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Catron, John

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Birth: Circa 1786, Pennsylvania or Virginia.

Education: Self-educated.

Official Positions: Judge, Tennessee Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals, 1824–1831; first chief justice of Tennessee, 1831–1834.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President Andrew Jackson, March 3, 1837, to fill a newly created seat; confirmed by the Senate March 8, 1837, by a 28–15 vote; took judicial oath May 1, 1837; served until May 30, 1865; seat abolished by Congress.

Death: May 30, 1865, Nashville, Tennessee.

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John Catron
Noteworthy Opinions

John Catron

Little is certain of John Catron's earliest years, not even the state or year of his birth. He grew up poor in Virginia, then Kentucky, moved to Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains, and served under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. Largely self-educated, he gained admission to the Tennessee bar in 1815 and thereafter began a rapid ascent.

Relocating to the state capital, Nashville, in 1818, Catron successfully invested in the early Tennessee iron industry while building a profitable practice centered on land title litigation, then a massive Tennessee problem. His 1824 appointment to the Tennessee Supreme Court had its source in legislators' knowledge that he favored confirmation of de facto landholders despite title defects. In 1829 he fortified his Jacksonian political credentials statewide by publishing articles that anticipated Jackson's first presidential message to Congress attacking the Bank of the United States. Catron was named Tennessee's chief justice in 1831, and during the nullification crisis he was instrumental in causing Tennessee to fall in behind Jackson. An 1834 reorganization of the state judiciary eliminated the chief justiceship, and, briefly back in private practice, Catron managed the 1836 Tennessee campaign for Jackson's designated successor, Martin Van Buren. On his last day as president, Jackson nominated Catron to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Catron's twenty-eight-year term of Supreme Court service has been exceeded by only 13 of the 110 justices appointed since 1789. During Catron's second year on the Court, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote to Jackson: “I have been impressed with …. his judgment, legal knowledge, and high integrity …. a most valuable acquisition to the …. Supreme Court.” Late nineteenth-century justices still cited Catron's opinions as did, for example, Stephen Field in Bowman v. Chicago and North Western Railway (1888): Referring to Catron as “the learned justice,” Field wrote, “The language of Mr. Justice Catron on this subject …. is instructive.…”

Scholars have been widely divided over Catron's jurisprudence. Writing in 1898, Joshua Caldwell placed Catron in the Taney Court's doctrinal middle, between “high-toned Federalists” James Wayne, John McLean, and Benjamin Curtis and an anti-Federalist bloc of Taney, Levi Woodbury, Peter Daniel, and Samuel Nelson. Caldwell found in Catron's opinions a “leaning toward Federalist principles …. rather surprising …. as he had been a lifelong friend of Andrew Jackson.” Contrariwise, John Schmidhauser in 1961 placed Taney at the Court's center and Catron among the pro-southern “extreme justices.” More recently, Frank Otto Gatell described Catron as following “a reasonable line between …. federal and state power, with a preferential bias …. [for] the latter,” whereas John Scheb concluded that throughout his tenure “Catron was a stalwart defender of states' rights and of …. slavery.”

Not all of these scholars can be on target, and Caldwell and Gatell come closer than Scheb and Schmidhauser. The interpretive difficulties stem less from Catron's politically complex juris-prudence than from missing its underlying ordering of values. By focusing too heavily on best-remembered constitutional decisions, scholars have neglected other significant “telltale texts,” especially Catron's state opinions concerning slaves and his federal opinions in other areas prominent on the nineteenth century's public agenda. An additional confusion may be in assuming that a justice politically active in off-duty hours, which Catron certainly was, would be a jurisprudential activist, which Catron frequently was not.

First, Catron's support of slavery fell short of “fire-eating” status. Unlike some southern justices who found threats to slavery lurking under many a federalism or economic issue, Catron often seemed chiefly driven by other considerations. Respecting federal powers, these considerations included sustaining a Jacksonian model of a fairly powerful presidency and preventing states from impinging unduly on the commerce powers of Congress.

