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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 908


This is the grave of Robert Grier.

Born in 1794 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, Grier grew up the son of a Presbyterian minister. He was home-schooled by his father and then sent to Dickinson College. He was able to graduate after only one year, in 1812. He became a teacher, first at Dickinson (I’m curious about the 18 year old teacher’s classroom management skills!) and then at the school his father ran. He became headmaster of that school in 1815 and then he went into the law. He passed the bar in 1817. He left teaching at that point and then started practicing in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania briefly before moving to the town on Danville, which is kind of half way between Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre. He became a leading Democratic operative in Pennsylvania. As a strong Jacksonian that meant….patronage. Spoils system was very much a thing and he was a winner. In 1833, the Pennsylvania state District Court for Allegheny County had a new position forced on it to give Grier a seat.

Now, Grier really didn’t rise above this for a long time. He was a useful Pennsylvania Democratic functionary and judge. That’s it.

In 1844, Supreme Court justice Henry Baldwin died. John Tyler wanted to name a justice. But he was so despised by Congress, both Whigs and Democrats, that they said no. He nominated two potential justices–Edward King and John Read. Congress had no interest. This issue came up after the death of Antonin Scalia. Before Moscow Mitch decided to break the Supreme Court by holding his seat open for Donald Trump to fill, this had never happened again. The thing was though that when James Polk took office, he too had trouble filling the seat. He tried to nominate James Buchanan, but the leading Democrat felt such a role was beneath him. Then he nominated George Washington Woodward, who was roundly rejected in a blowout vote not again achieved until Robert Bork was rejected. Finally, Polk nominated someone that really no one had ever heard of–Robert Grier. He was still just a state judge in Pennsylvania who hadn’t received any kind of promotion in 14 years! It was a different time indeed.

Well, Congress was fine with the no one and he was confirmed the same day without any hearings. As a Democrat, he was a loyal pro-slavery doughface. He went with Roger Taney on Dred Scott and all the other slavery cases such as Moore v. Illinois where he upheld the state’s law that punished people for helping slaves escape. For being such a no one, Grier would actually play a pretty big role on the Court, especially on financial and contract cases. He wrote the majority opinion in Cook v. Moffat, a key bankruptcy case. There were rumors that Grier was corrupt and took a bribe in Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company where he might have personal interest. There was a House Judiciary Committee investigation here but he was exonerated.

I will say this for Grier though. He was a loyal Union Democrat. In 1863, when the question came before the Court over whether the Lincoln’s blockade of the South was constitutional, Grier wrote the decision that said it was indeed constitutional. This was a 5-4 decision. Four justices–Nelson, Taney, Clifford, and Catron–said no! In the middle of the war! Amazing! It’s really a wonder the nation survived this.

In 1866, Grier started having a series of strokes. He could barely work. Would he retire? Nope! Hey Stephen Breyer, maybe pay attention here! He only retired in 1870 when he literally could not do anything at all. His colleagues basically forced him to retire and he died later that year, at the age of 76.

Robert Grier is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit other justices who were pro-slavery hacks in Dred Scott, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Wayne is in Savannah, Georgia and Samuel Nelson is in Cooperstown, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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