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Strong, William

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Birth: May 6, 1808, Somers, Connecticut.

Education: Yale College, A.B., 1828, M.A. in law, 1832.

Official Positions: U.S. representative, 1847–1851; justice, Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 1857–1868.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President Ulysses S. Grant, February 8, 1870, to replace Robert C. Grier, who had retired; confirmed by the Senate, February, 18, 1870, by a voice vote; took judicial oath March 14, 1870; retired December 14, 1880; replaced by William B. Woods, nominated by President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Death: August 19, 1895, Lake Minnewaska, New York.

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William Strong
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William Strong

William Strong spent ten years on the Supreme Court bench in relative obscurity. As a skilled case writer and expert in patent and business law, he earned the respect of his judicial brethren, but Strong wrote few of the important cases that have shaped constitutional law, and his tenure has therefore stimulated little historical investigation. A product of his times, Strong was a conservative justice more concerned with private property rights than with civil rights.

The eldest of eleven children of a New England Congregational minister, Strong attended Yale, taught school while he read law, then returned to Yale to complete his legal training. He settled in Reading, Pennsylvania, mastered German, and quickly became a prominent railroad lawyer. He served two congressional terms as a “Locofoco” (Radical) Democrat (they were called Locofocos after a brand of matches). Strong then returned to private practice, and in 1857 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. A staunch unionist, Strong joined the Republican Party during his tenure on the state bench and earned a reputation for upholding Republican war measures.

Not content with serving the state, Strong also worked to advance the kingdom of God. He was a devout Presbyterian involved in numerous evangelical reform movements. Concerned that the Founding Fathers had omitted God from the Constitution, Strong headed the national reform movement to amend the preamble to acknowledge “Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in Civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler of all nations, and His revealed will as the supreme law of the land.” Strong did not advocate a state church, but believed that law should adhere to Christian principles. His background provided the values he would bring to the Supreme Court: strong Christian principles, unionism, a probusiness outlook, and respect for private property.

Strong's appointment to the Supreme Court was surrounded with controversy. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him and Joseph Bradley on the same day that the Court, in Hepburn v. Griswold (1870), declared the legal tender act unconstitutional as it applied to preexisting debts. Strong's support for legal tender on the Pennsylvania bench was well established, and consequently Grant was accused of “Court-packing.” The timing was unfortunate, but it was to be expected that Grant would appoint justices who would uphold the Republican program. Within months, the Supreme Court dramatically reversed itself on the legal tender issue. Strong was chosen to write the opinion in Knox v. Lee (1871), the most important he would write during his tenure.

Because the authority to make Treasury notes legal tender was not an enumerated power, the right, if it existed, was an implied power. Chief Justice Salmon Chase and Strong both relied on John Marshall's classic explication of the elastic clause in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) that any legitimate end “consistent with the letter and spirit of the constitution” was constitutional, but they reached different conclusions. Chase admitted that Congress possessed broad implied powers, but he ruled in Hepburn that the legal tender act violated the “spirit” of the Constitution by impairing the obligation of contracts (constitutionally forbidden to the states rather than the national government) and depriving creditors of their property without due process of law. Overturning Hepburn, Strong emphasized in Knox v. Lee the broad range of methods available to Congress for carrying out the enumerated powers. Because Congress had the power to coin money, it followed, for Strong, that it also had “the power to declare what is money.” It was not the prerogative of the Court to judge the “degree of appropriateness” of the means Congress chose to achieve a legitimate end. Strong emphasized the wartime emergency as rationale for the currency law and made clear his understanding that Congress was not authorized to “make anything which has no value money.” But Congress had power to enact laws that made “the government's promises to pay money …. for the time being, equivalent in value” to that of hard money. As he generally voted to support vested property rights, Strong probably would not have sanctioned a legal tender act in ordinary times.

