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Morrison Remick Waite, nicknamed "Mott" (November 29, 1816 – March 23, 1888) was the Chief Justice of the United States from 1874 to 1888.

Early life and education

He was born at Lyme, Connecticutmarker, the son of Henry Matson Waite, who was a judge of the Superior Court and associate judge of the Supreme Court of Connecticutmarker in 1834–1854 and chief justice of the latter in 1854–1857.

Morrison was a classmate of Lyman Trumbull at Bacon Academy in Colchester, Connecticutmarker. He graduated from Yale Universitymarker in 1837 with the 1876 Democratic presidential nominee, Samuel J. Tilden. At Yale, he became a member of the Skull and Bonesmarker Society and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837, and soon afterwards moved to Maumee, Ohiomarker, where he studied law in the office of Samuel L. Young. He was admitted to the bar in 1839. He served one term as mayor of Maumee. He married Amelia Warner in 1840. He had three sons with her — Henry Seldon, Christopher Champlin, Edward T, and one daughter Mary F. In 1850, he moved to Toledomarker, and he soon came to be recognized as a leader of the state bar.

Political and legal career

In politics, he was first a Whig and later a Republican, and, in 1849–1850, he was a member of the Ohio Senate.

Before the Civil War, Waite opposed slavery and the southern slave states withdrawal from the Union. In 1871, with William M. Evarts and Caleb Cushing, he represented the United States as counsel before the Alabama Tribunal at Genevamarker, and, in 1874, he presided over the Ohio constitutional convention. In the same year he was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to succeed Judge Salmon P. Chase as Chief Justice of the United States, and he held this position until his death at March 23, 1888 in Washington, D.C.marker President Grant had offered the Chief Justiceship to among other United States Senator Roscoe Conkling and Democrat Caleb Cushing before he settled on Waite who learned of his nomination by a telegram.

The nomination was not well-received. Former Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles remarked of the nomination that "It is a wonder that Grant did not pick up some old acquaintance, who was a stage driver or bartender, for the place," and the political journal The Nation said "Mr Waite stands in the front-rank of second-rank lawyers."

The Waite Court, 1874–1888

In the cases that grew out of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and especially in those that involved the interpretation of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendment, he sympathized with the general tendency of the court to restrict the further extension of the powers of the Federal government. In a particularly notable ruling in United States v. Cruikshank, the court struck down the Enforcement Act, ruling that "The very highest duty of the States, when they entered into the Union under the Constitution, was to protect all persons within their boundaries in the enjoyment of these 'unalienable rights with which they were endowed by their Creator.' Sovereignty, for this purpose, rests alone with the States. It is no more the duty or within the power of the United States to punish for a conspiracy to falsely imprison or murder within a State, than it would be to punish for false imprisonment or murder itself." He concluded that "We may suspect that race was the cause of the hostility but is it not so averred" . His belief was that white moderates should set the rules of racial relations in the South, which reflected the majority of the Court and the people of the United States, who were tired of the bitter racial strife involved with the affairs of Reconstruction. This belief backfired when arch-segregationists in the South regained power and legislated the infamous Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised African-Americans in the South. These laws lasted well into the 20th century.

In his opinion of Munn v. Illinois (1877), which was one of a group of six Granger cases involving Populist-inspired state legislation to fix maximum rates chargeable by grain elevators and railroads, he said that when a business or private property was "affected with a public interest" it was subject to governmental regulation. Thus, the Court was ruling against charges that Granger laws constituted encroachment of private property without due process of law and conflicted with the Fourteenth Amendment. The ardent New Dealers in the Franklin Roosevelt administration looked to Munn v. Illinois to guide them in matters like due process, commerce and contract clauses .

Waite concurred with the majority in the Head Money Cases (1884), the Ku-Klux Case (United States v. Harris, 1883), the Civil Rights Cases (1883), Pace v. Alabama (1883), and the Legal Tender Cases (including Juillard v. Greenman) (1883). Among his own most important opinions were those in the Enforcement Act Cases (1875), the Sinking Fund Cases (1878), the Railroad Commission Cases (1886) and the Telephone Cases (1887).

In 1876 when there was talk about a third term for President Grant some Republicans turned to Waite as they believed he was a better presidential nominee for the Republican Party than the scandal-tainted Grant. Waite turned down the idea arguing "my duty was not to make it a stepping stone to someone else but to preserve its purity and make my own name as honorable as that of any of my predecessors" . In the aftermath of the presidential election of 1876 he refused to sit on the Electoral Commission that decided the electoral votes of Floridamarker because of his close friendship of GOP presidential nominee Rutherford B. Hayes and his classmateship with the Democratic presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden with whom Waite studied at Yale College.

As Chief Justice he swore in Presidents Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland.

Justice Waite's statement during a Fourteenth Amendment case may be the original basis for the recognition of corporations having the legal rights of a person:"The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does."

Champion of education opportunities for blacks

He was one of the Peabody Trustees of Southern Education and was a vocal advocate to aiding schools for the education of blacks in the south.

Frankfurter's view of Waite

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said of him:
"He did not confine the constitution within the limits of his own experience....
The disciplined and disinterested lawyer in him transcended the bounds of the environment within which he moved and the views of the client whom he served at the bar".

Death and legacy

His remains are interred in Woodlawn Cemetery, Plot: Section 42, by the river in Toledo, Ohiomarker. His unexpected death generated considerable public shock. This was not where he was originally supposed to be buried.


Further reading


  1. Supreme Court Justices Who Are Phi Beta Kappa Members, Phi Beta Kappa website, accessed Oct 4, 2009
  2. Morrison Waite memorial at Find a Grave.
  3. See also, Christensen, George A. (1983) Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices, Yearbook. Supreme Court Historical Society. Christensen, George A., Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, Pages 17 - 41 (19 Feb 2008), University of Alabama.

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