Robert Cooper Grier

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Robert Cooper Grier
Robert Cooper Grier - Brady-Handy.jpg
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
August 4, 1846 – January 31, 1870
Nominated byJames K. Polk
Preceded byHenry Baldwin
Succeeded byWilliam Strong
Personal details
Born(1794-03-05)March 5, 1794
Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedSeptember 25, 1870(1870-09-25) (aged 76)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Other political
Isabelle Rose
(m. 1829)
EducationDickinson College (BA)

Robert Cooper Grier (March 5, 1794 – September 25, 1870), was an American jurist who served on the Supreme Court of the United States. A Jacksonian Democrat from Pennsylvania who served from 1846 to 1870, Grier weighed in on some of the most important cases of the 19th century. As a rare Northern member of the majority in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, Grier concurred that African Americans were not and were never meant to be citizens of the United States and that the property rights of slaveholders were clearly protected in the US Constitution. However, Grier wrote the majority opinion in the 1863 Prize Cases, upholding Abraham Lincoln's presidential power to institute Union blockades of Confederate ports and giving the Union Army a strategic advantage in the American Civil War.

Early life, education, and career[edit]

Grier was born in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania to Elizabeth Cooper Grier and Isaac Grier, a Presbyterian minister and school teacher, who tutored him until he entered Dickinson College. Grier graduated from Dickinson in only one year, receiving a B.A. in 1812, and remained there as an instructor until taking a position at a school his father ran. He succeeded his father as headmaster in 1815.

While a teacher, Grier read law on his own time, and passed the bar in 1817, at which time he entered private practice in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania until 1818, and then in Danville, Pennsylvania until 1833. Grier married Isabelle Rose, the daughter of a wealthy Scottish immigrant, in 1829.

Grier was a political organizer for the Jacksonians in the Democrats. In 1833 Grier was rewarded with a patronage appointment to a judgeship on the Pennsylvania state District Court for Allegheny County, newly created for him. He served there for 13 years, developing a reputation for competence.

Federal Judicial Service[edit]

Engraving of Robert Cooper Grier while serving as Justice of the Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin died in 1844 during the administration of President Tyler. Tyler made two attempted appointments to the seat, Edward King and John M. Read, but the Senate confirmed neither, so the seat remained vacant when James K. Polk became president in March 1845. Polk also made two nominations, one of whom refused the appointment (future President James Buchanan), and the Senate refused to confirm George Washington Woodward. Polk finally nominated Grier on August 3, 1846, plucking him from relative obscurity. The Senate unanimously approved Grier on August 4, 1846, and he received his commission the same day, joining fellow Dickinson alumnus, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, on the Court.

Grier's most significant contributions to the Supreme Court and the Constitution are found in his decisions regarding slavery, particularly Dred Scott v. Sandford, and his support of the Union in the Prize Cases. His less famous economic opinions, however, are integral to understanding Grier's overall significance. In studying Grier's time on the bench, it is important to begin with Cook v. Moffat (1847). In this case, William G. Cook of Maryland filed bankruptcy in his home state. He believed that, because he had made this decision under Maryland's insolvency laws, he escaped from all debts, including those that he owed to citizens and companies in other states. John L. Moffat and Joseph Curtis, the respondents in this case, thought otherwise. As citizens of New York, Moffat and Curtis argued that Maryland's bankruptcy laws did not free Cook from his obligations in other states. In his first majority opinion, Grier ruled in favor of Moffat and Curtis, finding that a State shall not "inflict her bankrupt laws on contracts and persons not within her limits."[1] Perhaps more important than what Grier ruled in the case is how he ruled. Citing multiple opinions, Grier remarked that holding in favor of Cook would "overrule every case heretofore decided on this most difficult and intricate subject." To "depart from the safe maxim of stare decisis," said Grier, would be a grave mistake.[2] Grier's respect of the Court's previous rulings constitutes an essential component of his first major opinion.

Grier authored another decisive majority opinion on the question of contracts in Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad Company v. Louisa Railroad Company (1852). This case revolved around an 1834 charter issued by Virginia to the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad Company (RFP). The charter granted the RFP sole rights to transport passengers between Richmond and Fredericksburg for a period of thirty years, establishing a contract between the company and the state. Nonetheless, Virginia approved a charter to establish the Louisa Railroad Company in 1848 (LRC). The LRC, which proposed to carry only freight, followed a route similar to that of the RFP. Feeling that its contract had been violated, the RFP filed suit. In a ruling that pays homage to Taney's Charles River Bridge (1837) opinion, Grier concentrated on strict construction of the charter: "Where do we find that the legislature have contracted to part with the power of constructing other railroads," Grier asked, "even between Richmond and Fredericksburg, for carrying coal or other freight?" Plainly answering himself, Grier explained that "such a contract cannot be elicited from the letter or spirit of this act," thus ruling in favor of the LRC.[3] His decision clearly echoed Taney's call for economic progress and promotion of the public good in the Charles River Bridge decision that to deny the Louisa Railroad's rights would be a disservice to the people and businesses of Virginia.

