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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 397

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This is the grave of John Catron.

Born in 1786 to a German family in Pennsylvania, Catron and his family moved to Kentucky early in the 19th century. He fought in the War of 1812 under Andrew Jackson.Catron followed his mentor to Tennessee after the war, where he was admitted to the bar in 1815. He opened a practice in Sparta, east of Nashville and then moved to the state capital in 1818. In 1824, Catron became Tennessee’s chief justice, though the state abolished the position in 1835, sending him back to private practice. A leading Democrat, he managed Martin Van Buren’s 1836 campaign, a year when Whigs decided to throw the kitchen sink at the Democrats and run a bunch of local heroes to throw the election into the House. That didn’t work, in part because Catron helped Van Buren hold off Tennessee native son Hugh White. In fact, it was the beginning of that work that convinced the Whig dominated Tennessee legislature to eliminate Catron’s judicial position. It is less than optimal for a judge to be that involved in electoral politics, although no doubt conservative judges today would see Catron’s activities as a model.

Jackson and Van Buren repaid Catron in full. In 1837, the Supreme Court grew from seven to nine members. On his last day in office, Jackson selected Catron for one of them. He was by no means a leader on the Court and wrote relatively few opinions. Catron’s major contribution to the Court was to support Jacksonian banking policy, with a strong suspicion of a centralized financial system and corporate power as it was developing in the mid-nineteenth century. He joined with the majority in Dred Scott and other slavery cases. However, during the Civil War, Catron was a unionist, despite being a slaveholder. This put him very much at odds with the people of Tennessee and he left his home and moved north to Louisville as his home was no longer part of the United States, having committed treason in defense of slavery. Moreover, his wife, a Confederate sympathizer, refused to move with him. But at his core, he followed Jackson in his belief that the Union mattered above all and he continued deciding cases both at the circuit and federal level. In the end, probably no Jackson appointee more followed his mentor’s views than Catron, more so than Taney.

Like so many slaveholders, Catron raped his slaves, having at least one child by a woman named Sally. His mother managed to get the boy some semblance became a barber in Nashville, finally winning his own freedom in 1851, which never happened for his mother.

Catron died in 1865 at the age of 79. When he died, Congress shrunk the size of the Supreme Court so Andrew Johnson couldn’t name a replacement.

John Catron is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. As always, I am highly grateful for you allowing this series to continue. If you would like this series to visit some of Catron’s Supreme Court colleagues, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Roger Taney is in Frederick, Maryland and John McLean is in Cincinnati. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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