On May 21, 1796, attorney and statesman Reverdy Johnson was born in Annapolis, Maryland. Johnson represented Maryland, a slaveholding state south of the Mason-Dixon line, as a Whig, in the U.S. Senate from 1845-49 and again following the Civil War as a Democrat from 1863-68. Under President Zachary Taylor, he served as attorney general from 1849 until Taylor’s death in 1850. Johnson was considered a brilliant constitutional lawyer and won an 1854 Supreme Court decision in favor of a patent for the McCormick reaper.
Although he personally opposed slavery and emancipated slaves inherited from his father, Johnson represented the slave-owning defendant in the 1857 Dred Scott case in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that slaves could not be citizens of the United States. The court’s decision intensified antislavery sentiment in the North and fed the antagonism that sparked the Civil War. In 1865, the ruling was made obsolete with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery.
The map below depicts free states in pink and slave states in dark green. The light green area in the West was composed of a number of territories at that time.
During the Civil War, Reverdy Johnson strove to keep Maryland in the Union as exemplified in a major address to a Unionist meeting in January 1861. He maintained a close relationship with the Lincoln administration by serving as a member of the failed Washington Peace Conference that met in February 1861. Two years later, he was sent by President Lincoln to New Orleans to investigate complaints about the Union occupation of the city. Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was supported by Johnson as mentioned in a letter setting up a meeting between the two in April 1861.
Johnson was moderate in his attitude toward post-Civil War reconstruction of the rebellious Southern states. When impeachment proceedings were brought against Andrew Johnson, largely for his lenient treatment of the South, Reverdy Johnson was instrumental in securing the president’s acquittal.
Following a two-year appointment as minister to Great Britain from 1868-69, Johnson returned to his law practice in Annapolis where he died in 1876 as a result of a fall.