Noah Haynes Swayne

Noah Swayne
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
January 24, 1862  January 24, 1881
Nominated by Abraham Lincoln
Preceded by John McLean
Succeeded by Stanley Matthews
Personal details
Born (1804-12-07)December 7, 1804
Frederick County, Virginia, U.S.
Died June 8, 1884(1884-06-08) (aged 79)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political party Democratic (Before 1856)
Republican (1856–1890)
Spouse(s) Sarah Swayne
Religion Quaker

Noah Haynes Swayne (December 7, 1804 – June 8, 1884) was an American jurist and politician. He was the first Republican appointed as a justice to the United States Supreme Court.

Birth and early life

Swayne was born in Frederick County, Virginia in the uppermost reaches of the Shenandoah Valley, approximately 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Washington D.C. He was the youngest of nine children of Joshua Swayne and Rebecca (Smith) Swayne.[1] He was a descendant of Francis Swayne, who emigrated from England in 1710 and settled near Philadelphia.[2] After his father died in 1809, Noah was educated locally until enrolling in Jacob Mendendhall's Academy in Waterford, Virginia, a respected Quaker school 1817-18. He began to study medicine in Alexandria, Virginia, but abandoned this pursuit after his teacher Dr. George Thornton died in 1819. Despite his family having no money to support his continued education, he read law under John Scott and Francis Brooks in Warrenton, Virginia, and was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1823.[3] A devout Quaker (and to date the only Quaker to serve on the Supreme Court), Swayne was deeply opposed to slavery, and in 1824 he left Virginia for the free state of Ohio. His abolitionist sentiments caused him to move to Ohio.[4]

He began a private practice in Coshocton and, in 1825, was elected Coshocton County Attorney. Four years later he was elected to the Ohio state legislature. In 1830 he was appointed U.S. Attorney for Ohio by Andrew Jackson, and moved to Columbus to take up the new position.

While serving as U.S. Attorney, Swayne was elected in 1834 to the Columbus City Council, and in 1836 to the Ohio House of Representatives. As U.S. Attorney, Swayne became close friends with Supreme Court justice John McLean. McLean, by the end of his career, was a strong Republican, and when the party was formed in 1855 Swayne had become an early member and political organizer.

In 1835, as escalating tensions in the boundary dispute between Ohio and Michigan Territory (the Toledo War) threatened to erupt into violent conflict, Ohio Governor Robert Lucas dispatched Swayne, along with former Congressman William Allen and David T. Disney, to Washington D.C. to confer with President Andrew Jackson. The delegation presented Ohio's case and urged the President to act swiftly to address the situation.[5] [6] [7]

Supreme Court service

John McLean was one of two dissenters in the Dred Scott case. He sought the Republican nomination for President in 1860, losing to Abraham Lincoln. However, he recommended to Lincoln on a number of occasions that Swayne be nominated to replace him on the court. This proved timely; McLean died shortly after Lincoln's inauguration, in April 1861. As the American Civil War began, Swayne campaigned for the vacant seat, lobbying several Ohio members of Congress for their support. As the Supreme Court media itself notes: "Swayne satisfied Lincoln's criteria for appointment: commitment to the Union, slavery opponent, geographically correct."[8]

It is also believed that Swayne had also represented fugitive slaves in court. So eight months after McLean's death, Swayne was nominated, on January 21, 1862.[9] The nomination was confirmed by the United States Senate on January 24, 1862, with Swayne receiving his commission the same day.[10]

In the Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873) -- a pivotal decision on the meaning of Section 1 of the relatively new Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution—Swayne dissented with Justices Stephen J. Field and Joseph Bradley. Field's dissent was important, and presaged later decisions broadening the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, four years later Swayne joined the majority in Munn v. Illinois, with Field still dissenting.[9]

Swayne's potential judicial greatness failed to materialize. He was the first of President Lincoln's five appointments to the Supreme Court: Noah Hayes Swayne – 1862; Samuel Freeman Miller – 1862; David Davis – 1862; Stephen Johnson Field – 1863; and Salmon P. ChaseChief Justice – 1864. He is also said to have been "the weakest".[11] [12] His main distinction was his staunch judicial support of the president's war measures: the Union blockade (Prize Cases, 67 U.S. 635 (1862)); issuance of paper money (i.e., greenbacks); and support for the presidential prerogative to declare martial law (Ex Parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866)).[13]

He is most famous for his majority opinion in Springer v. United States, 102 U.S. 586 (1881), which upheld the Federal income tax imposed under the Revenue Act of 1864.[14]

In Gelpcke v. Dubuque 68 U.S. 175 (1864) Swayne wrote the majority opinion, repudiating a claim that the Iowa constitution could impair legal obligations to bondholders. When contracts are made on the basis of trust in past judicial decisions those contracts could not be impaired by any subsequent construction of the law. "We shall never immolate truth, justice, and the law, because a state tribunal has erected the altar and decreed the sacrifice." He strongly supported "the contractual rights of railroad bond holders, "even in the face of repudiation sanctioned both by the Iowa state legislature and state supreme court. Obligations sacred to law are not to be destroyed simply because 'a state tribunal has erected the altar and decreed the sacrifice.'"[13] [15] For a later decision on impairment of contracts, compare Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905).

