Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,211
This is the grave of Thomas Todd.
Born in King and Queen County, Virginia in 1765, Todd grew up in the Virginia elite but a downwardly mobile part of it. Slaver, yes, but also not super duper wealthy after dad blew the family fortune and then died in 1767. His mother, though an elite herself, had to take in boarders to pay for her children’s education. He joined the Revolutionary Army in 1781 and that made him a veteran even though the war was just about over. He didn’t see any significant action. He then went to the precursor of what is today Washington & Lee University, working his way through it by also tutoring in exchange for room and board. He soon moved to Kentucky, where he passed the bar in 1786. That placed him in a position to help write the first Kentucky constitution when it became a state in 1792.
Becoming a lawyer in these frontier states was a sure bet to rise quickly in society and that’s what Todd did. He had a private practice through 1801 in Danville. Then he was named to the Kentucky Court of Appeals and then became the state’s chief justice in 1806. He also became the secretary for the state legislature. He was rising pretty fast, often by just being there and being a very organized individual who became known for keeping good records. His wealth grew and so did his holdings of human beings, eventually reaching more than twenty. He married, then his wife died. When he remarried, moving up in society and all, he chose Dolley Madison’s sister and the wedding was in the White House in 1812.
By that time, Todd was on the Supreme Court. What did he do to deserve a position on the Court? Nothing other than being a good Jeffersonian. Jefferson named him to the Court in 1807 when the nation decided to expand the number of justices (outrageous I know better not do that today might get in the way of the legitimacy of this august institution…..). What did he did to justify his selection to the Court? Absolutely nothing. He is often seen as one of the worst justices in American history, largely because he was just a complete and total non-entity who was completely disinterested and uninvolved. From the perspective of John Marshall, this was basically fine because the Chief Justice could control him without even really trying.
In his entire nineteen years on the Court, Todd never wrote an opinion that had anything to do with constitutional issues. He did write a few opinions on minor matters. All but one of these opinions had to do with questions of land law on the frontier, the one thing he actually knew about. Otherwise, he just focused on his personal investments, which were quite substantial. When he died at home in 1826, at the age of 61, he was one of the wealthiest men in Kentucky.
Otherwise, Todd was a complete non-entity. But hey, a Supreme Court justice for nearly two decades. Impressive to remain a non-entity with that kind of opportunity to actually do something. You really can’t find a reference to Todd without the author noting what a huge nothingburger he was.
Thomas Todd is buried in Frankfort Cemetery, Frankfort, Kentucky. Originally, he was buried on family land and then was later moved, but I’m not sure when. That military service plaque is obviously much more recent, but the grave stone behind him is quite old and that prime spot of real estate, overlooking the Kentucky River and downtown Frankfort, would have been taken a long time ago too, so it must have been relatively soon that he was moved.
If you would like this series to visit other bad Supreme Court justices, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James McReynolds is in Elkton, Kentucky and Clarence Thomas is….still alive. Hmmm…..Well, Gabriel Duvall, another nonentity colleague of Todd, is in Glenn Dale, Maryland. That will do. Previous posts in this series are archived here.