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Morrison Waite

Morrison Waite
7th Chief Justice of the United States
In office
March 4, 1874 – March 23, 1888
Appointed by Ulysses Grant
Preceded by Salmon Chase
Succeeded by Melville Fuller
Personal details
Born Morrison Remick Waite
(1816-11-29)November 29, 1816
Lyme, Connecticut, U.S.
Died March 23, 1888(1888-03-23) (aged 71)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political party Whig (Before 1854)
Republican (1854–1888)
Spouse(s) Amelia Champlin Warner
Children Henry Seldon
Christopher Champlin
Edward Tinker
Mary Frances
Alma mater Yale University
Religion Episcopalianism

Morrison Remick "Mott" Waite (November 29, 1816 – March 23, 1888) was an attorney and politician in Ohio. He served as the seventh Chief Justice of the United States from 1874 to his death in 1888. During his tenure, the Supreme Court took a narrow interpretation of federal authority related to laws and amendments that were passed during Reconstruction to expand the rights of freedmen and protect them from attacks by vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Marriage and family 2
  • Political and legal career 3
    • Supreme Court nomination 3.1
  • The Waite Court, 1874–1888 4
  • Role in corporate personhood controversy 5
  • Champion of education opportunities for blacks 6
  • Frankfurter's view of Waite 7
  • Death 8
  • Legacy 9
  • Quotations 10
  • See also 11
  • Notes 12
  • References 13
  • Further reading 14
  • External links 15

Early life and education

Morrison Remick Waite was born in 1816 at Lyme, Connecticut, the son of Henry Matson Waite, an attorney, and his wife Maria Selden. His father later was appointed as a judge of the Superior Court and associate judge of the Supreme Court of Connecticut, serving 1834–1854; and appointed as chief justice of the latter from 1854–1857. Morrison had a brother Richard, with whom he later practiced law.

Waite attended Bacon Academy in Colchester, Connecticut, where one of his classmates was Lyman Trumbull. He graduated from Yale University in 1837 in a class with Samuel J. Tilden, who later was the 1876 Democratic presidential nominee. As a student at Yale, Waite became a member of the Skull and Bones and Brothers in Unity [1] societies and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837.[2]

Soon afterward Waite moved to Maumee, Ohio, where he studied law as an apprentice in the office of Samuel L. Young. He was admitted to the bar in 1839, and went into practice with his mentor. He was elected to one term as mayor of Maumee.

Marriage and family

He married Amelia Champlin Warner on September 21, 1840 in Hartford, Connecticut. They had three sons together: Henry Seldon, Christopher Champlin, and Edward Tinker; and a daughter Mary Frances Waite.

Political and legal career

In 1850, Waite and his family moved to Toledo, where he set up a branch office of his law firm with Young. He soon came to be recognized as a leader of the state bar. When Young retired in 1856, Waite built a prosperous new firm with his brother Richard Waite.

An active member of the Whig Party, Waite was elected to a term in the Ohio Senate in 1849–1850. He made two unsuccessful bids for the United States Senate, and was offered (but declined) a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court. In the mid-1850s, because of his opposition to slavery, Waite joined the fledgling Republican Party and helped to organize it in his home state.

In 1871, Waite received a surprise invitation to represent the United States (along with William M. Evarts and Caleb Cushing) as counsel before the Alabama Tribunal at Geneva. In his first national role, he gained acclaim when he won a $15 million award from the tribunal. In 1872, he was selected to preside over the Ohio constitutional convention.

Supreme Court nomination

Waite's Chief Justice nomination

President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Waite as Chief Justice on January 19, 1874, after a political circus related to the appointment. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase died in May 1873, and Grant waited six months before first offering the seat in November to the powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, who declined.

After ruling out a promotion of a sitting Democrat and former Attorney General Caleb Cushing, but withdrew it after Republican Senators alleged Civil War-era connections between Cushing and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Finally, after persistent lobbying from Ohioans, including Interior Secretary Columbus Delano, on January 19, 1874, Grant nominated the little-known Waite. He was notified of his nomination by a telegram.

