5.2.4. The Midwest, 1820-1865: Key Legal Figures

Peter Hitchcock (Ohio Supreme Court, 1819-1833, 1835-1842, 1845-1852)

  • Hitchcock was born in Connecticut in 1781; he moved to northeast Ohio in 1806, where he established a successful law practice and became a state legislator and member of Congress.
  • Like many transplanted New Englanders, he became increasingly skeptical of popular democracy during the Jacksonian era and drifted into the Whig party.  Though he was often in the minority, his legal and political skills gained him repeated appointments to the supreme court beginning in 1819.  His longevity during an era when rapid court turnover was the rule gave him great influence among his colleagues.  Hitchcock’s major accomplishment on the court was establishing the court’s power to judge the constitutionality of statutes – an irony, because as a young Democratic legislator Hitchcock had supported a resolution declaring that the court had no such power. 
  • Hitchcock, though a conservative, was not a reactionary.  Near the end of his life, as a delegate to Ohio’s 1850 constitutional convention, he helped clear the way for popular election of judges, commenting that “if judges will be politicians, we cannot prevent it; but I do not apprehend much danger in the premises.”

Robert Dale Owen (Indiana - 1801-1877)

  • Owen, the son of the great British industrialist and socialist Robert Owen, was born in Scotland but emigrated to Indiana as a young man to help his father found New Harmony, one of the largest and most successful of the many Utopian colonies that dotted the Midwest in the early 19th century.  In the late 1820s he left the colony and joined forces with Frances Wright, a leading feminist and radical reformer of her day.  Owen and Wright founded a workingmen's party and toiled for Wright's other causes, including abolition and the removal of all legal limits on women's rights.
  • In 1833 Owen returned to Indiana, where he remained for most of the remainder of his life.  He had an important impact on Indiana law as a legislator and a member of the state's 1850 constitutional convention, where he led crusades for a free common school system, married women's property rights, women's suffrage, repeal of the state's black laws and liberalization of its divorce laws.  Owen excelled in his role as a gadfly:  few of his proposed reforms were immediately popular, but they attracted the attention of Hoosiers and many were ultimately adopted.  Toward the end of his life, he also contributed to the drafting of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution whcih permanently guaranteed basic civil rights to black Americans.

Salmon P. Chase (Ohio - 1808-1873)

  • Chase is best known for his role on the national stage as Ohio’s first abolitionist U.S. Senator and governor; as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, in which position he implemented far-reaching changes to American monetary and financial systems; and as Chief Justice of the United States from 1864 until his death in 1873.  But Chase also played an important role in Ohio legal history during his early career.
  • Chase was born in New Hampshire in 1808 and migrated to Cincinnati in 1830.  Though the city was closely linked to the South by commerce and sentiment, a substantial portion of its population, including Chase, was adamantly opposed to slavery.  Cincinnati was a magnet for fugitive slaves due to its location directly across the river from slaveholding Kentucky, and in 1837, as a young lawyer, Chase found his calling when James Birney, a local abolitionist, asked him to help Matilda, a captured fugitive slave, regain her freedom. 
  • During the next 20 years, Chase and Birney created the legal arm of the antislavery movement.  Chase did not always secure freedom for his clients, but he enjoyed some successes, including the Ohio supreme court’s decision in 1841 to create a presumption in favor of freedom:  slaveowners would have the burden of proving that a claimed fugitive slave really belonged to them.  Chase’s arguments gained increasing sympathy from Northern courts between 1840 and 1860:  many Midwestern judges became reluctant to support slavery in any way.   

Frederick Grimke (Ohio Supreme Court, 1836-42)

  • Grimke was born into a famous – and highly unusual family  His father, John Faucheraud Grimke, was a Revolutionary war hero and a pillar of South Carolina’s slaveholding society, but Frederick’s sisters, Sarah and Angelina, rebelled against slavery, moved North and became prominent speakers for the abolition cause.  Grimke’s brother fell in love with one of his slaves; they produced Francis and Archibald Grimke, who became leaders of the black professional community that slowly emerged in America after the Civil War.
  • Frederick became one of the cohort of early Midwestern settlers from the South:  he moved to Ohio in 1819 and with the assistance of other prominent Southern emigrants soon became a prosecutor and judge.  Heproduced no decisions of note during his short service on Ohio’s supreme court, but after he retired in 1842 he devoted the remainder of his life to producing Considerations Upon the Nature and Tendency of Free Institutions (1848), perhaps the most famous treatise expounding Jacksonian political principles.   

Sidney Breese (Illinois Supreme Court, 1841-42, 1857-78)

  • Breese was a major figure in early Illinois history.  He was born in New York in 1800, moved to Illinois in 1818 and soon became a leader of the then-dominant Democratic party.  After serving briefly on the supreme court, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served a single term (1843-49).  Breese conceived the idea of a transcontinental railroad stretching from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico and devoted much of his time in the Senate to securing support for such a railroad; as a result, he became known as the “father of the Illinois Central.” 
  • After returning to Illinois, Breese was reelected to the supreme court in 1857; he would spend the rest of his life there.  Breese was known as a judicial independent, one who “refined too much and could wrangle too little for a popular assembly.”  His most famous decisions include Bailey v. Cromwell (1841), the first case in which the court declared that blacks passing through Illinois from other states are presumed to be free, and Munn v. People (1873), the first great “Granger case,” in which he upheld the legislature’s right to regulate fares charged by railroads and other aspects of their operation.  Breese also compiled the first volume of Illinois supreme court reports (1831) and wrote a well-known Early History of Illinois (published posthumously, 1884). 


Justice Peter Hitchcock
Courtesy Wikipedia

Robert Dale Owen
Courtesy Wikipedia

Salmon P. Chase
Courtesy Wikipedia

Justice Sidney Breese
Courtesy Wikipedia