- John McKinley and the Antebellum Supreme Court: Circuit Riding in the Old Southwest by Steven P. Brown
Professor Steven P. Brown makes a notable contribution in this judicial biography of Supreme Court Justice John McKinley. Brown employs wide-ranging research in numerous newspapers and private papers of McKinley’s political and judicial contemporaries. Brown’s constructive use of these sources ameliorates the research problem that McKinley left few known private papers and authored only a limited number of Supreme Court opinions. Generally, historians neglected the extensive evidence Brown has now developed, establishing a dominant but inaccurate interpretation of McKinley as an unimportant politician and Supreme Court Justice. Brown refutes the view that McKinley was insignificant in Jacksonian politics or on the Taney Court. Given Brown’s strong mobilization of previously unused sources, his inattention to certain secondary sources and some noteworthy McKinley opinions is surprising.
Born in 1780, the young McKinley migrated with his parents from Virginia to Lincoln County, Kentucky, a frontier borderland disputed by the Americans, Spain, Britain, and Indian tribes. By 1800 McKinley had abandoned the carpentry trade for admission to the Kentucky bar. While most accounts note these early beginnings, none do as well as Brown explaining that McKinley’s carpenter trade connected him with the agricultural and artisan producer economy which prevailed on the borderland. McKinley’s state and federal electoral successes reflected the practical experience he shared with those competing in the frontier producer economy. He shifted political loyalties among not only Democratic-Republicans, but also, initially, between these coalescing factions and the diminishing Federalists. By 1826 he combined politics with the recognition voiced by future-abolitionist James G. Birney that McKinley “stands” at the “head” of the state’s best legal “Bar” (45) in Madison County, North Alabama. Brown’s extensive explorations of news accounts and various private papers like Birney’s demonstrate that McKinley was an effective elected official and lawyer. A major contribution is Brown’s account of McKinley’s role in the Cypress Land Company, along with Andrew Jackson and others, during [End Page 188] the internationally-known “Alabama fever,” which shaped migration to and settlement of the “old southwest” between the Treaty of Ghent and the aftermath of the Missouri Compromise.
Located in the fluid politics and lawmaking of the “old southwest,” Brown explains McKinley’s rise within Jacksonian Democracy and appointment to the Supreme Court. McKinley knew, and at different times supported, both Henry Clay and Jackson. Brown skillfully tracks McKinley’s involvement in the complex Bank of the United State’s regional branch control of credit upon which small-producers and speculators depended during the Alabama land rush. Ultimately, McKinley sided with the state’s Jackson supporters who felt the losses incurred under the BUS credit obligations in Alabama’s troubled land deals. Elected to the Alabama assembly and the U.S. House and Senate, McKinley strengthened the bond with the state’s Jackson constituencies grappling with land and banking issues. Congress increased the size of the Supreme Court from seven to nine amidst the Panic of 1837 and the ensuing depression. Economic hardship further entangled old southwest land disputes in contentious bank credit. As a result, Jackson appointed Tennessee state judge John Catron to the Supreme Court; Martin Van Buren did the same for Alabama’s McKinley. McKinley’s appeals for more reasonably-apportioned federal circuits truly reflected the impediment 10,000 miles presented to providing legal services in the nation’s most extensive circuit. The relief McKinley’s agitation achieved was modest amidst the slave and free-labor states’ growing clash over the contested enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Brown is especially good at reconstituting the comparative operational arduousness of Supreme Court circuit riding. Nearly every member of the Court protested the system from 1789 when Congress created it to final abolition in 1891. McKinley traveled about three times farther than other member of the Taney Court. The rigors of circuit riding often prevented McKinley...