Catron, John (c.1786–1865)

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CATRON, JOHN (c.1786–1865)

President andrew jackson appointed John Catron, his fellow Tennessean and political disciple, to the Supreme Court in 1837. A man who reflected Jackson's own views, Catron had been chief justice of Tennessee. While on the state bench, Catron had undoubtedly endeared himself to Jackson by opposing the bank of the united states and challenging john marshall'sWorcester v. Georgia (1832) opinion on Indian rights. Jackson's appointment of Catron filled one of two new positions created by the Judiciary Act of 1837. john mckinley of Alabama received the other appointment. The two decisively altered the geographic complexion of the Court, because five of the nine justices represented slaveholding circuits.

Catron's constitutional law decisions illustrated the judicial search for a balance between national and state power in the antebellum period. For example, in the license cases (1847) Catron emphatically held that the commerce power could be exercised by Congress "at pleasure," but that absent such legislation, states might regulate interstate commerce within their own boundaries. In the passenger cases (1849) he voted to strike down state taxes on immigrants because Congress had exercised its authority over foreign commerce.

Catron's opinions on the rights and powers of corporations varied widely. He concurred in Chief Justice roger b. taney's opinion in bank of augusta v. earle (1839), holding that states could exclude foreign corporations, and he also agreed when the Court expanded federal court jurisdiction over corporate activities in Louisville Railroad Co. v. Letson (1844). Except as a party to a diversity suit, however, a corporation, Catron insisted, was not a citizen within the sense of the Constitution. Catron resisted the taney court's accommodation with corporate interests in the Ohio bank cases of the 1850s. In piqua branch bank v. knoop (1854) he vigorously opposed the use of the contract clause to protect state legislative tax exemptions in corporate charters. In a companion case, Catron saw the burgeoning power of corporations as threatening to subvert the state governments that had created them. He believed that the community rights doctrine of charles river bridge v. warren bridge company (1837) had become "illusory and nearly useless, as almost any beneficial privilege, property, or exemption, claimed by corporations" might be construed into a contract to the corporation's advantage. He also protested when the Court, in dodge v. woolsey (1856), invalidated Ohio's constitutional amendment repealing corporate tax exemptions.

Catron's role in dred scott v. sandford (1857) was more prominent for his extrajudicial activities than for his opinion. Before the decision, he wrote several letters to President-elect james buchanan, notifying him of the Court's resolution to "decide and settle a controversy which has so long and seriously agitated the country, and which must ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court." He also urged Buchanan to pressure his fellow Pennsylvanian, Justice robert grier, to join in the effort to decide the constitutional question of congressional control over slavery in the territories. Catron's political maneuverings have overshadowed his opinion which deviated in some significant respects from Taney's. For example, he did not think that the Court could review the plea in abatement and he thought Taney's discussion of black citizenship unnecessary. He also differed from the Chief Justice on the scope of congressional power over the territories, acknowledging that it was plenary, save for a few exceptions, such as slavery.

Catron closed his long career with some measure of distinction. Unlike his colleague, Justice john campbell, who resigned, or Taney, who bitterly opposed the Union's war efforts and President abraham lincoln's conduct of the war, Catron clung to a Jacksonian faith in the Union. He carried out his circuit duties in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri, often at great personal risk. He lost much of his property in Nashville when he failed to respond to a local demand that he resign. Although he opposed Lincoln's blockade policy when he dissented in the prize cases (1863), on circuit he upheld the confiscation laws and the government's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus."I have to punish Treason, will," Catron wrote. With that expression, and through his judicial decisions, Catron faithfully reflected the spirit of his patron, Andrew Jackson.

Stanley I. Kutler


Gattell, Frank Otto 1969 John Catron. In Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., The Justices of the Supreme Court, Vol. 1:737–768. New York: Chelsea House.

Swisher, Carl B. 1935 Roger B. Taney. New York: Macmillan.