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Miller, Samuel Freeman

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Birth: April 5, 1816, Richmond, Kentucky.

Education: Transylvania University, M.D., 1838; studied law privately; admitted to the bar in 1847.

Official Positions: Justice of the peace and member of the Knox County, Kentucky, court, an administrative body, in the 1840s.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President Abraham Lincoln, July 16, 1862, to replace Justice Peter V. Daniel, who had died; confirmed by the Senate, July 16, 1862, by a voice vote; took judicial oath July 21, 1862; served until October 13, 1890; replaced by Henry B. Brown, nominated by President Benjamin Harrison.

Death: October 13, 1890, Washington, D.C.

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Samuel Freeman Miller
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Samuel Freeman Miller

Justice Samuel Freeman Miller arrived on the Supreme Court bench in 1862 with the strong endorsement of Republicans from his adopted state of Iowa, but without any formal legal training. Moreover, he had no previous experience in public office higher than justice of the peace and member of the county court in his native Kentucky. Despite this seeming lack of proper credentials, Miller's strength of character, strong pragmatic bent, aggressiveness, analytical ability, and enormous faith in his own intellect proved him worthy of the nation's highest court. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase labeled this Lincoln appointee the Supreme Court's “dominant personality.” During his twenty-eight years of service, Miller wrote 616 opinions, more than any previous Supreme Court justice. He left his mark on American constitutional law, most notably in his construction of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Law was the second career choice for Miller. He attended medical school at Transylvania University at Lexington, graduated in 1838, then served as a country doctor for about ten years. His avid participation in the Barbourville Debating Society convinced him that law and politics suited him better than medicine. Miller read law and passed the bar exam in 1847. Certain that his abolitionist tendencies would be more acceptable elsewhere, he left Kentucky in 1850 and moved his family to Keokuk, Iowa, where he joined a prominent law firm and quickly became one of the area's leading attorneys. A former Whig, Miller joined the Republican Party at its inception and worked hard for its success, although he failed in his bid for state senator in 1856 and was passed over for party nomination for governor in 1861. A strong Lincoln man, Miller was unknown outside Iowa. Reorganization of the federal judicial circuits after the Civil War broke out, however, fostered his chances for appointment to the Supreme Court. Fellow Iowans lobbied intensely for Miller's appointment, and their efforts paid off when Lincoln chose him as the first Supreme Court justice appointed from west of the Mississippi to represent the newly created Ninth Circuit. Lincoln's faith in Miller was rewarded by his vigorous support for the president's war efforts.

Miller's conduct on the bench during the Civil War was strongly nationalistic. For example, he voted with the 5–4 majority in the Prize Cases (1863) to uphold the constitutionality of the president's blockade of southern ports. This opinion, perhaps the most significant of the cases approving Lincoln's wartime policies, enabled the government to treat the war as a conventional war for purposes of foreign policy but continue to maintain that it was an insurrection for purposes at home. Miller went along with the Court's refusal to interfere with the wartime suspension of habeas corpus and military trials for civilians. When the fighting was over and the danger to the Union was past, however, he joined a belated censure of the wartime military trials in Ex parte Milligan (1866). The majority decided that neither the president nor Congress had authority to authorize military trials of civilians when the civilian courts were open; Miller's concurring opinion stated that Congress did possess such power but had not used it.

Miller's early postwar record demonstrated a similar regard for government authority, a view that was often at odds with his judicial brethren. When 5–4 majorities found in Ex parte Garland (1867) and Cummings v. Missouri (1867) that federal and state required test oaths violated the Constitution as ex post facto laws and bills of attainder, Miller dissented. He insisted that the oath was not a punishment but simply another requirement for the privilege of practicing law or serving as a minister. It was absurd to Miller that in one case the Court found the Constitution “to confer no power on Congress to prevent traitors practicing in her courts, while in the other it is held to confer power on this court to nullify a provision of the Constitution of the State of Missouri, relating to a qualification required of ministers of religion.” In Miller's estimation, the Court had clearly overstepped the bounds of judicial review.

Miller registered a biting dissent against the majority's tender regard for the property rights of creditors in Hepburn v. Griswold (1870), another 5–4 decision. The issue was the constitutionality of paper money or “greenbacks” as legal tender. Invoking the “spirit” of the contract clause, which, in fact, restrains the states rather than the federal government, Chief Justice Chase found greenbacks unconstitutional for repayment of debts contracted prior to the law. The Legal Tender Act also violated the Fifth Amendment, according to Chase, as a deprivation of property without due process of law. Miller, on the other hand, believed that the Constitution granted Congress ample power to define and regulate the money supply. He stressed wartime necessity and opposed “substituting a court of justice for the National Legislature.”