Catron's states' rights jurisprudence poses a complex puzzle. The clue is that he did not entirely share the common states' rights view that less federal power was almost always desirable. His regional reflexes were both new western (when the West meant “trans-Appalachian”) and old southern. The West wanted geographic expan-sion and economic modernization and, on issues such as federal admiralty jurisdiction and the disposition of public lands, unlike the old South, sometimes saw federal power as beneficial. But on one major issue, the contract clause's limitations on state legislatures modifying contracts, the two regions eyed the same enemy—entrenched, northeastern capital—and wanted a weak clause. In contract clause cases, Catron's decision making closely resembled that of his two strongly sectional southern colleagues, Alabama's John Campbell and Virginia's Peter Daniel.

Before considering how Catron's western orientation played out in other areas, it is helpful to examine several slavery cases from Catron's Tennessee court years and his related, unique pattern in federal slavery cases. Bob v. State (1830) found Catron displaying “text-bound” judicial passivism in dissenting from overriding a state circuit judge's refusal to grant a slave's appeal of a death sentence. Catron considered the lower court trials unfair. “I have never known any person convicted …. upon evidence so slight,” he declared, but thought an 1811 statute vested absolute discretion to grant or refuse an appeal in the circuit judge. Catron's colleagues, John Haywood and Jacob Peck, asserting “color, rank, or station can make no difference,” decided the circuit judge's discretion was not arbitrary “to do as he pleases, but to discover …. what is right,… otherwise his unrighteous discretion shall be purified.”

When not constrained by statute, Catron joined decisions that put the Tennessee court to the left of other southern courts. For example, a white murderer of a slave was held subject to common law conviction after acquittal of the statutory crime in Fields v. State (1829), a case later scorned by the Georgia court as the “wholly untenable” consequence of “fervid zeal in behalf of humanity to the slave” (Neal v. Farmer, 1851). A slave, winning freedom in one suit, was permitted to bring another suit seeking monetary damages in Matilda v. Crenshaw (1833).

Telling was Catron's rejection of other slave states' resolutions of a thorny issue: did the unmentioned children of a slave mother with a bequest of future freedom eventually go free also or were they doomed to lifelong slavery? The Kentucky and Virginia courts had already decided on slavery, but in Harris v. Clarissa (1834), Catron stated that “we are not satisfied” with the Kentucky court's reasoning and that the Virginia decision was “a most strict construction, not to say a strained one, in prejudice of human liberty.”

Catron's unique approach developed from the first two major Supreme Court slavery cases. He was the only southern justice to find unnecessary a qualifying concurrence with, or a dissent from, northerner Joseph Story's Court opinions in the Amistad case (1841), which awarded freedom to black mutineers on a ship engaged in illegal slave trading, and in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), which held void state laws that conflicted with exclusive federal power under the fugitive slave clause.

Catron eschewed the southern proclivity for bringing slavery issues into nonslavery cases. In fact, in Strader v. Graham (1850) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), when slaves unsuccessfully argued that northern sojourns gave them freedom, Catron brought nonslavery issues into slavery cases. Catron's Dred Scott concurrence that the 1820 Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional limited its passivist differences with Taney's sweeping opinion to opposing as unnecessary Taney's ruling that blacks could not bring suit in federal court. He also made a plaintive reference to a nonslavery implication of Taney's pruning of congressional power over territories:

It is due to myself to say that it is asking much of a judge who has for nearly twenty years been exercising jurisdiction from the western Missouri line to the Rocky Mountains and, on this understanding of the Constitution, inflicting the extreme penalty of death for crimes committed where the direct legislation of Congress was the only rule, to agree that he had been all the while acting in mistake, and as an usurper.

The better example is Strader. It had reached the Court seven years earlier, almost contemporaneously with Catron's taking positions incompatible with southern extremism: favoring Oregon's admission as a free state, thundering in his Nashville courtroom against southern expansionists bent on invading and extending slavery to Cuba, and holding that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, repealing its 1793 predecessor, aborted the pending suit of a slave owner to recover $500 from one who had aided his slave's escape. Taney's Strader opinion cited, somewhat misleadingly, one precedent that Catron had written, Permoli v. First Municipality of New Orleans (1845), and another from which Catron had dissented, Pollard v. Hagan (1845), and tossed out the entire 1787 Northwest Ordinance as superseded by the Constitution's 1789 ratification. As its third article had prohibited slavery northwest of the Ohio, the ordinance was anathema to ardent slavery supporters who saw the best course as holding precisely what Taney did.

