John Catron served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1836 to 1865. During his career on the Court, Catron was a staunch defender of STATES' RIGHTS and the institution of SLAVERY. He participated in the landmark decisions upholding the power of state governments to regulate local aspects of interstate commerce and, in DRED SCOTT V. SANDFORD, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1856), he voted with the Court in deciding that an ex-slave had no rights as a citizen. Despite personal Southern affiliations and his own support of slavery, Catron backed the Union during the Civil War. A close friend of Andrew Jackson's as early as the WAR OF 1812 and a fellow resident of Nashville, Catron was a true Jacksonian in his outlook. His judicial career and opinions—from a suspicion of large corporations to a fervent support of states' rights—bear all the marks of Jacksonian democracy.
Catron was the descendant of poor, German immigrants. He was probably born in Pennsylvania around 1786—some sources cite his birth as early as 1779, however. His father, Peter Catron, worked with horses in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and moved to Kentucky in 1804, hoping to establish his own horse farm. Catron grew up with little formal education. He supported himself and his family by herding cattle and grooming horses, but he found time to read the classics as well. Around 1812, Catron moved to Sparta, in Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains region. At about the same time, he married Matilda Childress; the couple had no children.
Catron read law briefly in Sparta and then joined the Second Tennessee Regiment, a group of local volunteers who sought to avenge the massacre of Fort Mims by the Creek Indians. This unit eventually joined General Andrew Jackson's army in Alabama and fought in the War of 1812. Catron became friendly with Jackson, who had passed the bar exam and served as a judge, and the two corresponded frequently in subsequent years.
After the war, Catron returned to the Cumberland Mountains and resumed his legal studies. He was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1815 and worked both as an attorney in a general legal practice and as a prosecutor in a circuit court. In 1818, Jackson suggested that Catron move to Nashville, then a growing frontier town, where Jackson himself lived and had a plantation. Catron took his advice and developed a
lucrative practice in Nashville, with much of his work involving land titles, a busy area of the law on the rapidly growing frontier. By 1824, he was elected to the bench of Tennessee's highest court, the Court of Errors and Appeals. In 1831, the Tennessee legislature created the office of chief justice of the Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals and elected Catron to serve in it. Catron held the position until 1834.
As a judge, Catron worked principally to resolve the morass of conflicting land claims then before the courts, but he addressed other issues as well. In separate 1829 rulings, Catron denounced both gambling and DUELING, calling the latter no more than "honorable homicide." "The law knows it as a wicked and willful murder, and it is our duty to treat it as such," wrote Catron in his decision for Smith v. State, 9 Tenn. 228. "We are placed here firmly and fearlessly to execute the laws of the land, not visionary codes of honor, framed to subserve the purposes of destruction." In an 1834 case, Fisher's Negroes v. Dabbs, 14 Tenn. 119, Catron ruled on the issue of freeing slaves. Slave owners would often grant manumission, or freedom, to their slaves through their wills. Catron argued that the state must approve such instruments before they can be valid, because, he wrote, "free negroes are a very dangerous and most objectionable population where slaves are numerous." Nor would it do to send freed slaves to states where slavery was not practiced, according to Catron. Whether in a slaveholding or nonslaveholding society, the freed African-American is "a degraded outcast, and his fancied freedom a delusion." Slaves could only be freed, Catron wrote, if they were sent to the African nation of Liberia.
American Indian affairs, particularly relating to the Cherokee nation, were also were pressing issues during Catron's tenure on the Tennessee high court. In 1833, the state legislature, following the earlier example of Georgia's general assembly, passed laws giving itself jurisdiction over Cherokee land within its boundaries. In State v. Foreman, 16 Tenn. 256, it was charged that these laws were unconstitutional. Catron upheld the state laws in a long opinion that is notable for its brutal attitude toward the Indians. "It was more just," Catron wrote, "that the country should be peopled by Europeans, than continue the haunts of savage beasts, and of men yet more fierce and savage." The Indians were, in his mind, "mere wandering tribes of savages" who "deserve to be exterminated as savage and pernicious beasts." Furthermore, it was simply by right of power that whites could exert their dominance: "Our claim is based on the right to coerce obedience. The claim may be denounced by the moralist. We answer, it is the law of the land. Without its assertion and vigorous execution, this continent never could have been inhabited by our ancestors." The issue resurfaced a few years later during Martin Van Buren's presidency when the Cherokee were forced to give up their land and make a long march on what was called the Trail of Tears to land west of the Mississippi.
