John M. Berrien

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John Macpherson Berrien
John Macpherson Berrien, portrait by John Maier.png
United States Senator
from Georgia
In office
November 13, 1845 – May 28, 1852
Preceded byVacant
Succeeded byRobert M. Charlton
In office
March 4, 1841 – May 1845
Preceded byWilson Lumpkin
Succeeded byVacant
In office
March 4, 1825 – March 9, 1829
Preceded byJohn Elliott
Succeeded byJohn Forsyth
10th United States Attorney General
In office
March 9, 1829 – June 22, 1831
PresidentAndrew Jackson
Preceded byWilliam Wirt
Succeeded byRoger B. Taney
Member of the Georgia Senate
from Chatham County
In office
Preceded byEdward Harden
Succeeded byWilliam Davies
Personal details
John Macpherson Berrien

(1781-08-23)August 23, 1781
Rocky Hill, New Jersey, U.S.
DiedJanuary 1, 1856(1856-01-01) (aged 74)
Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic (before 1834)
Whig (1834–1856)
Other political
Southern Rights
Spouse(s)Eliza Richardson Anciaux
Eliza Cecil Hunter
EducationPrinceton University (BA)

John Macpherson Berrien (August 23, 1781 – January 1, 1856) of United States senator from Georgia and Attorney General of the United States during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

Early life and education[edit]

Berrien was born on August 23, 1781 at Rockingham, Rocky Hill, New Jersey, to Major John Berrien, son of Judge John Berrien, and Margaret Macpherson.[1] He moved with his parents to Savannah, Georgia, in 1782. His mother died three years later.[2]

He graduated from Princeton College in 1796, studied law in Savannah, was admitted to the bar at the age of 18,[3] and began practice in Louisville, Georgia, in 1799. After he returned to Savannah he was elected solicitor of the eastern judicial circuit of Georgia in 1809; judge of the same circuit from 1810 until January 30, 1821, when he resigned. He served as captain of the Georgia Hussars, a Savannah volunteer company, in the War of 1812.

Political career[edit]

Berrien was a member of the Georgia Senate from 1822 to 1823. He was elected as a Jacksonian Democrat to the United States Senate and served from March 4, 1825. In The Antelope case of 1824,[4] he argued against the freedom of slaves captured at sea noting slavery "lay at the foundation of the Constitution" and that slaves "constitute the very foundation of your union".[5]

On March 9, 1829, he resigned from the Senate to accept the position of Attorney General in the Cabinet of President Andrew Jackson. His first assignment was to prosecute former Treasury Fourth Auditor Tobias Watkins for embezzlement of public funds. Berrien secured a conviction at a high profile that same year.[6] Later Berrien supported states' rights in the Nullification Crisis. In the case of the Negro Seamen Acts, he considered the acts to be appropriate exercises of the states' police powers, and beyond the reach of the federal government.[7] He resigned from the office of Attorney General on June 22, 1831.

After leaving the Cabinet he resumed the practice of law until he was again elected, as a Whig, to the U.S. Senate and served from March 4, 1841, until May 1845, when he again resigned to accept an appointment to the supreme court of Georgia; again elected in 1845 to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by his second resignation; reelected in 1846 and served from November 13, 1845, until May 28, 1852, when he resigned for the third time.

Berrien's views on sectional issues hardened during his tenure in the Senate and he became aligned with the short-lived Southern Rights Party formed to oppose the Compromise of 1850 and the Wilmot Proviso.

During the 1820s, Berrien was a member of the prestigious society, Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, which counted among its members presidents Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams and many prominent men of the day, including well-known representatives of the military, government service, medical and other professions.[8]

He served as the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in the 20th, 26th and 27th Congresses. He was president of the American Party convention at Milledgeville in 1855.

Berrien was a slaveholder,[9] and owned 90 according to the 1830 U.S. census.[10] In 1840, he owned eight slaves at his house in Savannah, Georgia,[11] and an additional 140 slaves in surrounding Chatham County.[12] In 1850, he owned 143 slaves.[13]

Death and legacy[edit]

Berrien died at his home, now known as the John Berrien House (named for his father),[2] in Savannah on January 1, 1856. He is interred in Laurel Grove Cemetery. Berrien County, Georgia, and Berrien County, Michigan (one of Michigan's Cabinet Counties, organized during his term as attorney general), are named after him.[14]

Berrien was one of the Georgia Historical Society's founders in 1839 and served as the organization's first president. The Georgia Historical Society holds a substantial collection of Berrien papers (including important material relating to the Petticoat affair). The Society also annually presents the John Macpherson Berrien Award, a lifetime achievement award recognizing outstanding contributions to Georgia history.


  1. ^ Honeyman, A. Van Doren, ed. (1920). "Hon. John Macpherson Berrien". Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society. Vol. 5. pp. 106–8.
  2. ^ a b "Berrien House Trust | Family History: Major John Berrien". Retrieved April 4, 2022.
  3. ^ Ruffin, Charles L. (2013). "Georgia Legal Legend: U.S. Attorney General John Berrien". Georgia Bar Journal. 19 (1): 4. Retrieved October 25, 2016.
  4. ^ Dyer, Justin Buckley (2009). "After the Revolution: Somerset and the Antislavery Tradition in Anglo-American Constitutional Development". Journal of Politics. 71 (4): 1430. doi:10.1017/S0022381609990041. S2CID 14398369.
  5. ^ Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction; by Allen C. Guelzo, May 18, 2012, kindle location 935
  6. ^ Cain, Marvin R. (Spring 1984). "Claims, Contracts, and Customs: Public Accountability and a Department of Law, 1789-1849". Journal of the Early Republic. 4 (1): 40. doi:10.2307/3122853. JSTOR 3122853.
  7. ^ Schoeppner, Michael A. (2013). "Status across Borders: Roger Taney, Black British Subjects, and a Diplomatic Antecedent to the Dred Scott Decision". Journal of American History. 100 (1): 60. doi:10.1093/jahist/jat036.
  8. ^ William Dawson Johnson (1904). History of the Library of Congress: Volume I, 1800–1864, Volume 1. Retrieved January 6, 2015.
  9. ^ "Congress slaveowners", The Washington Post, January 27, 2022, retrieved January 31, 2022
  10. ^ 1830 United States Census, United States census, 1830; Cherokee Hill District, Chatham, Georgia;. Retrieved on March 6, 2016.
  11. ^ 1840 United States Census, United States census, 1840; Savannah, Georgia;. Retrieved on March 6, 2016.
  12. ^ 1840 United States Census, United States census, 1840; District 8, Chatham, Georgia;. Retrieved on March 6, 2016.
  13. ^ "1850 United States Census, Slave Schedules", United States census, 1850; District 13, Chatham, Georgia;.
  14. ^ Krakow, Kenneth K. (1975). Georgia Place-Names: Their History and Origins (PDF). Macon, GA: Winship Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-915430-00-2.

External links[edit]


U.S. Senate
Preceded by U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Georgia
Served alongside: Thomas W. Cobb, Oliver H. Prince, George Troup
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee
Succeeded by
Preceded by U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Georgia
Served alongside: Alfred Cuthbert, Walter T. Colquitt
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee
Succeeded by
Preceded by
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Georgia
Served alongside: Walter T. Colquitt, Herschel Johnson, William Dawson
Succeeded by
Legal offices
Preceded by United States Attorney General
Succeeded by