In 1854, the United States House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee conducted an investigation of Grier's conduct in connection with a case then pending before the United States Supreme Court, Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company.[4] Allegations were that Grier solicited a bribe in order to rule in favor of one of the parties, ignored the law in making his ruling, and leaked the Court's decision early in order to favor one of the parties (who was considering dismissal of the case).[5] Ultimately, the House Judiciary Committee issued a report dismissing the allegations leveled against Grier, stating that Grier "is entirely and absolutely exonerated and freed from the charges preferred against him. There is absolutely nothing which can or will impair his reputation as a judge or an upright and honest man."[6] Nonetheless, the Committee's report is intriguing because it was authored by Hendrick B. Wright, who was a fellow Dickinson alumnus and defeated for reelection in the next Congress, indications of probable bias in the justice's favor.[7] Thus, it is unclear whether Grier was guilty of the allegations leveled against him.

Slavery was the most important political and constitutional issue to come before the Court. In United States v. Hanway (1851), a Third Circuit Court case, Grier dealt with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Though Grier ultimately did not convict Castner Hanway of treason for his role as a bystander when a mob of African Americans killed a slave owner and a federal marshal attempting to recover fugitive slaves, Grier uttered harsh words against abolitionists, describing them as "infuriated fanatics and unprincipled demagogues" who "denounce the constitution, the laws, and the Bible."[8] The justice also carried this philosophy outside the courtroom. When a Presbyterian preacher announced an upcoming abolitionist meeting during Sunday morning service, Grier stood to protest the message, declaring that all good Christians must reject the abolitionist cause.[9] Grier soon reaffirmed these thoughts in his majority opinion in Moore v. Illinois (1852), upholding an Illinois law that punished any citizen who hid runaway slaves. Certainly, Grier's mind throbbed with these beliefs about abolitionists and African American freedom when Dred Scott came before the Supreme Court.

Three years later, Grier was one of two Northerners to side with the majority in the controversial Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott, an African American from Missouri, claimed his freedom based on the premise that he had resided in the Missouri Compromise-established free territory of Wisconsin (present-day Minnesota) with his master, army surgeon Dr. John Emerson. Upon Dr. Emerson's death in 1843, his wife Irene Emerson inherited ownership of Dred Scott. Four years later, Scott sued Mrs. Emerson for his freedom, and a local court ruled in his favor. The Missouri Supreme Court, however, repealed the lower court's decision, reversing over two decades of precedent. After this decision, Scott's ownership transferred to Irene Emerson's brother, John Sanford. Scott then sued Sanford for his freedom. By suing Sanford, a citizen of New York, Scott enabled the Supreme Court to become involved as this constituted a suit between people of different states.

In a separate opinion, Grier concurred in full with the majority opinion delivered by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Taney stated that, based on the language of the Constitution and the founders' feelings toward African Americans, the Court did not consider Dred Scott to be an American citizen, thus restricting his right to sue in federal court. For practical purposes, Taney could have ended his opinion at this point. He pushed further, though, invalidating the Missouri Compromise under which Scott used to declare his freedom. Justice Grier initially discouraged such a broad ruling, claiming that the Court should restrict itself after ruling on Scott's status as a non-citizen. Wanting to change his peer's mind, Justice John Catron wrote to President-elect James Buchanan and asked him to lobby Grier for a broader opinion. Buchanan happily agreed, and he exchanged a series of letters with Grier, persuading the justice. In his separate opinion, Justice Grier wrote that he "concurr[ed] with the opinion of the court as delivered by the Chief Justice that the act of Congress of 6th March, 1820, (the Missouri Compromise) is unconstitutional and void and that, assuming the facts as stated in the opinion, the plaintiff cannot sue as a citizen of Missouri in the courts of the United States."[10]

Some critics[who?] suspected Grier co-ordinated his actions with his distant cousin Alexander H. Stephens, a U.S. congressman from Georgia who strongly defended slavery and later became vice president of the Confederacy.[citation needed] But Stephens biographer Thomas E. Schott considered this unlikely since the two men were not close.[citation needed] Grier did leak the decision of the case early to President James Buchanan,[citation needed] who alluded to its outcome[disputed ] in his 1857 inaugural address.[11] Buchanan declared that the issue of slavery in the territories would be "speedily and finally settled" by the Supreme Court[12] Breaching separation of powers and siding with the majority, the Dred Scott case struck a blow to Justice Grier's historical reputation.

