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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 323

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This is the grave of Stephen Field.

Born in 1816 in Haddam, Connecticut to a Congregationalist minister and a larger family who would produce many leading 19th century figures, including Cyrus Field, who made the transatlantic telegraph happen, Field grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts before spending a year abroad as a teenager in Turkey with his missionary sister and her husband. He graduated from Williams College in 1837, moved to New York and practiced the law. Then, filled with the adventure of the day, he went to California in 1848 for fun in the Gold Rush. Field wasn’t going to be standing in any creeks yelling “Eureka!” Instead, he realized the infinite law opportunities in that wild place. He instantly (literally three days after his arrival) became alcalde of Marysville and decided to implement the whipping post to punish criminals, as it was too expensive to send them to San Francisco for proper legal proceedings and he feared a lot of people would be hanged for minor crimes otherwise. This made one a legal leader in mid-19th century California and he was elected to the new state legislature in 1850. He ran for the state senate soon after and lost, so he went back to his legal practice. But he was elected as a judge to the California Supreme Court in 1857.

In 1863, a new Supreme Court justice slot was created, a very brief period when the Court had 10 justices. Field was a Democrat. But if there was one thing Abraham Lincoln loved, it was bipartisanship and a deep belief that if just Americans came together to discuss their differences, they would be reasonable. He was badly wrong about this, just as was Barack Obama, and it cost the nation dearly when he named Andrew Johnson as Vice-President in 1864. It was for this reason that Lincoln named Field to the seat, as well as the fact that Field was in the Far West, which provided some geographical balance to the Court.

As a jurist and as a Gilded Age Democrat, Field was deeply committed as a jurist to white supremacy. His initial political campaigns in California revolved around his revulsion at the Chinese. Even though he did rule against Claifornia’s notorious Pigtail Ordinance in 1879, other decisions were filled with anti-Chinese racism. That included in Chae Chan Ping v. U.S., in 1889, which challenged recent additions to the Chinese Exclusion Act and which upheld the constitutionality of the U.S. government passing legislation that overrode agreed upon provisions of international treaties.

He was a pretty typical Gilded Age hack in many ways. He hated the idea of the federal income tax because he saw it as an assault on the wealthy few by the many and of course chose to protect his mentors and friends. He routinely ruled against any role in the state in alleviating the inequality of the time period. He wasn’t on the Court long enough to rule in Lochner, but he was the intellectual progenitor of it. In the Slaughterhouse Cases, Field dissented, falling on the Privileges and Immunities Clause to protest any government interference in business. He also dissented in Munn v. Illinois, where the Court upheld a state law limiting the cost of grain storage someone could charge. Over time though, as the Gilded Age reached its peak, a majority of justices came around to Field’s view and would stay there until the New Deal resignations after FDR’s courtpacking attempt.

In 1889, Field was attacked by a former California judge. There is a classic Old West colorful violent background to this. In 1859, Field became California’s Chief Justice because the previous occupant of the seat, David Terry, killed Senator David Broderick in a duel. Terry left the state to avoid prosecution. Thirty years later, Field, acting as a judge on the 9th Circuit, sent Terry to jail for contempt of court during a divorce case that he also ruled against. So Terry decided to kill him. But Field had a U.S. Marshal as a bodyguard and he shot Terry dead during the attempt. This in itself came before the Supreme Court the next year, when the In re Neagle decision ruled that the Attorney General could appoint Marshals to protect Supreme Court justices. Field recused himself from this case. Amazingly, Melville Fuller, joined by L.Q.C. Lamar, dissented and didn’t think this was constitutional.

Field was unbelievably ambitious. In 1880, he sought the Democratic nomination for president, which was a total flop. He really wanted to be Chief Justice. That wasn’t going to happen. But he was determined to surpass John Marshall as the longest serving Supreme Court justice. The problem was that Field was senile. He refused to step down, even as his colleagues begged him to do so. He wouldn’t do so until 1897, giving him time to vote for discrimination in Plessy. What a way to end a career. He died in 1899.

Stephen Field is buried with his wife in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to profile other terrible Gilded Age justices, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Horace Gray is in Cambridge and George Shiras is in Pittsburgh. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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