In Reconstruction matters, Strong was reluctant to follow through with Republican Party efforts to effect lasting change in the southern states. Speaking for a unanimous Court, Strong ruled in Bigelow v. Forrest (1870) that the Civil War confiscation acts conflicted with the Article III attainder of treason clause of the Constitution. Confiscated property could be held only for the life of the original owner; on his death it reverted back to his heirs. Bigelow effectively negated any long- term effects of the confiscation acts, although Strong upheld the validity of the laws in Miller v. United States (1871). In Blyew v. United States (1872), a test of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, Strong refused to allow removal of a murder trial to federal court even though the only witnesses, who were black, had not been allowed to testify in the Kentucky court. Because the victim was dead, Strong insisted, she had no rights at stake, and therefore the federal government lacked jurisdiction. Strong voted with the majority in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), which, although concerned with white butchers, defined national citizenship so narrowly that former slaves were left without the protection of the federal government for their basic rights. Overall, Strong appeared relatively unconcerned about federal protection of black citizens.

It was Strong, however, who spoke for the Court on two of the rare occasions when black Americans won legal victories. Three cases involving jury rights for black citizens were handed down on the same day in 1880. In Ex parte Virginia, Strong upheld the section of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that pertained to jury selection—the only part of the statute left standing when the Court declared it unconstitutional in the Civil Rights Cases (1883)—and he found a state judge who had routinely excluded blacks from jury duty guilty of violating the act.

In Strauder v. West Virginia, Strong declared a state statute that excluded blacks from jury duty invalid as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He noted, however, that the issue was not whether some blacks sat on the jury, but whether “all persons of his race or color may be excluded by law, solely because of their race or color.” It was the exclusionary statute that proved discrimination for Strong.

The third jury case, Virginia v. Rives, proved less benign and certainly more important over the years. Blacks were routinely barred from jury duty in Virginia, even in the absence of a discriminatory state law and therefore no official state action. Strong refused to acknowledge that the black citizens of Virginia were being denied a jury of their peers. Instead, he argued that juries composed entirely of whites did not indicate discrimination because of race or color. Even an all-white jury could be impartially selected. If there was no state law, there was no discrimination. This decision countenanced a practice that would have been unconstitutional if written into law, and it presented black citizens the difficult task of proving systematic exclusion from jury duty.

Strong's experience as a railroad lawyer was reflected in his actions on the Court. He voted with the minority against state regulation in Munn v. Illinois (1877), for example, and, in the State Freight Tax Case (1873), he held a Pennsylvania state tax invalid as a breach of the commerce clause.

In 1877 Strong served on the electoral commission to settle the disputed presidential election of 1876. Like the other members, he voted his party preference, giving Rutherford B. Hayes a majority of one in the commission and securing the presidency for the Republican Party.

Strong retired from the Supreme Court in 1880, still in full possession of his physical and mental faculties. Apparently, he meant his resignation to serve as an example to the justices who were no longer up to the task. He spent his remaining years doing Christian benevolent work.


There is, not surprisingly, no published biography of Strong. Stanley I. Kutler's sketch in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 2, 1153, is the best single source of information on Strong's judicial career. Daniel G. Strong's unpublished dissertation, “Supreme Court Justice William Strong, 1808–1895: Jurisprudence, Christianity and Reform” (Kent State University, 1985), contains excellent information on Strong's early life and career that cannot be located elsewhere, but the chapter on the Supreme Court years is very weak on case analysis. Jon C. Teaford, “Toward a Christian Nation: Religion, Law and Justice Strong,” Journal of Presbyterian History 54 (1976): 422, is concerned with Strong's religious ideas rather than his judicial career. Charles Fairman's two-volume work in the Holmes Devise History, Reconstruction and Reunion (1971, 1987), is the most exhaustive treatment of the Reconstruction Court and includes analyses of all of Strong's major opinions.

Noteworthy Opinions

Bigelow v. Forrest, 76 U.S. 339 (1870)

Knox v. Lee, 79 U.S. 457 (1871)

Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1880)

Virginia v. Rives, 100 U.S. 313 (1880)

Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339 (1880)


Document Citation
Strong, William, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 513 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18169-979555
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