John Curtiss Underwood

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Underwood as judge of U.S. District Court of Virginia in 1866.

John Curtiss Underwood (March 14, 1809 - December 7, 1873) was a lawyer, Abolitionist politician, and federal judge.

Underwood was born in Litchfield, New York. Underwood graduated from Hamilton College in 1832[1] and was a founding member of Alpha Delta Phi. He practiced law from 1839-1856. Originally from New York, he married a granddaughter of Edward B. Jackson (whose brother John G. Jackson and great-nephew John Jay Jackson, Jr. were also federal judges), and they had a farm in Clarke County.[2] In 1856 he was a delegate to the Republican convention that nominated John C. Fremont for president. He took a position as Secretary of the Emigrant Aid and Homestead Society from 1856-1861. He left Virginia in 1857 because he was threatened for his abolitionist views.[3]

In 1861 he declined an offer to serve as U.S. consul at Callao, Peru, but accepted instead the office of fifth auditor in the United States Department of the Treasury, at which he served from 1861 to 1864.

Given a recess appointment by Abraham Lincoln to a seat vacated by James D. Halyburton and later confirmed by the United States Senate, Underwood served as judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia from 1863-1864. He was elected to the U.S. Senate from the Commonwealth of Virginia, but not seated in 1865.

Early in the American Civil War he affirmed the right of the United States government to confiscate the enemy's property. His strong views on confiscation policy put him at odds with the Supreme Court by 1870 and generated intense controversy in Virginia.[4]

When the Eastern District was abolished by Congress in 1864, Underwood was reassigned to serve as the United States District Judge for the District of Virginia from 1864 to 1871. In this position, he presided over the grand jury that indicted Jefferson Davis for treason, and later denied him bail because Davis was in the custody of military authorities.

In 1865, he was elected U.S. Senator by the Virginia legislature in session at Alexandria, but was not admitted to his seat as the Senate did not want to set a precedent for allowing premature reentry of Confederate states into the union.[5] Underwood also served as president of the state constitutional convention of 1867–68, the first legislative body in the history of Virginia that included African-Americans, over whose protest the convention failed to provide for schools open to all regardless of color. At the convention, Judge Underwood proposed to give the right to vote to both black citizens and women.

When the Eastern District was re-established in 1871, Underwood was reassigned back to it, and continued as judge of the Eastern District until he died in 1873 in Washington, District of Columbia. He is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC.


  1. ^ Judges of the United States Courts
  2. ^ Patricia Hickin, "John C. Underwood and the Antislavery Movement in Virginia, 1847-60," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Apr., 1965), p. 157.
  3. ^ "Proscription in Virginia, Letter from John C. Underwood," New York Times, Feb. 6, 1857
  4. ^ Daniel W. Hamilton, "A New Right to Property: Civil War Confiscation in the Reconstruction Supreme Court," Journal of Supreme Court History, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2004), pp. 270-274.
  5. ^ "Musical Chairs (1861–1869)". United States Senate. Retrieved 2009-03-20. 

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