Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,307

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,307


This is the grave of Stanley Matthews.

Born in 1824 in Cincinnati, Matthews’ family was evidently pretty well off in Porkopolis. He was able to attend Kenyon College, graduating in 1840. This was pretty late in the period where young people went to college when they were like 13. He was a classmate of Rutherford B. Hayes and they became buddies. That would pay off, to say the least. He went back to the Queen City to study law under Salmon Chase and then went to Columbia, Tennessee to practice. This was the same time that Columbia’s most famous person, James K. Polk, was president, though I don’t think there was any connection. They most certainly did not have the same politics. Matthews stayed there until 1844, when he came back home to practice there, admitted to the Ohio bar in 1845.

Matthews was an abolitionist and edited the Cincinnati Morning Herald, the city’s leading antislavery newspaper, as well as practicing law. This was no small task. Cincinnati was Ground Zero for the battles between pro and anti-slavery forces, at least before Kansas took that to a new level in the 1850s. Matthews was close with the Cincinnati and southern Ohio elites that would later be the most dominant political force in the country a few decades later–including not only Hayes, but the Taft family. He started getting involved in politics too. He was the clerk for the Ohio House in 1848, was a county judge in Cincinnati, and then was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1856. He only served one term, as he was named U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio in 1858, serving in that role until 1861.

When the Civil War broke out, those Ohio Republicans were ready to fight. This was the era of the political officer appointments, which was a huge burden on the ability to win the war. Hayes started his own outfit and so had Matthews named lieutenant colonel in it. William McKinley was in it too as a private. This was the Ohio 23rd. He fought too, including at Carnifex Ferry. He was evidently at least moderately functional as an officer, commanding brigades until 1863 and being promoted to colonel, though an attempt to get him promoted to brigadier general did not work.

In any case, Matthews left the Army in 1863 after his election to the Superior Court of Cincinnati. He resigned from this in 1865 to move into private practice. This is where Matthews gets interesting. Like a lot of these early Republicans, he was an absolutely bought and sold man of the railroad industry. Matthews made a fortune representing the railroad capitalists, including Jay Gould. These men were deeply corrupt, though they loved to say that everyone else was corrupt, but their actions were justified. This is the moment when Jay Cooke articulated that whatever was good for him was good for the country so then tanked the economy in 1873. The extent to which Matthews made was legit or was part of the corruption is hard to say because the finances of these railroads are really opaque, whether to the historian today or to people at the time. After all, the more you could obscure, the more you could steal. By the mid 1870s, Matthews was Gould’s personal lawyer, working for one client. So….yeah.

In 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes became president. And these Gilded Age Republicans were all about paying off their friends. The Ohio Mafia ran the Republican Party basically, even though none of these people were actually very capable politicians. But the Ohio Republicans were organized and in a large and important state. Everyone had to listen to Ohio. Hayes was unconcerned with Matthews’ work for Gould. Heck, it was a good thing in his opinion. Moreover, by this time, Matthews had expanded his portfolio to more involvement in national politics. He lost his bid for Congress in 1876, but Hayes hired him as his personal representative in the Compromise of 1877. Then, when John Sherman retired from the Senate for the first time, the Ohio legislature decided to send Matthews to replace him. In the Senate, Matthews was basically, yep, Jay Gould’s personal representative. He stayed in there two years and then went back to Gould.

In 1881, Hayes had a last second Supreme Court opening. So he nominated Matthews. By this time, hatred of the railroad had grown. The Great Railroad Strike in 1877, in which Hayes had gladly sent the military to crush, was much more a general working class rebellion against the railroads than it was a traditional strike. Protesting the railroads was anarchy to these men. So of course Hayes would nominate the biggest railroad hack possible. They were buddies after all and what mattered more than that? But the Grange was furious. Gould was Public Enemy No 1 for them. Matthews had violently opposed the Thurman Act in 1876, which was an attempt to force the railroads to actually pay the interest on their Transcontinental Railroad loans. The Grange and other reformers believed that Matthews would vote against any government regulation of the railroads, which was of course true.

Matthews was a such a hack that the Grange got a lot of support here. It looked like his nomination would fail. The Judiciary Committee just decided to not take any action and kick the nomination to James Garfield. But not only was Garfield personally corrupt on the railroad issue, having been named as one of the people involved in the Credit Mobilier scandal, but he was also an Ohio hack. So Garfield just nominated Matthews again and forced the Senate to make a decision. The Senate finally did confirm him–on a 24-23 vote. This remains the closest confirmation vote in Senate history.

Now, let’s be clear, on any case that involved corporations, Matthews was a total hack. But what he is remembered for today is something very different. Already by the 1870s, there was a clear divide in the Republican Party. The anti-corruption reformers, such as the Liberal Republicans who tried to challenge Grant in 1872, were also anti-Black. They did not support Reconstruction and did not care about the rights of minorities. But the super corrupt railroad hacks stealing money from the public? Oh yeah, they were almost all really quite supportive of Black rights. This went from many of the people in the Grant administration all the way into the early 20th century. When Theodore Roosevelt, a strict white supremacist and scientific racist, unjustly threw all the Black soldiers in the Brownsville racial attack out of the military, the super corrupt hack from Ohio Joseph Foraker led the fight for justice for them, bitterly attacking Roosevelt. I’ve never quite gotten my head around why this divide is so strong and consistent, but it sure is.

That includes Matthews. He is remembered for writing the decision in Yick Wo v. Hopkins. This case, which came out of San Francisco’s consistent attempts to discriminate against the Chinese, in this case using their foreign birth to deny them permits to run laundries, overturned that law in an unanimous decision. Matthews strongly stated that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to non-native born people living in the United States too. This was one of the strongest statements in favor of civil and human rights in the Gilded Age, at a time when a lot of the nation, including many jurists, were moving away from enforcing them. It also established the principle that if you write a law that does not sound discriminatory, but is in fact being applied that way, that it can be thrown out. Now, it has to be stated that Yick Wo did not have a huge impact at the time. It did toss out the law and help out those Chinese laundryman, many of whom San Francisco whites had thrown in prison for violating it. But Plessy was coming and it would have a lot more staying power. Nonetheless, Matthews was long dead by then and his decision is still really important. Much later, the Warren Court would use Yick Wo as an important precedent to throw out southern laws against Black Americans wanting to vote.

Matthews stayed on the Court until his death in 1889. He was 64 years old. Shortly after, his daughter married Matthews’ colleague on the Court and fellow bought and sold man of the railroads, Horace Gray. He was just a couple of years younger than her dad and a mere 32 years older than his new wife, so yucky.

Stanley Matthews is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you would like this series to visit some of Matthews’ colleagues on the Court, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Morrison Waite is in Toledo, Ohio and Samuel Miller is in Keokuk, Iowa. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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