William Strong served as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1870 to 1880. He is best remembered for his majority opinion in the controversial case of Knox v. Lee (argued concurrently with Parker v. Davis), 79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 457, 20 L. Ed. 287 (1871), commonly known as one of the Legal Tender Cases.
Strong was born on May 6, 1808, in Somers, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale University in 1828 and received a master's degree from the same institution in 1831. He attended Yale Law School and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1832. He practiced law in Reading, Pennsylvania, for fifteen years.
In 1847, Strong entered politics with his election as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He left Congress in 1851 and re-entered private practice. In 1857, Strong began a term as a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He remained on the bench until 1868, when he resumed private law practice, this time in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During the Civil War, Strong changed his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican. This move proved auspicious for him, as President ULYSSES S. GRANT, a Republican, appointed Strong to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1870 to replace the retiring Justice ROBERT C. GRIER, a Pennsylvania Democrat.
Strong's appointment and first year on the Court were marked by controversy concerning the Legal Tender Cases. On the day he was nominated, the Court announced its decision in Hepburn v. Griswold, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 603, 19 L. Ed. 513 (1870), which concerned the Legal Tender Act of 1862 (12 Stat. 345). The act, passed during the Civil War to finance the Union war effort, authorized the creation of paper money not redeemable in gold or silver. About $430 million worth of "greenbacks" were put into circulation, and by law this money had to be accepted for all taxes, debts, and other obligations, even those contracted before passage of the act.
The Court in Hepburn ruled, by a 4–3 vote, that Congress lacked the power to make the notes legal tender because the law violated the Fifth Amendment's guarantee against deprivation of property without DUE PROCESS OF LAW. Grant's appointment of Strong and JOSEPH P. BRADLEY to the Supreme Court on the same day in 1870 was perceived as a court-packing scheme that was designed to overturn Hepburn.
This view proved correct. With Strong and Bradley on the bench, the Court agreed to reconsider the constitutionality of the Legal Tender Act. In 1871, Strong wrote the majority opinion in Knox v. Lee, which reversed the Hepburn decision. This time, the vote was 5–4, in favor of the act. Strong held that Congress had the authority to pass monetary acts such as the greenbacks law during a time of national emergency.
During the 1870s, numerous CIVIL RIGHTS CASES came before the Court. In Blyew v. United States, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 581, 20 L. Ed. 638 (1872), Strong ruled that the federal government could not use a CIVIL RIGHTS law to prosecute a white man who was accused of murdering several African-Americans because the victims were not persons "in existence" as required by the act, and because the interests of witnesses were not strong enough to give the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over the crime. The crime had occurred in Kentucky, where black witnesses were prohibited by law from testifying against whites. In Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. (10 Otto) 303, 25 L. Ed. 664 (1880), Strong ruled that a law that allowed only white males to serve as jurors violated the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT.
Following his resignation from the Court in 1880, Strong devoted his time to many religious causes and organizations. He led the National Reform Association, which proposed a constitutional amendment that would have proclaimed Jesus Christ as the supreme authority. Although he disclaimed the idea of a national church, Strong believed that Christian principles should govern many facets of U.S. society. Strong died on August 19, 1895, in Minnewaska, New York.