Thomas Todd

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Thomas Todd
Thomas Todd SCOTUS.jpg
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
March 3, 1807 – February 7, 1826
Nominated byThomas Jefferson
Preceded bySeat established
Succeeded byRobert Trimble
Chief Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals
In office
December 13, 1806 – March 3, 1807
Preceded byGeorge Muter
Succeeded byFelix Grundy
Associate Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals
In office
December 19, 1801 – December 13, 1806
Preceded bySeat established
Succeeded byRobert Trimble
Personal details
Born(1765-01-23)January 23, 1765
King and Queen County, Virginia, British America
DiedFebruary 7, 1826(1826-02-07) (aged 61)
Frankfort, Kentucky, U.S.
Resting placeFrankfort Cemetery
Political partyDemocratic-Republican
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Harris
Lucy Payne (1812–1826)
EducationWashington and Lee University (BA)

Thomas Todd (January 23, 1765 – February 7, 1826) was an American attorney and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Raised in the Colony of Virginia, he studied law and later participated in the founding of Kentucky, where he served as a clerk, judge, and justice. He was married twice and had a total of eight children. Todd joined the U.S. Supreme Court in 1807 and his handful of legal opinions there mostly concerned land claims.

Early life[edit]

Todd was born in King and Queen County, Virginia, on January 23, 1765.[1] He was the youngest of five children. Both of his parents died when he was young. He was raised Presbyterian. At the age of 16, Todd served as a private in the Continental Army with a company of cavalry from Manchester, Virginia in the American Revolutionary War. Upon returning home, he attended Liberty Hall Academy (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, and graduated in 1783.[1]

Todd then became a tutor at Liberty Hall Academy in exchange for room and board and instruction in the law. Todd studied surveying before moving to Kentucky County (then part of Virginia) in 1783 when his first cousin, Harry Innes, was appointed to the Kentucky district of the Virginia Supreme Court. Todd read law to gain admission to the Kentucky bar in 1786, but he gained positions of influence by becoming a recorder.


Todd served as the clerk at five constitutional conventions between 1784 and 1792 where Kentucky was seeking statehood. He served as secretary to the Kentucky State Legislature when Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792. When the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the State's highest court, was created in 1789, Todd became its chief clerk. He also maintained a private practice in Danville, Kentucky from 1788 until 1801, when Todd was appointed a Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. In 1806 he was elevated to Chief Justice. Todd was also a slave owner, and owned twenty-six slaves at the time of the 1820 census.[2]


Todd married Elizabeth Harris in 1788 and they were the parents of five children: Millicent (c. 1789–1810), Charles Stewart (1791–1871), John Harris (1795–1824), Ann Maria (1801–1862) and Elizabeth Frances (1808–1892).

On March 29, 1812, two years after his first wife died, Todd married Lucy Payne Washington, the youngest sister of Dolley Madison[1] and the widow of Major George Steptoe Washington, who was a nephew of President George Washington. It is believed to be the first wedding held in the White House.[3] Their children were: James Madison (1817–1897), William J. and Madisonia.

Appointment to the Supreme Court[edit]

Todd was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Thomas Jefferson on February 28, 1807, after Congress raised the number of seats on the court to seven. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 2, 1807, and received his commission the following day. He is one of 19 Presbyterians to have served on the Court.[4] He served as a Supreme Court Justice until his death in February 1826.

Court opinions[edit]

Thomas Todd House Frankfort, Kentucky

Todd served under Chief Justice John Marshall. Politically, Todd was a Jeffersonian.[1] Although they had different political beliefs, Todd adopted Marshall's views on judicial interpretation, but did not write a single constitutional opinion. He was labelled the most insignificant U.S. Supreme Court justice by Frank H. Easterbrook in The Most Insignificant Justice: Further Evidence, 50 U. Chi. L. Rev. 481 (1983). Todd wrote only fourteen opinions—eleven majority, two concurring and one dissenting. Ten of his eleven majority opinions involved disputed land and survey claims.

Todd's first reported opinion was a dissent to the opinion of Chief Justice Marshall in Finley v. Lynn. He concurred in all other opinions written by the Chief Justice. One of the more interesting of these cases was Preston v. Browder, in which the court upheld the right of North Carolina to make land claim restrictions on filings that were made in Indian territory and that violated the Treaty of the Long Island of Holston made by the state on July 20, 1777. His opinion in Watts v. Lindsey's Heirs et al., explained confusing and complicated land title problems which plagued early settlers of Kentucky.

Todd's only Court opinion that did not involve land law was his last. In Riggs v. Taylor, the court made the important procedural ruling, now taken for granted, that if a party intends to use a document as evidence, then the original must be produced. However, if the original is in the possession of the other party to the suit, and that party refuses to produce it, or if the original is lost or destroyed, then secondary evidence will be admitted.

Death and legacy[edit]

Thomas Todd gravesite, Frankfort Cemetery Frankfort, Kentucky

Todd died in Frankfort, Kentucky on February 7, 1826 at the age of 61. He was initially buried in the Innes family cemetery. Later, his remains were removed to Frankfort Cemetery, overlooking the Kentucky River and the Kentucky State Capitol.[5]

At the time of his death, Todd was vested with substantial real property, particularly in Frankfort. He was a charter member of the Kentucky River Company, the first business formed to promote Kentucky waterway navigation. The inventory of his estate revealed he was a shareholder of the Kentucky Turnpike, (the first publicly improved highway west of the Alleghenies), and the Frankfort toll bridge, crossing the Kentucky River. In addition to his home, he owned more than 7,200 acres (29 km2) of land throughout the state and another twenty or so pieces in Frankfort. After his children were provided for, as he put it, in "their full proportion", the remainder of his estate valued at more than $70,000—a large sum at the time.[6]

Todd's papers are kept in three locations:

During World War II the Liberty ship SS Thomas Todd was built in Brunswick, Georgia, and named in his honor.[8]

Memberships and other honors[edit]

Todd became a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1820.[9] He was also a Freemason.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Kleber, John E. (ed.) (1992). The Kentucky Encyclopedia, p. 888. The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-1772-0.
  2. ^ Thomas Todd, United States Census, 1820; Frankfort, Franklin, Kentucky;. Retrieved on 19 September 2020.
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-05-26. Retrieved 2011-03-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ "Religion of the Supreme Court".
  5. ^ The Kentucky Encyclopedia, p. 888
  6. ^ Biography and Bibliography, Thomas Todd Archived 2008-09-20 at the Wayback Machine, 6th Circuit United States Court of Appeals.
  7. ^ Location of Thomnas Todd Papers Archived 2007-03-17 at the Wayback Machine, 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
  8. ^ Williams, Greg H. (25 July 2014). The Liberty Ships of World War II: A Record of the 2,710 Vessels and Their Builders, Operators and Namesakes, with a History of the Jeremiah O'Brien. McFarland. ISBN 978-1476617541. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  9. ^ "MemberListT".
  10. ^ "TODAY in Masonic History: Thomas Todd Passes Away". February 7, 2016. Retrieved August 29, 2019.


Further reading[edit]

Legal offices
New seat Associate Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals
Succeeded by
Robert Trimble
Preceded by
George Muter
Chief Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals
Succeeded by
Felix Grundy
New seat Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
Robert Trimble