Maysville's Other Supreme Court Justice: John McLean
Having grown up in Maysville with a keen interest in history and the law, I read much about Mason County jurist, Stanley Forman Reed. Justice Reed was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. The Minerva native served with distinction until 1957 and spent his summers in Maysville at his historic ''Newdigate Tavern'' residence on Old U.S. 68 until his death in 1980.
During a recent conversation with Maysville Mayor David Cartmell, I was startled to hear of another Supreme Court Justice with ties to Maysville. John McLean was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who spent several years of his early life living in Maysville. John McLean was born on March 11, 1785 in Morristown, New Jersey, the son of Irish immigrants Fergus McLean and Sophia Blackford. Fergus McLean was a weaver by trade and served in the Revolutionary War. Fergus moved his family to the Frontier in 1789 and lived for short periods of time in Morgantown, West Virginia and Nicholasville, Kentucky, and later moved to Maysville in 1793. The McLeans' third son William was born in Maysville in 1794 and later served several terms in Congress as a Representative from Ohio's Third Congressional District. While living in Maysville, Fergus McLean purchased a farm on which he later laid out the town of Ridgeville, Ohio. In 1796, when John McLean was 11, he and his father walked the entire 75 miles from Maysville to the farm in Ohio, through hostile Indian territory, to clear the land and plant corn.
The family ultimately migrated north in 1799 to Warren County, Ohio. Young John McLean was sent to Cincinnati where he studied law and apprenticed with a prominent Cincinnati lawyer. McLean was admitted to the Bar in 1807 and commenced his practice in Lebanon, Ohio. His son Nathaniel was educated at Augusta College before it was relocated to Wilmore and became Asbury College.
McLean, a Democrat who later changed parties several times, was twice elected to the United States House of Representatives but resigned in 1816 to take a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court. In 1822 he was appointed by President James Monroe as Commissioner of the General Land Office and served until President Monroe appointed him Postmaster General of the United States in 1829. McLean was to serve as Postmaster General under Presidents, Monroe and John Quincy Adams, until 1829. A strong supporter of Andrew Jackson, he was offered several cabinet posts, including Secretary of War, but chose instead to accept an appointment to the United States Supreme Court. McLean was sworn in on January 11, 1830 and served on the Court for 31 years until his death on April 4, 1861. Many historians believe that Jackson appointed McLean to the Court to quell his political ambitions. Notwithstanding his position on the Court, Justice McLean sought the presidency from the bench, as a member of the new Republican Party in 1856 and 1860, but was unsuccessful primarily due to his fierce anti-slavery position.
During Justice McLean's tenure on the Court, he dissented in one of the most important and controversial decisions in the history of the United States Supreme Court. In the 1856 case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, a slave tried to claim his freedom on the grounds that his former master had taken him to and they had lived for a time in the free states of Illinois and Minnesota before returning to Missouri. The Court decided that all people of African descent, slaves as well as those who were free, were property and could never become citizens of the United States and therefore could not sue in Federal Court. The Court also ruled that the federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in its territories. The decision also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820, legislation which restricted slavery in several territories, unconstitutional. As a result of the decision, Dred Scott remained a slave but was later set free by the sons of his former master and died nine months later. Justice McLean wrote a powerful anti-slavery dissenting opinion which was believed to have forced Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney into a more polarizing opinion than he had originally planned.
The Dred Scott decision greatly influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 by the Republican Party and his subsequent election, which in turn led to the South's secession from the Union and the Civil War.
Steve is a Maysville native and practices law in Lexington, Kentucky.