Harmon was born February 3, 1846, in Newton, Hamilton County, Ohio, the oldest of eight children of Benjamin Franklin Harmon and Julia Bronson Harmon. Because his father was a teacher, the young Harmon was schooled at home. Later, when his father entered the ministry, Harmon attended public schools. An apt student, he was enrolled at Denison University by the age of sixteen, and he graduated in 1866.
The Civil War was an ever present intrusion on Harmon's college years. Funds for education were scarce, and young men were needed on the battlefield, not in the classroom. Harmon often earned money between terms by serving with local militia units responsible for defending his home district against Southern raids. He was profoundly affected by the assassination of President abraham lincoln in 1865. When Lincoln's body lay in state in Springfield, Ohio, Harmon went through the line of mourners three times. Years later, he said that he had been in awe—and that he had never seen such a crowd of sad and disheartened people.
After graduating from college, Harmon moved to Columbus, Ohio, and followed his father into the teaching profession. He lasted a year. Upon deciding to pursue a legal career, he moved to Cincinnati and read law in the office of George Hoadly. He received his law degree at Cincinnati Law School in 1869, and he was admitted to the Ohio bar the following year. In June 1870, Harmon married Olivia Scobey, of Hamilton, Ohio, and settled into the life of a successful young attorney.
After seven years of practice, Harmon was elected judge of the common pleas court in Cincinnati; two years later, he was elected to the local superior court. He left the bench in 1887 when his teacher and mentor, Hoadly, was elected governor of Ohio. To help his old friend with the transition to public office, Harmon assumed Hoadly's caseload at the firm of Hoadly, Johnson, and Colston. At Hoadly's urging, Harmon also took a greater interest in national politics. Though Harmon had originally supported the republican party on war issues, he found himself unable to support its program of Reconstruction after the Civil War. By 1887, Harmon was closely associated with Hoadly's supporters, the conservative faction of the democratic party in Ohio.
Harmon's ties to the governor and the state Democratic party reaped rewards. In June 1895, President Cleveland appointed Harmon to succeed richard olney as attorney general of the United States. In this office, Harmon established a national reputation as a lawyer. As attorney general, he directed several major antitrust prosecutions, including one against the Trans-Missouri
Freight Association (United States v. Trans-Missouri Freight Ass'n, 166 U.S. 290, 17 S. Ct. 540, 41 L. Ed. 1007 ) and one against the Addyston Pipe and Steel Company (United States v. Addyston Pipe & Steel Co., 78 Fed. 712 [E.D. Tenn. 1897]).
In United States v. Texas, 162 U.S. 1, 16 S. Ct. 725, 40 L. Ed. 867 (1896), a water rights case, he espoused a theory of absolute territorial sovereignty that has come to be known as the Harmon doctrine. Harmon said, "[T]he rules, principles and precedents of international law imposed no liability or obligation on the United States" to let parts of the waters that were diverted upstream by the United States flow to Mexico. According to Harmon, nations had exclusive jurisdiction and control over the uses of all waters within their boundaries. (Since Harmon's time, the Harmon doctrine has been
largely superseded by the concepts of state responsibility and global citizenship.)
Following his term as attorney general, Harmon resumed practice in Cincinnati, but he was never far from the national spotlight. In 1905, he was appointed by President theodore roosevelt to head a commission investigating the business practices of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. Harmon helped to trace a million dollars in kickbacks—or rebates, as they were then called—to a railroad traffic manager named Paul Morton. The commission's findings embarrassed the president because Morton had left the railroad to become Roosevelt's secretary of the Navy. Harmon urged prosecution of the responsible railroad officials, but Roosevelt interceded, and charges were never brought. Harmon was disappointed in the president's actions. He believed that individuals were accountable for their activities, even when those activities were carried out on behalf of a corporate entity. Harmon's observation that "guilt is always personal" became a theme in his subsequent political campaigns.
By 1908, Harmon had reasserted himself in the politics of his home state. His reputation as a conservative Democrat made him the logical person to help the Democrats challenge the long-standing Republican control of Ohio state politics.
At the Ohio state Democratic convention of May 1908, Harmon became the nominee of his party. He went on to win the gubernatorial election over a Republican incumbent—even though a Republican presidential candidate, william howard taft, carried the state. In his first term as governor, Harmon waged war on corporate graft and corruption and created a state office of business administration.
Harmon won a second term easily—even though former president Roosevelt, still bearing a grudge from the Morton incident, came to Ohio to assist the opposition. In his second term, Harmon remained conservative but began to feel the pressures of the Progressive wave sweeping the nation. This Progressive movement was made up of those who supported more government involvement and oversight in programs aimed at helping ordinary citizens. Bowing to that pressure, his administration supported a number of popular measures, including a federal income tax amendment; a law consolidating boards overseeing the state's penal, benevolent, and reformatory institutions; and a corrupt practices act to safeguard against voting violations. Harmon's signature was also attached to a model workers' compensation act, a measure for the direct popular election of U.S. senators, and a statute creating a public utility commission.
In 1912, Harmon decided to seek his party's nomination for president of the United States at the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. After he declared his opposition to the statewide application of initiative and referendum in Ohio, many Progressive leaders in his home state doubted his viability as a national candidate. (Initiative is the power of the people to propose bills and laws and to enact or reject them at the polls independent of legislative assembly; referendum is the process of referring constitutional or legislative proposals to the electorate for decision.) william jennings bryan, leader of the national Progressive movement, denounced Harmon as a reactionary. Harmon nevertheless went to the national convention assured of support from both Ohio and New York delegates, but he failed to win the nomination.
By throwing his hat into the national ring, Harmon had given up the opportunity to run for a third term as governor of Ohio. The election of James M. Cox as governor later in 1912 marked the end of Harmon's political career.
Harmon returned to Cincinnati, resumed practice, and began teaching at Cincinnati Law School. He was often asked to reconsider his withdrawal from public life, but he firmly declined all opportunities to do so.
Harmon died in Cincinnati on February 22, 1927.
Burke, James L. 1973. "Judson Harmon: The Dilemma of a Constructive Conservative." Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin 31.
Cohen, Jonathan E. "International Law and the Water Politics of the Euphrates." 1991. New York University of International Law and Politics (fall).
Harmon, Judson. Papers. Cincinnati Historical Society.
McCaffrey, Stephen C. 1996. "The Harmon Doctrine One Hundred Years Later: Buried, Not Praised." Natural Resources Journal 36 (fall).