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McLean, John

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Significance: As Supreme Court justice, McLean is remembered for his antislavery dissent in the 1857 case involving slave Dred Scott.


McLean was reared on a farm in Ohio and apprenticed with a lawyer in Cincinnati. He was admitted to the bar in 1807. Along with his legal career, he pursued newspaper publishing for a time before entering politics. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1812 on a prowar platform and reelected in 1814. A supporter of James Monroe, he served on the Ohio supreme court after his second term in Congress until Monroe, upon election to president, appointed him commissioner of the General Land Office and later postmaster general. When John Quincy Adams became president, McLean retained his post. A savvy player of the political game, McLean was able to lend his support to Andrew Jackson without losing his position as postmaster general. When Jackson gained the presidency, he appointed McLean to the Supreme Court on March 6, 1829. The appointment was confirmed the next day, although he was not sworn in until January of the following year. McLean replaced Robert Trimble, who had died the year before. Appointment to the Supreme Court was not the end of McLean's political ambitions. While serving, he maneuvered for the presidency, courting political groups of all stripes. He also sought to be chief justice, but his opinions on cases, in particular his pro-Indian vote in the Cherokee Cases, alienated him from Jackson. A devout Methodist, he recused himself from Smith v. Swormstedt (1853), which concerned a division within the church, but upheld the right of a private school to ban members of the clergy. McLean was a clear states’ right advocate in such cases as Briscoe v. Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky (1837) and Ex parte Dorr (1845), but he saw more complexity in the states’ rights issue as it applied to commerce, which caused Justice Benjamin R. Curtis to label him as one of the most federalist jurists on the bench. Nevertheless, McLean did not view copyright law as a federal prerogative in Wheaton v. Peters (1834), although today it is often considered that the wider intellectual property law jurisdiction is applied, the better. McLean is most remembered for his role in the infamous Scott v. Sandford (1857) case. He had never made a secret of his opposition to slavery, and he let it be known that he was not planning to endorse a narrowly worded or otherwise evasive opinion in the highly politicized case. His statement, in turn, prompted the pro-Southern justices to address the case squarely and issue the majority opinion of Roger Brooke Taney. As promised, McLean's dissenting opinion on behalf of Dred Scott did not mince words, and it led to his consideration for the Republican presidential nomination of 1860 despite his age. McLean has sometimes been blamed for provoking the Scott decision, but it seems more fair to blame the decision on those justices who supported it.