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John McKinley Edit Profile

judge , Lawyer

John McKinley was an American politician and Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Justice John McKinley of Alabama served a total of 14 years on the U.S. Supreme Court, seven of them displaying solid but unexceptional judicial talent and seven made ineffective by ill health.


Born on May 1, 1780, in Culpepper County, Virginia, Mr. McKinley grew up in Lincoln County, Kentucky, where his father, Andrew McKinley, practiced medicine and where his mother, Mary Logan McKinley, had influential family connections.


No details survive concerning John McKinley’s early education. He studied the law on his own and won admission to the Kentucky bar in 1800.


After 1800 John McKinley practiced law for a time in Kentucky before moving to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1818. There he established a legal practice and aspired to elected office, though his political aspirations at first bore no fruit. He lost an election for circuit judge in 1819 and also lost his more ambitious bid for the U.S. Senate in 1822. Finally, in 1826 the transference of Mr. McKinley’s political allegiance from Henry Clay to Andrew Jackson secured him a seat in the U.S. Senate when Alabama Senator Henry Chambers died in office. While in the Senate, John McKinley supported policies that favored the interests of small landowners over wealthy speculators. Feeling that settlers would actually improve the land, Mr. McKinley also favored transfers of federal lands to the states to be developed by its settlers.

Mr. McKinley’s career in the Senate lasted until 1831, when he narrowly lost a reelection bid. He returned home to Alabama, moving his residence to Florence, where its citizens promptly elected him to represent them in the state legislature. Here he continued to support President Jackson’s policies - for example, by sternly condemning the Bank of the United States and by rejecting South Carolina’s nullification threats against the tariff. By 1832 John McKinley had again secured a national forum for his political talents after winning election to the House of Representatives. He served there from 1833 through 1835, opposing efforts to defy President Jackson’s removal of federal deposits from the Bank of the United States. He also demonstrated typical Southern indignation at attempts to curtail slavery. When petitions were circulated calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, Mr. McKinley voiced his opposition to the proposal. Slaves were property, he argued, and their owners should be free to take their property wherever they chose.

Two years in the House was enough for John McKinley. Rather than run for reelection, he returned to the Alabama legislature in 1836. That same year he stood again for election to the U.S. Senate, and this time he won the post. As events would have it, however, Mr. McKinley did not return to Washington as a U.S. senator. At the close of President Jackson’s term in office, Congress increased tire number of justices on the Supreme Court from seven to nine. Mr. Jackson initially offered one of the new' seats on the Court to William Smith of Alabama, who declined to accept the appointment. After Martin Van Buren’s inauguration, in fall 1837, the newly elected president offered the seat to John McKinley. The Senate confirmed his nomination shortly thereafter, and John McKinley took the oath of office as an associate justice of the Supreme Court on January 9,1838. In addition to his participation in Court deliberations, John McKinley also undertook the onerous duty of acting as a circuit judge for the new judicial circuit Congress had created when it had increased the number of seats on the Court. The Ninth Circuit, for which Justice McKinley had responsibility, included Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Shortly after Mr. McKinley joined the Court, he decided a series of cases as a circuit judge in Alabama that drew' national attention. In what would eventually arrive at the Supreme Court as Bank of Augusta v. Earle (1839), three banks that had been chartered outside of the state bought bills of exchange in Alabama. When the makers of the bills refused to pay, the banks brought suit against them. The makers defended themselves by arguing that the banks had not been authorized to do business in Alabama and thus had no right to buy or sell bills of exchange in the state.

Commercial interests responded to John McKinley’s circuit opinion with panic, insisting that the national economy nurtured by the Mr. Marshall court was threatened by calamitous ruin if the opinion stood. According to Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, Mr. McKinley had "frightened half the lawyers and all the cor-porations of the country out of their proprieties." Daniel Webster, who represented the banks in their eventual argument before the Supreme Court, minced no words at the time of John McKinley’s opinion; it was, he said, "anti-commercial, and anti-social, new and unheard of in our system, and calculated to break up the harmony which has so long prevailed among the states and people of the Union." When the case finally arrived before the Court, Mr. Webster argued that corporations had the Constitution’s protection from state laws designed to treat out-of-state citizens unfavorably. The privileges and immunities clause of Article IV stipulated that "the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states." Mr. Webster posited that since corporations were organizations of citizens, then they should be entitled to protection from the kind of hostile treatment inflicted on them by the state of Alabama.

Although a majority of the Supreme Court declined to grant corporations the protection of the privileges and immunities clause sought by Mr. Webster, every justice but John McKinley determined that the Alabama justice’s circuit opinion should be overturned. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney insisted that Mr. McKinley had been part right and part wrong. A state could restrain out-of-state corporations from doing business in that state; on this, Mr. Taney suggested, John McKinley was correct. Nevertheless, Roger Taney insisted with a majority of the Court that any restraint on out-of-state corporations had to be clearly imposed by a state’s law - a point on which the majority parted ways with Mr. McKinley. That Alabama had not authorized a Georgia bank to do business in its state was not a sufficient reason to prevent the bank from engaging in business; Alabama had to explicitly exclude any out of state bank from conducting transactions in the state. This, Mr. Taney found, Alabama had not done. Therefore it could not prevent foreign corporations from conducting affairs in the state. The lone dissenter in the case, John McKinley stood by his circuit opinion. Alabama responded to the Court’s decision by passing the land of exclusionary law suggested by the Court and managed to keep the foreign banks out after all.

In the second half of his time on the Court, John McKinley suffered regularly from illness, so much so that he became a virtually invisible member of the nation’s highest judicial fraternity.


  • Achievement 19th century painting of John McKinley by Matthew Harris Jouett. of John McKinley

    John McKinley became the first Alabama resident to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Although he made little impact in American constitutional development, Mr. McKinley enjoyed a long and relatively successful political career, and he contributed much to Alabama's early history and development in his role as a land speculator, legislator, and senator. He also was one of the founding members of the Presbyterian Church in Florence, was instrumental in founding one of the first public schools in the region, and donated the land that eventually housed Athens State College.

    The community of McKinley, Alabama is named in his honor. During World War II the Liberty ship SS John McKinley was built in Brunswick, Georgia, and named in his honor.


Mr. McKinley opposing efforts to defy President Jackson’s removal of federal deposits from the Bank of the United States. He also demonstrated typical Southern indignation at attempts to curtail slavery. When petitions were circulated calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, Mr. McKinley voiced his opposition to the proposal. Slaves were property, he argued, and their owners should be free to take their property wherever they chose. As a circuit judge, John McKinley ruled against die out-of-state banks, stating that no corporation had power to do business in a state without that state’s authorization.

While in the Senate, John McKinley focused on reforming federal land-grant laws to reduce the price of land. He also hoped to pass a measure granting Alabama 400,000 acres of land that the state could sell to fund a canal around Muscle Shoals, an area of the Tennessee River that was virtually impassable and thus impeded the transportation of cotton to market. The canal project, ultimately completed in 1836 with both state and federal funds, had long been desired by northwest Alabama residents, and John McKinley, who had since relocated to Florence, understood the potential economic benefits it could bring to the area. Though he supported President Jackson on almost every issue, Senator McKinley voted to override Mr. Jackson's veto of the Maysville Road Bill, an internal improvement project of great importance to Kentucky and somewhat resembling the Muscle Shoals canal project that he so strongly advocated. Mr. McKinley's anti-veto vote and support for internal improvement projects made his allegiance to President Jackson questionable; his opponents also accused him of obstructing passage of the Indian Removal Act, which was strongly supported by the president and extremely popular among Alabamians.