Swayne, Noah H. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The first of Abraham Lincoln’s five Supreme Court appointees, Swayne was chosen because of his strong unionist sentiment. He supported the administration’s war efforts during and after the Civil War.

Born in Virginia, Swayne moved to Ohio after earning his law degree. He spent several years serving as a state legislator and U.S. attorney. With the death of Justice John McLean, Swayne’s strong abolitionist views and loyalty to the Republican Party brought him to President Abraham Lincoln’s attention.Lincoln, Abraham;nominations to the Court

Noah H. Swayne

(Handy Studios/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Appointed to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, Swayne took office in January, 1862, and quickly became a consistent vote in favor of the Civil War and toward nationalistic policies of a more powerful federal government. Yet his support consisted of joining opinions rather than writing his own or leading the Court with his views. He joined the Court’s opinion in the Prize Cases[case]Prize Cases[Prize Cases] (1863), which upheld the initial decision by Lincoln to have the Union navy blockade Southern ports. After the war, he continued to support the Lincoln administration’s wartime measures by dissenting in Ex Parte Milligan[case]Milligan, Ex parte[Milligan, Ex parte] (1866). In Milligan, the Court struck down the use of military courts in noncombat areas where civilian courts remained open. He also dissented in Cummings v. Missouri[case]Cummings v. Missouri[Cummings v. Missouri] (1867) and Ex parte Garland[case]Garland, Ex parte[Garland, Ex parte] (1867). In both cases, the Court struck down loyalty oaths for state officials and employees in areas once controlled by Confederate governments.

Swayne’s nationalism was reflected in his broad interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment restricting the powers of state governments. He dissented in the first Court case interpreting the amendment, the Slaughterhouse Cases[case]Slaughterhouse Cases[Slaughterhouse Cases] (1873), in which the Court upheld a slaughterhouse monopoly against the contention that it violated the liberty rights of state citizens. In his dissent, Swayne supported a broad reading of the Fourteenth Amendment so as to restrict state regulatory power. He sought to use the Bill of Rights and the protections found there to protect state citizens from violation of their rights by state governments.

Part of Swayne’s loyalty to the Lincoln administration was attributed to his desire to become chief justice. After the death of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney in 1864, Swayne gathered congressional and administration support for his being promoted to the vacancy. However, lack of any substantive record for Swayne and the absence of any leadership skills caused Lincoln to nominate Salmon P. Chase. After Chase’s death in 1873, Swayne made another attempt at promotion, but his advanced age, sixty-nine, caused President Ulysses S. Grant to pass him over. With the chief justiceship beyond his reach, Swayne continued his unimpressive tenure, writing no memorable or landmark decisions during his almost nineteen years on the Court. In declining mental and physical health, he resigned on January 25, 1881.

Further Reading
  • Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
  • Fairman, Charles. Mr. Justice Miller and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939.
  • Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
  • Huebner, Timothy S. The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  • Lurie, Jonathan. The Chase Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Silver, David M. Lincoln’s Supreme Court. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956.
  • Stephenson, Donald Grier, Jr. The Waite Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.

Cummings v. Missouri

Lincoln, Abraham

Milligan, Ex parte

Prize Cases

Slaughterhouse Cases

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