The nomination was not well received in political circles. The former Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, remarked of Waite that, "It is a wonder that Grant did not pick up some old acquaintance, who was a stage driver or bartender, for the place," and the political journal The Nation, said "Mr Waite stands in the front-rank of second-rank lawyers." Nationwide sentiment, however, was relief that a non-divisive and competent choice had been made, and Waite was confirmed unanimously as Chief Justice on January 21, 1874, receiving his commission the same day.[3][4] Waite took the oaths of office on March 4, 1874.[4][5]

The Waite Court, 1874–1888

Chief Justice Waite never became a significant intellectual force on the Supreme Court. But his managerial and social skill, "especially his good humor and sensitivity to others, helped him to maintain a remarkably harmonious and productive court."[6] During Waite's tenure, the Court decided some 3,470 cases. In part, the large number of cases decided and the variety of issues confronted reflected the lack of discretion the Court had at the time in hearing appeals from lower federal and state courts. However, Waite demonstrated an ability to get his brethren to reach decisions and write opinions without delay. His own work habits and output were formidable: he drafted one-third of these opinions.[6]

In matters of regulation over economic activity, he supported broad national authority, stating his opinion that federal commerce powers must “keep pace with the progress of the country.” In the same vein, a primary theme in his opinions was the balance of federal and state authority.[6] These opinions influenced Supreme Court jurisprudence well into the 20th century.[4]

This notion was also evident in the Waite Court's decisions dealing with the scope and meaning of the Reconstruction Amendments and the rights of blacks in the south.[6]

In United States v. Cruikshank, the court overturned the convictions of three men accused of massacring at least 105 blacks in the Colfax massacre at the Grant Parish, Louisiana, courthouse on Easter 1873. The convictions under the Enforcement Act were thrown out not because the statutes were unconstitutional but because the indictments under which the men were charged were infirm, and did not specifically allege that the murders were committed on account of the victims' race (“We may suspect that race was the cause of the hostility, but it is not so averred.”[6]

Waite's social and political orientation was apparent in the Court's response to claims by other groups. In Minor v. Happersett (1875), using the restricted definition of national citizenship and the 14th Amendment as set forth in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), Waite upheld the states' right to deny women the franchise. But Waite sympathized with the women's rights movement and supported the admission of women to the Supreme Court bar.[6]

After suffering a breakdown, probably due to overwork, he refused to retire. Almost to the moment of his death, he was still drafting opinions and leading the Court.[6]

In the cases that grew out of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and especially in those that involved the interpretation of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, he sympathized with the general tendency of the court to make narrow interpretations of these amendments. In a particularly notable ruling in United States v. Cruikshank, the court struck down the Enforcement Act, ruling that the states had to be relied on to protect citizens from attack by other private citizens.

"The very highest duty of the States, when they entered into the Union under the Constitution, was to protect all persons within their boundaries in the enjoyment of these 'unalienable rights with which they were endowed by their Creator.' Sovereignty, for this purpose, rests alone with the States. It is no more the duty or within the power of the United States to punish for a conspiracy to falsely imprison or murder within a State, than it would be to punish for false imprisonment or murder itself." He concluded that "We may suspect that race was the cause of the hostility but is it not so averred."

He believed that white moderates should set the rules of racial relations in the South. But, those states were not prepared to protect African Americans. They did not prosecute most lynchings or paramilitary attacks against blacks. The majority of the Court and the people outside the South were tired of the bitter racial strife related to Reconstruction. In the 1870s, white Democrats regained power in southern legislatures; they passed Jim Crow laws suppressing blacks as second-class citizens. After years of elections surrounded by fraud and violence to suppress black voting, from 1890-1908 all the Democrat-dominated southern state legislatures passed new constitutions or amendments that disfranchised most African Americans and many poor whites in the South. These laws had effect well into the 1960s, excluding those groups from the political system.

In his opinion of Munn v. Illinois (1877), which was one of a group of six Granger cases involving Populist-inspired state legislation to fix maximum rates chargeable by grain elevators and railroads, Waite said that when a business or private property was "affected with a public interest" it was subject to governmental regulation. Thus, the Court was ruling against charges that Granger laws constituted encroachment of private property without due process of law and conflicted with the Fourteenth Amendment. This famous opinion was often regarded as a milestone in the growth of federal government regulation.[7] The ardent New Dealers in the Franklin Roosevelt administration looked to Munn v. Illinois to guide them in matters like due process, commerce and contract clauses.

Waite concurred with the majority in the Head Money Cases (1884), the Ku-Klux Case (United States v. Harris, 1883), the Civil Rights Cases (1883), Pace v. Alabama (1883), and the Legal Tender Cases (including Juilliard v. Greenman) (1883). Among his own most important opinions were those in the Enforcement Act Cases (1875), the Sinking Fund Cases (1878), the Railroad Commission Cases (1886) and the Telephone Cases (1887).

