The American politician and judge John McLean (1785-1861) was perhaps the most politically conscious justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.
John McLean was born in Morris County, N.J., on March 11, 1785, to Fergus McLean, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian weaver turned farmer, and Sophia Blackford McLean. The family moved several times with stops in western Virginia and Kentucky before settling in Warren County, Ohio, about 40 miles from Cincinnati, in 1797. In this frontier atmosphere McLean managed to get an irregular but sound education. His legal education was gained, starting in 1804, by simultaneously serving as apprentice to the clerk of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas and reading law with Arthur St. Clair, Jr., for a 2-year period. In 1807 he founded a Jeffersonian weekly, Western Star, at Lebanon and married Rebecca Edwards. They had four daughters and three sons.
McLean became an enthusiastic Methodist through conversion by a circuit rider in 1811 and remained active in the faith throughout his life. Republican activities led in 1812 to his nomination and election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he supported the administration in the fight with England. In 1816 the Ohio Legislature elected him to the state supreme court. A preview of his work on the U.S. Supreme Court was his opinion in the case of the slave Thomas Lunsford, in which he engaged in obiter dicta, maintaining that slavery was contrary to natural justice, but that "as judge I am sworn to support the Constitution of the United States." In Congress, McLean had effectively supported James Monroe's nomination.
In 1822 McLean was appointed commissioner of the Public Land Office. The following year he was appointed postmaster general and through energy and ability brought expansion and efficiency to the office, where he remained until 1829. Through his example the postmastership was raised to Cabinet status in 1829. In the bitter Adams-Jackson campaign of 1828 McLean displayed enough political adroitness to be both retained by Adams and ultimately appointed to the Supreme Court by Jackson.
But if McLean's appointment was due to political acumen, he was also considered one of the two best lawyers in the West. There has been no thorough examination of all his opinions delivered in more than 30 years on the Federal bench, and thus his reputation as a judicial craftsman has suffered. With emphasis placed on his opinions in great cases in which his reasoning was based largely on nonlegal factors, McLean emerges as a nationalist who was well aware of the needs of the business community. He was, however, able to adjust his nationalism as circumstances provided. He also usually practiced judicial activism—considering questions that were not essential to the decision at hand, just as he had done on the state bench. The slavery questions illustrate well his values. In Groves v. Slaughter (1841), he upheld the right of Mississippi to restrict the introduction of slaves from other states. But even though it was "not necessary" to the decision, McLean restated his nationalism by holding that the power to regulate commerce rested exclusively with Congress. The following year in Prigg v. Pa., he continued his reasoning that slavery was subject only to state regulations by asserting that in the North "every person is presumed to be free regardless of color." Thus the personal liberty laws of northern states were constitutional. Finally, his insistence on discussing Congress's authority to prohibit slavery in the territories provided five proslavery justices with the excuse to respond and made the Dred Scott case a cause célèbre. In a long dissent he held that Scott should be free. McLean was the most pronounced opponent of slavery to sit in antebellum days.
A large, impressive man in appearance, McLean is known for the presidential aspirations which governed his last 30 years on the bench. Virtually every election saw him as an active contender, and virtually every party at one time or another received his attention; at the age of 75 he sought the Republican nomination. McLean was widowed in 1840 and he married again in 1843, to Sarah Bella Garrard. He died of pneumonia on April 4, 1861.
Further Reading on John McLean
Francis P. Weisenburger, The Life of John McLean: A Politician on the United States Supreme Court (1937), effectively treats McLean's political life but is less thorough on his judicial career.
Additional Biography Sources
McLean, John, The wind at my back: memoirs of an Irish immigrant, Riverdale, N.Y.: Malcolm Publications, 1995.