In 1836, Catron directed Van Buren's presidential campaign in Tennessee. Van Buren won the election, succeeding fellow Democrat Jackson. On his last day in office, March 3, 1837, Jackson appointed two new members—Catron and John McKinley—to the U.S. Supreme Court as required by the JUDICIARY ACT OF 1837, which increased the size of the Court from seven to nine members. Catron was confirmed five days later, and at age fifty-one he became a sitting justice with ROGER B. TANEY serving as chief justice.
Catron was a strong advocate of states' rights during his tenure on the Court. In the cases considered in Thurlow v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 504, 12 L. Ed. 256 (1847), Catron wrote two opinions upholding the rights of states to regulate the importation of liquor from other states and countries. The cases touched on interpretation of the COMMERCE CLAUSE, the part of the Constitution—Article I, Section 8, Clause 3—that gives Congress power "[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." Catron argued that the federal government does not have exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce and that where it does not act to regulate commerce, the states are free to do so. The state laws in question had encroached on no laws passed by Congress and were therefore valid. According to Catron, "the POLICE POWER was not touched by the Constitution, but left to the States as the Constitution found it." Catron and the Court ruled similarly in Cooley v. Board of Wardens, 53 U.S. (12 How.) 299, 13 L. Ed. 996 (1851), again upholding the ability of states to regulate local aspects of inter-state commerce.
Catron dissented from the Court's opinion in several cases involving the states' ability to regulate corporations. In one case in which the Court had ruled in favor of a large corporation, Catron expressed concern regarding "the unparalleled increase of corporations throughout the Union … ; the ease with which charters containing exclusive privileges and exemptions are obtained; the vast amount of property, power, and exclusive benefits, prejudicial to other classes of society that are vested in and held by these numerous bodies of associated wealth" (Ohio Life Insurance & Trust Co. v. Debolt, 57 U.S. [16 How.] 416, 14 L. Ed. 997 ).
Catron played an important role in the famous Dred Scott case, which concerned the highly controversial issue of slavery in the territories. Dred Scott was a slave from Missouri whose owner took him into Illinois, where slavery had been outlawed, and the Louisiana Territory, where it had been forbidden as well by the Missouri Compromise, the 1820 agreement that attempted to resolve the dispute as to whether new states would be admitted to the Union as free or slave states. When Scott returned to Missouri, he brought suit against his owner, claiming that he was free because he had resided in free territory. In its decision, the Court, with Catron writing a concurring opinion, held that a slave could not become a citizen under the U.S. Constitution. Scott, the Court wrote, was not a citizen and therefore could not sue in federal courts. Chief Justice Taney went further and declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, denying the authority of Congress to exclude slavery from the territories. This was only the second time the U.S. Supreme Court had found an act of Congress unconstitutional, the first having been the 1803 decision MARBURY V. MADISON 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60 . Many viewed Dred Scott as a pro-slavery ruling from a Court dominated by a Southern majority. The ruling may very well have hastened the coming of the Civil War.
In his concurring opinion, Catron emphasized that Congress could not abridge the property rights of slave-owning citizens in the Louisiana Territory by outlawing slavery. He also argued that the Missouri Compromise violated the constitutional guarantee of equal PRIVILEGES AND IMMUNITIES to citizens of all states, a guarantee that was, Catron wrote, a "leading feature of the constitution—a feature on which the Union depends, and which secures to the respective States and their citizens an entire equality of rights" (60 U.S. at 529). Three of the seven concurring justices argued that an African-American descended from slaves had no
rights as a U.S. citizen and no standing in court. Catron was one of four justices who did not address this last question of whether a freed slave was a citizen or not.
Despite his pro-Southern leanings and the subsequent loss of his estate, Catron supported the Union during the Civil War. As hostilities began to mount and war neared in March 1861, Catron returned to Nashville to try to keep the border states of his judicial circuit—Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri—in the Union. Of these, only Tennessee would eventually join the Confederacy. After an angry mob confronted him when he tried to hold federal court in Nashville, Catron was forced to leave for Washington, D.C., accompanied by a military escort, leaving behind an estate worth more than $100,000. During the war, Catron continued to support the Union by broadly interpreting the federal government's war powers. In one case, he wrote an opinion refusing to release a prisoner if evidence showed that he was a Confederate sympathizer. After 1862, Catron also worked hard to keep order in the states forming his new circuit: Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Kentucky. He stayed in close touch with President ABRAHAM LINCOLN and worked hard to keep the federal judiciary effective during the war.
On May 30, 1865, Catron, one of the last embodiments of Jacksonian democracy to leave the national scene, died in his adopted city of Nashville.
Anderson, Burnet. 1993. "John Catron." In The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1993, ed. Claire Cushman. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.
Gatell, Frank O. 1969. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions, Vol. 1. ed. Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel. New York: Chelsea House.