politicians, including Thomas Worthington, Edward Tiffin, Michael Baldwin and others dubbed the “Chillicothe Junto,” to support the cause of statehood for the Ohio Territory.
Huntington was elected a delegate to the 1802 Constitutional Convention to represent Trumbull County, where he acted in harmony with the “Chillicothe Junto” that dominated the convention’s proceedings. Following the Ohio constitution’s adoption by Ohio voters, Huntington was elected to the first session of the Ohio Senate after failing to win an appointment from President Thomas Jefferson as a federal judge. In the Senate, Huntington served as that body’s speaker pro tempore, drafted the first Senate rules, chaired the committee on elections and assisted in drafting legislation that established Ohio’s court system. Huntington also campaigned within the General Assembly for election to one of Ohio’s two U.S. Senate seats. Although he was unsuccessful in attaining that position, Huntington was named by the Ohio General Assembly on April 2, 1803, to a seat on the Supreme Court, where he was joined by Return Jonathan Meigs Jr. and William Sprigg. In 1804, Huntington succeeded Meigs, who resigned his Court seat as chief judge.
During the first session of the General Assembly, political divisions within the Jeffersonian Party occurred. Former Connecticut residents Huntington, Meigs and George Tod, who later joined the Supreme Court in 1806, emerged as leaders of the conservative wing of the Jeffersonian Republican Party, while the former Virginians who made up the “Chillicothe Junto” made up the liberal wing. The Supreme Court’s decision in Rutherford v. McFadden (1807 unreported) represented a victory for the conservatives when the Court asserted its right to nullify an act of the General Assembly on the grounds of unconstitutionality.
In newspaper accounts about the case, Huntington stated that while he knew of earlier decisions on the issue of courts declaring legislative enactments unconstitutional, he employed his own reasoning to the question. Huntington claimed to follow the reasoning in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Marbury v. Madison in declaring the supremacy of the Constitution, and in placing the interpretive power with the courts. Huntington declared, “Without quoting the authority of other decisions, though well aware that I am supported by the judgments of the Supreme Court of the United States, and every other court of the individual states, which has had the question before them, all of whom have decided that the courts of law possess the power of inquiring into the constitutionality of legislative acts.”
Calvin Pease, the presiding judge in the circuit court in the eastern district where the Rutherford case originated and George Tod, Huntington’s associate on the Court, were impeached by the Ohio General Assembly; their convictions failed by one vote. Huntington was spared impeachment, however, because in October 1808, he campaigned successfully for election as Ohio governor to replace interim Gov. Thomas Kirker, who remained in office following the General Assembly’s invalidation of Return Jonathan Meigs Jr.’s election because of Meigs’ lack of sufficient Ohio residency in 1807.
In his inaugural address, Huntington praised the foreign policy of President Jefferson, including the Embargo Act, but failed to mention the controversy brought about by his decision in the Rutherford case. In fact, during his tenure as governor, Huntington sidestepped the issue and played no role in seeking Pease’s or Tod’s acquittal. Huntington angered Federalists and conservative Jeffersonian Republicans by failing to take a stand on the “sweeping resolution” designed to oust all pro-Rutherford judges from office. Huntington chose not to seek re-election as governor and, instead, campaigning for a seat in the U.S. Senate to replace newly elected governor and former Sen. Meigs. Huntington was defeated by Thomas Worthington, however, on the sixth ballot.
In October 1811, Huntington was elected by voters of Ashtabula, Cuyahoga and Geauga counties to the Ohio House of Representatives. He launched an unsuccessful campaign to become that body’s speaker, but played an active role in the House’s proceedings, particularly in attempts to overturn the impact of the “sweeping resolution” on judicial appointments. Huntington chose not to seek re-election and his political career came to an end. During the War of 1812, following Gen. Hull’s defeat and surrender at Detroit, Huntington accompanied Lewis Cass to Washington, D.C. to report on military conditions in the West. While in Washington, President James Madison appointed Huntington a U.S. Army District Paymaster with the rank of colonel, a post he held throughout the war.
After the war, Huntington returned to his Fairport home, where in 1815, while supervising repairs on the road from his estate to the Fairport harbor, he suffered a broken leg. One June 8, 1817, Huntington died from the effects of the poorly healed leg and pulmonary disease. Burial took place in Evergreen Cemetery in Painesville.
Samuel Huntington married a distant cousin, Hannah Huntington in Connecticut on Dec. 20, 1791. Together, they raised five sons and one daughter.
b. Oct. 4, 1765
d. June 7, 1817
3rd Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio