McKinley, John Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As a Supreme Court justice, McKinley supported states’ rights over the authority of the federal government.

McKinley began his long, diverse political career in 1820 with a seat in the Alabama state legislature. In November, 1826, he entered the U.S. Senate upon the death of Henry Chambers. While a senator, he advocated governmental assistance to individual settlers as opposed to large land speculators. McKinley also favored bankruptcy laws that favored the small, landowning farmer. By 1829 he was chairman of the Senate committee on public lands. In 1830, however, McKinley was not reelected, and he returned to the Alabama state legislature. After two years, McKinley returned to Congress as a representative, but after one term, he was back in the state legislature and running again for the Senate.Van Buren, Martin;nominations to the Court

John McKinley

(Library of Congress)

McKinley was reelected senator but never took office. Congress increased the number of Supreme Court justices from seven to nine in March, 1837. President Andrew Jackson first offered a seat to William Smith of Alabama. When he refused, Jackson then offered it to McKinley, who accepted. President Martin Van Buren nominated McKinley on April 22, 1837. The Senate confirmed his nomination on September 25, 1837, and McKinley took his seat on January 9, 1838. He was assigned to the newly created Ninth Circuit, which included Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. McKinley claimed that his far-flung circuit, quite distant from Washington, D.C., was an overwhelming duty that required him to travel ten thousand miles a year, despite his relocation to Louisville, Kentucky, which placed him between the capital and his circuitCircuit riding.

In Bank of Augusta v. Earle[case]Bank of Augusta v. Earle[Bank of Augusta v. Earle] (1838), McKinley was the sole dissenter, claiming that a Georgia bank, as a foreign corporation, had no business in the sovereign state of Alabama.States’ rights The Court, however, held that while a state could exclude a foreign company from doing business, it must make its reasons or conditions clear, which Alabama had not, and ruled for the banks. In Lane v. Vick[case]Lane v. Vick[Lane v. Vick] (1845), McKinley dissented, stating that the Court had no interest in determining whether the Mississippi supreme court had been in error in a case involving a will because it had nothing to do with federal law. In Pollard v. Hagan[case]Pollard v. Hagan[Pollard v. Hagan] (1845), McKinley argued that, as territories became states, they should receive public lands from the federal government, which had granted them to the original thirteen states.

In the 1849 Passenger Cases, McKinley claimed that the federal government, not New York and Massachusetts, had authority over immigrants entering the two states from overseas until they became permanent residents of either state. Despite McKinley’s strong support of states’ rights, he was actually a moderate who acknowledged the necessity of occasional federal intervention.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Huebner, Timothy S. The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Miller, F. Thornton. “John McKinley.” In The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789-1993, edited by Clare Cushman. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1993.
  • Monroe, Elizabeth Brand. “John McKinley.” In The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Melvin I. Urofsky. New York: Garland, 1994.

Bank of Augusta v. Earle

Circuit riding

Passenger Cases

States’ rights and state sovereignty

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