Today in History

Today in History: May 21

Reverdy Johnson

Zachary Taylor and His Cabinet
Zachary Taylor and His Cabinet, All Seated Except President Taylor (detail),
Mathew Brady's studio, 1849.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864
In this detail of President Zachary Taylor with his cabinet, Reverdy Johnson, attorney general, is seated at the far right. Click on the thumbnail for an enlargement showing the entire group portrait.

On May 21, 1796, attorney and statesman Reverdy Johnson was born in Annapolis, Maryland. Johnson represented Maryland, a slaveholding state south of the Mason-Dixon line, as a Whig, in the U.S. Senate from 1845-49 and again following the Civil War as a Democrat from 1863-68. Under President Zachary Taylor, he served as attorney general from 1849 until Taylor's death in 1850. Johnson was considered a brilliant constitutional lawyer and won an 1854 Supreme Court decision in favor of a patent for the McCormick reaper.

Men and machinery working in a field
Men binding grain being cut by McCormick's horse-drawn reaper, invented in 1831,
Photo by McCormick Company.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Although he personally opposed slavery and emancipated slaves inherited from his father, Johnson represented the slave-owning defendant in the 1857 Dred Scott case in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that slaves could not be citizens of the United States. The court's decision intensified antislavery sentiment in the North and fed the antagonism that sparked the Civil War. In 1865, the ruling was made obsolete with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery.

Contemporary condemnation of the Dred Scott decision can be found in the the minutes and sermon of the Second Presbyterian and Congregational Convention held in Philadelphia in 1858:

…it was Resolved, That the recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Dred Scott, the evident design of which is, to degrade and rob the free people of color of civil and political rights, to perpetuate Slavery, and dishearten true philanthropy in the United States: is alike a sin against God, and a crime against humanity; and that Judges Curtis and McLean, who dissented from the infamous decision, are worthy of all praise.

Motion of Rev. E. P. Rogers
The minutes and sermon of the Second Presbyterian and Congregational Convention, held in the Central Presbyterian Church, Lombard Street, Philadelphia, on October 28, 1858.
African-American Perspectives, 1818-1907

This map depicts free states in pink and slave states in dark green. The light green area in the West was composed of a number of territories at that time.

Map Comparing Slave and Free States
Reynold's Political Map of the United States…,
[New York]: William C. Reynolds, 1856.
The African American Odyssey

During the Civil War, Reverdy Johnson strove to keep Maryland in the Union as exemplified in a major address to a Unionist meeting in January 1861. He maintained a close relationship with the Lincoln administration by serving as a member of the failed Washington Peace Conference that met in February 1861. Two years later, he was sent by President Lincoln to New Orleans to investigate complaints about the Union occupation of the city. Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was supported by Johnson as evidenced in this meeting between the two in April 1861.

Johnson was moderate in his attitude toward post-Civil War reconstruction of the rebellious Southern states. When impeachment proceedings were brought against Andrew Johnson, largely for his lenient treatment of the South, Reverdy Johnson was instrumental in securing the president's acquittal.

Following a two-year appointment as minister to Great Britain from 1868-69, Johnson returned to his law practice in Annapolis where he died in 1876 as a result of a fall.

To learn more about the historical events in which Reverdy Johnson played a pivotal role:

Supreme Court Room
Supreme Court Room,inside the Capitol, Washington, D.C.,
William Henry Jackson, photographer, circa 1902.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920