Reverdy Johnson served as U.S. attorney general from 1849 to 1850. Johnson also served in the U.S. Senate and was an influential constitutional lawyer. He represented the defense in dred scott v. sandford, 60 (19 How.) U.S. 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1857).
Johnson was born May 21, 1796, in Annapolis, Maryland. He graduated from St. John's College, in Annapolis, in 1811 and was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1815. After establishing a law practice in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Johnson relocated to Baltimore in 1817 and opened a new firm that specialized in constitutional law.
After his relocation Johnson became interested in politics and government service. He was deputy attorney general of Maryland before being elected to the Maryland Senate in 1821. In 1845 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, then resigned in 1849 to serve as U.S. attorney general in the administration of President zachary taylor.
Johnson's talents in constitutional law were demonstrated in the Dred Scott case. Dred Scott was an African–American slave from Missouri who had been transported to Minnesota, then a "free" (non-slaveholding) territory. Scott sued for his freedom, arguing that he was no longer a slave because he had resided in a free territory. Missouri law had established the principle "once free, always free." John F. A. Sandford, who controlled Scott, objected to the trial court's declaration that Scott was free. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed with Sandford and overturned the once-free, always-free doctrine. Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Scott's lawyer framed it as a suit for Scott's freedom. Johnson, one of several lawyers representing Sandford, injected into the proceeding several new issues that transformed the case into a debate over the constitutionality of slavery. Johnson argued that Scott had no right to sue in federal court, raising the issue of a black person's claim to be a U.S. citizen. Johnson also attacked the constitutionality of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which gave Congress the power to forbid slavery in the territories. Johnson claimed that slaves were private property protected by the Constitution, and therefore Congress could not abolish slavery in the territories. These arguments transformed the issue from whether Scott could be returned to slavery to whether Scott had ever been free at all.
The Supreme Court adopted most of Johnson's arguments. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's majority opinion concluded that at the time of the ratification of the Constitution, there were no African–American citizens in the United States. Therefore, the Framers never contemplated that African Americans could be federal citizens. In practical terms Scott's lack of citizenship meant he could not sue in federal court. In addition, the Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.
The Dred Scott case helped precipitate the secession of southern states and the Civil War, yet Johnson supported the Union during the war. He waged a successful campaign to prevent Maryland from seceding, before returning to the U.S. Senate in 1861.
After the Civil War, Johnson was the lone Democratic member of the U.S. Senate to support the ideas of the Radical Republicans' Reconstruction policy. He was a member of the Reconstruction committee and of a joint congressional committee that looked into these issues.
In 1868, as a member of the Senate Rules Committee, Johnson participated in impeachment proceedings against President andrew johnson. He was strongly in favor of a verdict of acquittal, which occurred by the slimmest of margins.
Johnson entered the foreign service in 1868 as a minister to Great Britain. In 1869 he returned to his law practice. He spent much of his later years defending southerners charged with disloyalty to the federal government. He successfully argued that the fourteenth amendment applied only to illegal acts committed by the government, not to acts committed by private citizens, including vigilantes.
"The Constitution … announces a great principle of American liberty, … that as between a man and his conscience, as relates to his obligations to God, it is not only tyrannical but unchristian to interfere."
Johnson died February 10, 1876, in Annapolis, Maryland.
Foner, Eric. 1988. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: Harper & Row.