Brown, Henry B. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Appointed to the Supreme Court largely for his expertise in admiralty law, Brown ultimately was remembered as the author of the 1896 opinion upholding the legality of “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites.

Born into a wealthy merchant family in South Lee, Massachusetts, Brown graduated from Yale University in 1856. He moved to Detroit, Michigan, three years later and studied law at a private law office, subsequently completing his legal education by attending lectures at both Harvard and Yale. Admitted to the bar in 1860, Brown was appointed deputy U. S. marshall for Michigan one year later and in 1868 resigned his position to begin a lucrative private practice in Detroit.Separate but equal doctrine;Brown, Henry B.[Brown, Henry B.]Harrison, Benjamin;nominations to the CourtSeparate but equal doctrine;Brown, Henry B.[Brown, Henry B.]

Henry B. Brown

(Library of Congress)

Republican Brown made an unsuccessful bid for Congress before securing an appointment by President Ulysses S. Grant as U.S. District Court judge for eastern Michigan. Appointed in 1875, he acquired a nationwide reputation as an authority on admiralty law. The large number of admiralty cases arising out of shipping on the Great Lakes made Brown’s Admiralty Reports universally accepted as the final word on that area of the law. He also became a regular lecturer on that topic at Michigan University.

Appointed to the Supreme Court by Benjamin Harrison in 1890, Brown took his seat on January 5, 1891. He acquired a reputation for impartiality, patience, courtesy, and a willingness to admit past errors during his fifteen years of service. Justice Brown was viewed as a moderate who favored property rights over civil rights. Concurring with the majority in Lochner v. New York[case]Lochner v. New York[Lochner v. New York] (1905), he rejected New York’s maximum-hour workday law as a violation of contractual freedom. Brown also joined the Court in its unanimous ruling destroying the power of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 in United States v. E. C. Knight Co.[case]E. C. Knight Co., United States v.[E. C. Knight Co., United States v.] (1895). He was the only northern justice to vote to uphold the legality of the income tax in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.[case]Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.[Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.] (1895) and authored opinions sanctioning the acquisition of Puerto Rico by the United States. However, Brown’s most famous (or infamous) opinion was in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson[case]Plessy v. Ferguson[Plessy v. Ferguson]. By upholding a Louisiana statute allowing for “separate but equal” facilities in that state’s public transportation system, he in effect incorporated the concept of Jim Crow into the U.S. Constitution and thus initiated a constitutional crisis that was not to begin to correct itself until the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.

Brown’s abilities were severely impaired when a malady cost him his sight in his right eye in 1900 and rendered him unable to work without the assistance of others. The next year, Brown was further weakened by the death of his wife of thirty-seven years. Brown remarried in 1904 and retired from the bench two years later.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Ely, James W., Jr. The Fuller Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Glennon, Robert Jerome. Justice Henry Billings Brown: Values in Tension. Denver: University of Colorado Law Review, 1971.

Admiralty and maritime law

Insular Cases

Plessy v. Ferguson

Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust Co.

Categories: History Content