Catron, together with the Court's fiercest opponent of slavery, John McLean, objected that jettisoning the ordinance's other five articles was “obiter dictum uncalled for.” Catron particularly objected to voiding the fourth article's provision of perpetual rights to free, untaxed navigation of the Mississippi and St. Lawrence River systems. He saw in this provision—and liked—the potential for an intrastate federal power over navigation, a federal power additional to congressional powers over interstate commerce and to the federal judiciary's admiralty powers. Taney, on the other hand, saw the potential for limiting state power—and did not like it.

That not deciding more than necessary was an independent value for Catron is suggested by its appearance in issues other than slavery. McCracken v. Hayward (1844) provides an illustration. Catron refused to join in holding, contrary to the contract clause, an Illinois stay law barring the sale of debtor's property at less than two-thirds of real worth. He preferred the narrower course of voiding a circuit court rule that had made the Illinois statute enforceable. Similarly indicative were his criticisms of opinions by Taney and Story, the Court's chief rivals during Catron's first decade. Although he concurred in Swift v. Tyson (1842), Catron criticized Story's opinion for deciding an unnecessary additional issue rather than waiting “until it fairly arose,” and he correctly predicted some state courts would not follow Story's dictum. When Taney, in Cutler v. Rae (1849), rushed to decide an admiralty jurisdiction issue without prior written or oral argument, and unionist justice James Wayne, a Georgian, called that a regrettable “first” in the Court's history, Catron completely refused to participate in deciding the case.

Catron's capacity for a lonely, nationalist path was well displayed in Pollard v. Hagan (1845), a case that he “deemed the most important controversy ever brought before this court, either as …. respects the amount of property involved, or the principles.” Evaluations of importance change, but modern legal scholars appear to have overlooked that the majority's ruling contradicts the received wisdom that between Marbury v. Madison in 1803 and the Civil War, the Court only once, in Dred Scott, ruled a congressional enactment void. At stake was title to Mobile, Alabama, properties created by filling in tidelands, chiefly by the labors of small landowners. Eight justices held that the “equal footing doctrine” (under which new states were admitted on terms no less favorable than the original thirteen) coupled with an earlier case awarding title to certain oyster beds to New Jersey, as sovereign heir to rights of the British Crown, required upholding the Alabama Supreme Court's award of title to Alabama, and in turn to claimants other than the fillers-in of the tidal lands.

Catron, objecting that at stake in Pollard was U.S. sovereignty, took a nationalist position similar to the New Deal Court's in the tidal oil lands controversy of the 1940s and 1950s (United States v. California, 1947). Catron argued that provisions for federal ownership of these lands written into the 1819 congressional act admitting Alabama to the Union, as well as 1824 and 1836 congressional acts confirming claims deriving from federal title, should be controlling.

Pulsing beneath Catron's Pollard opinion was another Jacksonian motivation—preference for the small entrepreneur and diligent settler. It was the same new West disposition to settle title doubts in favor of pioneers that had led to his state court appointment. It burst through the surface of his writing in California controversies pitting eastern corporations' claims under often fraudulent pre-1848 Mexican “floating grants” (“floating” because the boundaries were ill-defined) versus farmer-settlers' claims under federal preemption laws. There was no doubt where Catron's populist heart lay, as can also be seen in his dissent in Fremont v. United States (1854):

Cultivators of the soil should …. [be] safe from the ruin that lurks in a floating claim, familiar to western ploughmen, many of whom remember exhausting litigation in their own families for the paternal hearth, and who relied on the firm and consistent decisions of this court to protect their new homes on the Pacific.