Within fifteen months, Miller's dissenting opinion became constitutional law when Knox v. Lee (1871) overturned Hepburn. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed William Strong and Joseph Bradley to the Court on the same day that the first legal tender decision was announced. This new majority favorable to administration policy reopened the issue, with Miller, as he put it in a letter to his brother-in-law, serving “as leader in marshalling my forces, and keeping up their courage against a domineering Chief, and a party in court who have been accustomed to carry everything their own way.” Miller's aggressiveness and determination paid off in the second legal tender decision written by Strong.

Miller's reaction to congressional Reconstruction policies contrasted sharply to his nationalistic support for the war effort. For its initial interpretation of the rights of citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court chose, ironically, a case that involved white butchers rather than former slaves. That the Fourteenth Amendment had made some changes in the rights of citizenship seemed clear, but its precise meaning was surrounded with uncertainty. What changes, if any, had the amendment made in federal-state relationships? What were the privileges and immunities associated with national citizenship? Did the amendment nationalize the Bill of Rights? The backlog of civil rights cases in the South demanded answers to these difficult questions, but the Supreme Court refused to address the issues in Enforcement Act cases and chose the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873) instead. Why so strange a choice? The justices obviously recognized that precedent made in these cases would hold enormous implications for the civil and political rights of the freedmen. It seems safe to argue, therefore, that the Court deliberately chose a case that would depoliticize the explosive legal questions involved. The butchers' case enabled the Court to decide some of the controversial issues regarding Reconstruction without seeming to decide them at all. If the Slaughterhouse Cases were about white butchers, they nevertheless postponed for a century the establishment of a broad nationalization of rights for black Americans.

The carpetbag government of Louisiana had established a monopoly of butchers in New Orleans. Although the law would ordinarily fall under the police powers of the state, the other butchers sued on the grounds that it violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. John A. Campbell, a former Supreme Court justice, who had resigned to follow his state into the Confederacy, argued that the state monopoly was a form of servitude outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment. More important, it violated the “privileges and immunities” guaranteed to citizens by the Fourteenth—the right to follow the vocation of one's choice being one of those privileges.

Miller spoke for a closely split majority. Recognizing that “no questions so far reaching and pervading in their consequences …. have been before this court during the official life of any of its present members,” he quickly rejected the Thirteenth Amendment argument and turned to the Fourteenth. Miller seemed genuinely surprised to think that the Reconstruction amendments, written to benefit blacks, could be construed to uphold the rights of white citizens. But Miller's interpretation of national citizenship gave the former slaves little reason to cheer. This previously nationalistic judge rendered an opinion grounded in traditional notions of dual federalism. National citizenship, for Miller, was separate and distinct from state citizenship. The basic rights of citizenship remained where they had always been, under the protection of the states. Miller listed a number of privileges and immunities he considered a part of national citizenship, most of which were of little use to the freed slaves. The United States could protect its citizens on the high seas and in foreign countries, Miller decided, but not in the states where they lived. He emphatically denied that the Fourteenth Amendment was intended “to transfer the security and protection of all the civil rights …. from the States to the Federal government.” It was impossible, he thought, that Congress meant to make such a drastic change in the basic nature of the federal system.

Miller's tortured construction aroused bitter dissent among four of his colleagues. Justice Stephen J. Field maintained, for example, that the fundamental rights of citizenship were no longer dependent on citizenship in a state. If the amendment meant no more than the majority said, it had “most unnecessarily excited Congress and the people on its passage.” The dissenting opinions recognized what Miller denied, that rights were no longer to be “separate and exclusive” but “complementary and concentric,” allowing the federal government to protect the rights of its citizens when the states failed to do so.

Miller may have been willing to sacrifice the rights of the freedmen, as historian William Gillette has suggested, to preserve the states' right to regulate business and thereby postponing judicial support for big business. Letters to his brother-in-law indicate, however, that Miller was no proponent of equality for blacks. Although he was unwilling to leave the freedmen to the tender mercies of the former Confederates, he feared that Republican Reconstruction policy risked “the eventual destruction of some of the best principles of our existing constitution.” Miller's opinion in Slaughterhouse went a long way to preserve the “existing constitution.” If Miller's opinion put off federal protection for vested property rights, the dissenting opinions of Bradley and Field embraced substantive due process and the laissez-faire principles that pointed the Court's way to the future.