In 1876, when there was talk about a third term for President Grant, some Republicans turned to Waite. They believed he was a better presidential nominee for the Republican Party than the scandal-tainted Grant. Waite turned down the idea, arguing "my duty was not to make it a stepping stone to someone else but to preserve its purity and make my own name as honorable as that of any of my predecessors." In the aftermath of the presidential election of 1876, he refused to sit on the Electoral Commission that decided the electoral votes of Florida because of his close friendship of GOP presidential nominee Rutherford B. Hayes and his classmateship with the Democratic presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden with whom Waite studied at Yale College.

As Chief Justice he swore in Presidents Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland.

Role in corporate personhood controversy

Justice Waite's remark during a Fourteenth Amendment case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, 118 U.S. 394 (1886), inserted dictum in the headnotes by court reporter John Chandler Bancroft Davis, may be the original basis for the recognition of corporations having the legal rights of a person:

"The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does."[8]

Champion of education opportunities for blacks

Waite was one of the Peabody Trustees of Southern Education and was a vocal advocate to aiding schools for the education of blacks in the South.

Frankfurter's view of Waite

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said of him:

"He did not confine the constitution within the limits of his own experience.... The disciplined and disinterested lawyer in him transcended the bounds of the environment within which he moved and the views of the client whom he served at the bar".


Chief Justice Waite died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 1888. This created a stir in Washington, as there had been no hint that his illness was serious. His condition had been treated as confidential, in part to avoid alarming his wife who was in California. The Washington Post devoted its entire front page to his demise. Large crowds joined in the mourning. Except for Justices Bradley and Matthews, all the justices accompanied his body on the special train that went to Toledo, Ohio. Mrs. Waite traveled by train from California, arriving just in time for the funeral.

Published reports indicated the Chief Justice would be buried in a family plot he had purchased in Forest Hill Cemetery, but he was not interred there.[9][10] For unknown reasons, his remains were interred under a monument in Woodlawn Cemetery, Plot: Section 42, by the river in Toledo, Ohio.

Waite, who had financial difficulties during his service as Chief Justice, left a very small estate that was insufficient to support his widow and daughters. Members of the organized Bar in Washington and New York raised money to create two funds for the benefit of Waite's family members.[11]



See also


  1. ^ *"Bonesmen 1833-1899". Fleshing Out Skull and Bones. 
  2. ^ "Supreme Court Justices Who Are Phi Beta Kappa Members", Phi Beta Kappa website, accessed Oct 4, 2009
  3. ^ "Morrison Waite". Federal Judicial Center. 2009-12-12. Retrieved 2012-05-21. 
  4. ^ a b c "Morrison R. Waite".  
  5. ^ "Oaths of Office Taken by the Chief Justices". Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved May 22, 2012. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Grand Concourse, The Ohio Judicial Center, Supreme Court of Ohio
  7. ^  
  8. ^ 118 U.S. 394 (1886) - Official court Syllabus in the United States Reports
  9. ^ , YearbookHere Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the JusticesChristensen, George A. (1983) at the Wayback Machine (archived September 3, 2005) Supreme Court Historical Society.
  10. ^ Christensen, George A., Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, Pages 17 - 41 (Feb 19, 2008), University of Alabama.
  11. ^ Ira Brad Matetsky, "The Waite Funds", 18 Green Bag 2d 173 (Winter 2015).
  12. ^ Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113, as quoted by Paul Rodgers, United States Constitutional Law: An Introduction, McFarland, 2011, p. 202.


Further reading

  • Abraham, Henry J. (1992). Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court (3rd ed.). New York:  
  • Cushman, Clare (2001). The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1995 (2nd ed.). (  
  • Frank, John P. (1995). Friedman, Leon; Israel, Fred L., eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Chelsea House Publishers.  
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed. (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.  
  • Magrath, C. Peter, ed. (1963). Morrison R. Waite: The Triumph of Character. New York: Macmillan. 
  • Martin, Fenton S.; Goehlert, Robert U. (1990). The U.S. Supreme Court: A Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Books.  
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. (1994). The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing. p. 590.  

External links

Legal offices
Preceded by
Salmon Chase
Chief Justice of the United States
Succeeded by
Melville Fuller
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