Western and southern interests dovetailed in corporation cases, and Catron often backed his southern colleagues' desire to minimize protective federal jurisdiction extending “person-like” or “citizen-like” status to corporations, as when he dissented with Daniel and Campbell in Marshall v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (1854). Catron also shared these colleagues' hostility to allowing broad coverage to wealthy or corporate patent holders. Certainly, class-consciousness is apparent in his objection to the 5–4 ruling in Hogg v. Emerson (1850) that allowed the holder of letters-patent on one steam engine improvement to add later, via a patent schedule, what Catron saw as two separate inventions, and then sue for an infringement of the latter. Catron argued that treating the three as a unity undercut the salutary limiting of patents to single inventions. If three could be run together, any number may be. What would result? And “although the claim may be fictitious, still this does not protect the public from harassment, as usually men using cheap implements cannot afford to litigate in the United States Courts.”

When new western aims (that would be enhanced by greater national power) and old southern aims (that would be hindered) diverged, Catron's decision making sometimes stammered—as in federal admiralty jurisdiction, which Hamiltonian proponents of rapid industrialization wanted to expand against the wishes of Jeffersonian agrarians. English law had limited admiralty jurisdiction to tide-affected waters. An inadvertently well-named 1825 decision, The Thomas Jefferson, had retained English limits.

The Taney Court majority first ventured in a new direction by accepting evidence of what Justice Robert Grier, an expansionist, sarcastically dubbed “occult tides” invisibly present at inland locations and extending federal jurisdiction to places such as, in Waring v. Clarke (1847), a Mississippi River collision scene almost 100 miles north of New Orleans. In Propeller Genesee Chief v. Fitzhugh (1852), the majority upheld an 1845 act extending federal jurisdiction to the Great Lakes. Where Daniel dissented consistently, Catron either wrote cautious concurrences (as in Waring) or voted with the majority (as in Genesee Chief). As the Civil War approached, he zigzagged, siding with southerners on some issues and with northern expansionists on others.

Once armed conflict began, Catron's order of values became swiftly clear: Union, national government, West—all first; secession, South, last; and the future of slavery, a dependent variable, on the back burner. Catron's wartime actions were hard-line Unionist. When Campbell resigned his seat and joined the Confederacy, Catron hastened to hold circuit court in Kentucky, then on secession's brink. When Taney, back in Baltimore, issued habeas corpus for a suspected traitor held in military custody and chastised Lincoln verbally, Catron, holding court in Missouri, refused habeas corpus and blistered secessionists in his comments. Catron paid for his stance. Returning to his Nashville home in the wake of Tennessee newspaper reports of his Missouri comments, he was threatened by Confederate vigilantes who gave him twenty-four hours to resign his Supreme Court seat or get out of town. He chose to leave Nashville, even though the consequence was confiscation by the rebel government of $90,000 of his property. He declined to uphold the presidential embargo in the Prize Cases (1863), but he was not afraid to issue a writ for arrest of the Kentucky governor and to uphold the confiscation of a pro-Confederacy newspaper in United States v. Republican Banner Officers, an 1863 circuit holding. Catron lived just long enough to see the final surrender of the Confederacy; the Court's most ardent Jacksonian died May 30,1865.


The scarcity of, and conflict among, secondary sources about even elementary facts of Catron's life is astonishing, requiring unusual reliance on deduction from the cases and on the Catron papers in the Tennessee State Archives in Nashville. A fair amount of relevant data and sensible interpretation are scattered through Carl B. Swisher, The Taney Period, 1836–1864 (1974), volume 5, in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise History.

See also Joshua Caldwell, Sketches of the Bench and Bar of Tennessee (1898); Frank Otto Gatell, “John Catron,” in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 1, 737; John Schmidhauser, “Judicial Behavior and the Sectional Crisis of 1837–1860,” Journal of Politics (1961); and John M. Scheb II, “John Catron,” in Kermit L. Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (1992).

Noteworthy Opinions

Pollard v. Hagan, 44 U.S. 212 (1845) (Dissent)

License Cases, 46 U.S. 504 (1847) (Dissent)

Piqua Branch of State Bank of Ohio v. Knoop, 57 U.S. 369 (1854) (Dissent)

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857) (Concurrence)


Document Citation
Catron, John, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 119 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18166-979132
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