United States v. Cruikshank (1876) reiterated the principles of Slaughterhouse in terms of rights for black citizens. Miller voted with the majority in a case involving a massacre of some 100 blacks in Louisiana. Following Miller's logic in Slaughterhouse, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite stated that people must “look to the states” to protect their individual rights. The Fourteenth Amendment had added “nothing to the rights of one citizen as against another.” The Supreme Court had allowed the narrow interpretation of national citizenship in Slaughterhouse to circumscribe the meaning of the amendment for the people it was intended to endow with all the benefits of citizenship.

In the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the Court once again employed a constricted view of the Fourteenth Amendment. At issue was the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which attempted to secure equality of social rights, including equal access to privately owned public facilities. Because the complaint involved no state action, no discriminatory state law, the national government had no right to intervene. “Individual invasion of individual rights,” Bradley insisted for the majority, “is not the subject of the amendment.” The law was clearly unconstitutional, according to this interpretation. Consistent with his interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in Slaughterhouse, Miller voted with the majority in these cases, as well as in Cruikshank.

By today's standards, the conduct of Miller and the Court in the area of civil rights is disappointing. It should be noted, however, that very few Americans were committed to genuine equality for black people during the Reconstruction era. The Republican majority in Congress provided amendments and laws sufficient to establish a broad nationalization of civil and political rights but failed to follow up with the necessary funds to finance the increased caseload in the lower federal courts and the military force necessary to subdue the recalcitrant South. After the election of 1874 returned a Democratic majority to Congress, signaling that the American people had grown weary of the never-ending racial problems in the southern states, federal Reconstruction efforts were in full retreat. Whether the Court began that retreat with the Slaughterhouse Cases or merely followed the lead of the legislative branch, it is perhaps too much to expect that the third branch of government with no powers of enforcement could establish the full citizenship of the 4 million freed people.

If Miller's estimation of the Fourteenth Amendment was disappointing, he displayed a stronger regard for the voting rights of blacks. He went along with the Court in United States v. Reese (1876), deciding that the Fifteenth Amendment did not grant freedmen the right to vote but rather the right not to be discriminated against in the franchise on the grounds of race. The case struck down two sections of the Enforcement Act of 1870 but nevertheless suggested that the federal government had power to prosecute both state officials and private individuals who interfered with the suffrage on grounds of race.

Ex parte Yarbrough (1884) marked a resounding victory for the voting rights of black Americans. The case involved a conspiracy to deprive a black citizen of the franchise on account of his race. Speaking for the majority, Miller construed the Fifteenth Amendment broadly, and then he went on to hold that neither the case nor the Enforcement Act depended on the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbids only those denials of the franchise that were because of race. Congressional authority to protect voters in national elections derived from Article I. “If this government is anything more than a mere aggregation of delegated agents of other States and governments, each of which is superior to the general government,” Miller ruled, “it must have the power to protect the elections on which its existence depends from violence and corruption.” Congress had broad powers to protect blacks in federal elections against both private persons and state officials, and because state and local elections were generally held at the same time, the power extended to state elections as well. It was a decision worthy of Miller's Civil War nationalism.

As one of the Republican justices chosen to serve on the electoral commission to settle the disputed presidential election of 1876, Miller had a part in bringing about the official end of Reconstruction. Like all the other participants, he voted his party preference, giving Rutherford B. Hayes a majority of one in the commission and securing the presidency for the Republican Party.

Outside the arena of civil rights, Miller withstood the efforts of big business and his judicial brethren to write laissez-faire economic theory into constitutional law through the Fourteenth Amendment. He had turned a deaf ear to the substantive due process arguments in Slaughterhouse, preserving the states' right to regulate. Otherwise, he noted, the Court would become a “perpetual censor” of state legislation. The Supreme Court held firm in the Granger cases. Miller voted with the majority to allow state regulation of railroads and grain elevators, establishing a public interest doctrine in Munn v. Illinois (1877). But Chief Justice Waite conceded even in Munn that “under some circumstances” a state regulatory statute might be so arbitrary as to be unconstitutional. Such a concession was all that business needed to keep pounding the Court with a substantive reading of the due process clause. Miller complained in Davidson v. New Orleans (1877) that the Court's docket was “crowded with cases in which we are asked to hold that state courts and state legislatures have deprived their own citizens of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” This “strange misconception of the scope of this provision” of the Fourteenth Amendment soon overtook the justices, and Miller fought a losing battle. If his initial construction had postponed the protection of vested interests through the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court had by 1886 made corporations “persons” entitled to equal protection under the amendment intended to protect the citizenship rights of black Americans. And shortly before Miller's death in 1890, the Court expressly adopted substantive due process in Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Co. v. Minnesota, with Miller concurring.