During the American Civil War, Grier discontinued circuit riding in 1862, and in 1863 wrote the opinion on the Prize Cases, which declared Lincoln's blockade of Southern ports constitutional. In the moments leading up to the Civil War, President Lincoln refused to ask Congress to officially declare war. Doing so, Lincoln believed, would recognize the Confederate States of America as an independent nation and imply the dissolution of the Union. As Commander in Chief, Lincoln acted as if war had been declared, though, issuing blockades of Southern ports that helped to cripple the Southern cause. Opponents of Lincoln's maneuvers saw the blockades as pure piracy since there had been no official call for war. Supporters argued for war in fact, not in words, and justified the blockading and capturing of Southern vessels.

One of the few things that Justice Grier despised more than abolition was disunion. In his majority opinion, Grier supported Lincoln. "A civil war is never solemnly declared," he wrote. "It becomes such by its accidents – the number, power, and organization of the persons who originate and carry it on."[13] Though Congress did not proclaim a state of war existed, thought Grier, "its actual existence is a fact in our domestic history which the Court is bound to notice and to know."[14] Thus, by citing the power that the Constitution confers on the president to use the military to protect the Union, Grier upheld Lincoln's tactics. In what many claim as the most important judicial decision during the war, Grier delivered a dagger to the Confederacy and to the institution of slavery.


Grier married his wife, Isabelle Rose, in 1829, and they had five daughters and one son. His son, U.S. Army doctor William Potter Grier (b. 1834) died in a steamship explosion in 1866.[15]

Death and legacy[edit]

Despite three strokes in 1867, Grier served on the court until 1870, at which point he was quite frail and drastically limited his participation on the court. Grier retired only after his colleagues pressed him to do so, ending his judicial service on January 31, 1870. He died less than a year later, in Philadelphia.

Justice Grier is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.[16]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Wisniewski, Daniel J., "Heating Up a Case Gone Cold: Revisiting the Charges of Bribery and Official Misconduct Made Against Supreme Court Justice Robert Cooper Grier in 1854-55," in Journal of Supreme Court History (Supreme Court Historical Society: 2013) Volume 38, No. 1, pp. 1–19.
  • Gatell, Frank Otto, "Robert C. Grier," in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Volume: 2 (1997) pp 435–45.
  • Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech. "Robert C. Grier." Oyez. Accessed November 8, 2015.
  • Hall, Kermit L., James W. Ely, Jr., and Joel B. Grossman, eds. "Grier, Robert Cooper." In The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. 2nd ed. 405 – 406. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Huebner, Timothy S. The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2003.
  • Maltz, Earl M. Dred Scott and the Politics of Slavery. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 2007.
  • Streichler, Stuart A. "Grier, Robert Cooper." American National Biography Online. Accessed November 6, 2015.


  1. ^ Cook v. Moffat, 46 U.S. 295, 308 (1847)
  2. ^ Cook v. Moffat, 308.
  3. ^ Richmond, F. & P. R. Co. v. Louisa R. Co., 54 U.S. 71, 81 (1852).
  4. ^ Wisniewski, Daniel J., "Heating Up a Case Gone Cold: Revisiting the Charges of Bribery and Official Misconduct Made Against Supreme Court Justice Robert Cooper Grier in 1854-55," in Journal of Supreme Court History (Supreme Court Historical Society: 2013) Volume 38, No. 1, pp. 1-19.
  5. ^ Wisniewski, pp. 8-12.
  6. ^ Wisniewski, p. 5.
  7. ^ Wisniewski, pp. 6-8.
  8. ^ United States v. Hanway, No. 15,299 Fed. Cas., 174.
  9. ^ Hall, Timothy L. "Robert Cooper Grier (1794 – 1870)." In Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. 119 – 122. New York: Facts on File, 2001.
  10. ^ Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 469 (1857).
  11. ^ Hall, Timothy L. (2001). Supreme Court justices: a biographical dictionary. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing. p. 566
  12. ^ James Buchanan, "Inaugural Address," Washington, D.C., March 4, 1857.
  13. ^ Prize Cases, 67 U.S. 635, 666 (1863).
  14. ^ Prize Cases, 667.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Oxford Reference

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Henry Baldwin
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
William Strong