Swayne remained on the court until 1881, twice lobbying unsuccessfully to be elevated to the position of Chief Justice (after the death of Roger Taney in 1864 and Salmon Chase in 1873).[9]

After his retirement, Swayne returned to Ohio.

Retirement, death and legacy

Swayne is not regarded as a particularly distinguished justice. He wrote few opinions, usually signing on to opinions written by others, and remained on the court well past his physical prime, being quite infirm at his retirement. Under pressure from President Rutherford B. Hayes, he finally agreed to retire on the condition that his friend and fellow Ohio attorney Stanley Matthews replace him.[13]

His son, Wager Swayne, served in the American Civil War, rose to the rank of Major General, served as the military governor of Alabama after the Civil War, and subsequently founded law firms in Toledo, Ohio and New York City. Wager's son, named Noah Hayes Swayne after his grandfather, was president of Burns Brothers, the largest coal distributor in the U.S. when he retired in September 1932. Another of Wager's sons, Alfred Harris Swayne, was vice president of General Motors Corporation.[16]

Another of Justice Swayne's sons, Noah Swayne, was a lawyer in Toledo and donated the land for Swayne Field, the former field for the Toledo Mud Hens baseball team.[17]

Justice Swayne's remains were buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.[18] The Georgetown graveyard overlooks Rock Creek, and is shared with: Chief Justice Edward Douglass White; and "almost-Justice" Edwin M. Stanton (President Ulysses S. Grant's nomination of him was confirmed by the Senate, but Stanton died before he could be sworn in). Also, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase was buried there, but his body was transferred after 14 years to Cincinnati, Ohio's Spring Grove Cemetery.[18][19]

A collection of Swayne's legal papers, pre-dating his service as a Justice, is housed at the Ohio Historical Society, and correspondence with him is also located at other repositories.[20]

See also



  1. Stephenson, Donald Grier, Jr. (2003). The Waite Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. ABC-CLIO. pp. 63–69. ISBN 1-57607-829-9.
  2. Johnson, Rossiter; John Howard Brown (1904). The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. 10. Boston: The Biographical Society. pp. s.v. Swain. OCLC 16845677.
  3. Stephenson, p. 65
  4. Noah H. Swayne at Ohio History Central
  5. "American Law Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, Noah Hayes Swayne.".
  6. Way, Willard V. (2005) [1869]. "The Toledo War". The facts and historical events of the Toledo war of 1835. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Library. p. 33. Retrieved 2009-02-28.
  7. Galloway, Tod B. (1895). "The Ohio-Michigan Boundary Line Dispute". Ohio History. Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society. 4: 221. Retrieved 2009-02-28.
  8. Oyez: Noah Haynes Swayne Biography, U.S. Supreme Court Media
  9. 1 2 3 "Ariens, Michael, Noah Swayne.".
  10. Huebner, Timothy S. (2003). The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. ABC-CLIO Supreme Court Handbooks. ABC-CLIO. pp. 103–6. ISBN 1-57607-368-8.
  11. Silver, David Mayer (1998) [1956]. Lincoln's Supreme Court. University of Illinois Press. pp. 103–6. ISBN 0-252-06719-3. Details Swayne's appointment to the Supreme Court and his quests for the chief judgeship using the correspondence between Samuel J. Tilden and Lincoln.
  12. 1 2 3 "Lurie, Jonathon, Noah Swayne at".
  13. Biography of Noah Hayes Swayne, Sixth Circuit United States Court of Appeals.
  14. Oyez: Gelpcke v. Dubuque, U.S. Supreme Court Media
  15. "Personnel", TIME, September 26, 1932, accessed March 1, 2009
  16. "Swayne Field", Toledo's Attic, accessed March 1, 2009
  17. 1 2 "Christensen, George A. (1983) Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices, Yearbook". Archived from the original on September 3, 2005. Retrieved September 3, 2005. Supreme Court Historical Society.
  18. See also, Christensen, George A., Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, Pages 17 - 41 (19 Feb 2008), University of Alabama.
  19. Location of papers, Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Further reading

  • Abraham, Henry J. (1992). Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506557-3. 
  • Barnes, William Horatio. (1875) "Noah H. Swayne, Associate Justice. -- In The Supreme Court of the United States", by W. Barnes. Part II of Barnes's Illustrated Cyclopedia of the American Government.
  • Bibliography, biography and location of papers, Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
  • Cushman, Clare (2001). The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1995 (2nd ed.). (Supreme Court Historical Society, Congressional Quarterly Books). ISBN 1-56802-126-7. 
  • Frank, John P. (1995). Friedman, Leon; Israel, Fred L., eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0-7910-1377-4. 
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed. (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505835-6. 
  • Martin, Fenton S.; Goehlert, Robert U. (1990). The U.S. Supreme Court: A Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Books. ISBN 0-87187-554-3. 
  • Simon, James F. (2006). Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 336. ISBN 0-7432-9846-2. 
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. (1994). The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing. p. 590. ISBN 0-8153-1176-1. 
Legal offices
Preceded by
John McLean
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
Stanley Matthews
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