Miller made a similar stand against judicial protection of vested interest in a long line of dissenting opinions in state and municipal bond repudiation cases beginning with Gelpcke v. Dubuque (1863). However valid the grounds for repudiation seemed to state courts, the nation's highest court generally held that a contract, once made, could not be broken. But Miller was unwilling to make the taxpayers suffer for the wrong judgment of their officials. He thought that state law should be construed by the state courts. It was a “painful matter,” Miller complained in a letter to his brother-in-law, that these cases compelled him “to take part in a farce whose result is invariably the same, namely to give more to those who have already, and to take away from those who have little, the little that they have.” Miller spoke for the majority for a change when Loan Association v. Topeka (1875) invalidated a Kansas law that authorized spending tax money for private purposes.

While the Supreme Court was becoming more deeply entrenched in its determination to protect property rights, the public was becoming aware that regulation of big business, particularly railroads, was necessary at some level of government. Yet the attempts of the various states to regulate intrastate commerce could be seriously detrimental to the smooth flow of interstate commerce. When the constitutionality of an Illinois statute outlawing long haul-short haul rate differentials came before the Court in Wabash, St Louis, & Pacific Railway v. Illinois (1886), Miller seized the opportunity to sound a clear call for national regulation. Speaking for the majority in one of his most important decisions, Miller struck down the state law as a violation of the commerce clause. Refusing to speak to the “justice or propriety” of the Illinois regulation, Miller maintained that “regulation can only appropriately exist by general rules and principles, which demand that it should be done by Congress of the United States under the commerce clause.” Miller's exhortation led directly to the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. That neither the Congress nor the Supreme Court was willing to clothe the Interstate Commerce Commission with enough authority to regulate effectively was not the fault of Samuel Miller.

During his twenty-eight years on the Court, Justice Miller stood firm for the right of government to govern. He lacked the fear of government action and the overriding respect for private property that entrenched his colleagues in laissez-faire economic policy. Unfortunately, he stood for the right to regulate at too high a cost to black Americans. Miller was bitterly disappointed when Grant passed him over for the center seat in 1874 but no doubt would have appreciated the Albany Law Journal' s labeling him in 1890 “the real chief in any court in which he might have sat.”


Charles Fairman, Mr. Justice Miller and the Supreme Court (1939; reprinted 2002), the standard biography of Miller, is a model of careful scholarship, although Fairman's penchant for getting all his information into print often overrides organization and analysis. Fairman also treats Miller extensively in two articles, “Justice Samuel Miller: A Study of a Judicial Statesman,” Political Science Quarterly 50 (1935): 15; and “Samuel F. Miller, Justice of the Supreme Court,” Vanderbilt Law Review 10 (1957): 193; as well as the two volumes he wrote for the Holmes Devise History, Reconstruction and Reunion, Parts 1 and 2 (1971, 1987), which is the most exhaustive treatment of the Reconstruction Court. For a short biographical sketch, see William Gillette, “Samuel Miller,” in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 2, 1011, an excellent, succinct analysis of Miller and his contribution to the law.

For comparative studies, see Paul Albert Weidner' s unpublished dissertation, “Justices Field and Miller: A Comparative Study in Judicial Attitudes and Values” (University of Michigan, 1957); and G. Edward White, “Miller, Bradley, Field, and the Reconstructed Constitution,” in The American Judicial Tradition: Profiles of Leading American Judges (1988 ed.).

Noteworthy Opinions

Gelpcke v. Dubuque, 68 U.S. 175 (1863) (Dissent)

Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. 333 (1867) (Dissent)

Hepburn v. Griswold, 75 U.S. 603 (1870) (Dissent)

Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873)

Loan Association v. Topeka, 87 U.S. 655 (1875)

Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651 (1884)

Wabash, St. Louis, & Pacific Railroad Co. v. Illinois, 118 U.S. 557 (1886)


Document Citation
Miller, Samuel Freeman, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 357 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18168-979404
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