William Strong was an American jurist and politician. He was a justice on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States under President Ulysses S. Grant.
William Strong was the first child born to William Lighthouse Strong, a Presbyterian minister, and Harriet Deming Strong; 10 other brothers and sisters would be added to the family. He grew up on a small farm in Somers, Connecticut, where he was born on May 6, 1808.
After his early schooling, Strong entered Yale at the age of 15 and graduated in 1828. The following few years he taught school while studying law in a local attorney’s office. In 1832 he returned to Yale to study law briefly. He was admitted the same year to practice law in Connecticut and Pennsylvan
William Strong moved to Reading, Pennsylvania, and opened a law office. Within a short time he was an important figure in the community. His legal practice flourished, bringing him clients such as the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company and positions as director of the Farmers’ Bank and the Lebanon Valley Railroad. In addition, he took an active part in civic affairs, serving on the city council and the school board during his first decade in Reading. He married Priscilla Lee Mallcry in 1836, and the couple had three children—two daughters and a son—before Priscilla died in 1844. Two years after her death, Strong successfully ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress, serving while he was there with two men who would subsequently play an important part in American history: Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. He served two terms in Congress before returning to the full-time practice of law and marrying again, this time to Rachel Davies Bull. Strong’s second wife gave birth to another son and two more daughters.
In 1857 Strong was elected to sit on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and thus began a 23-year career as a judge, first at the state level and later on the nation’s highest court. He began his 15-year term of office as a Democrat, but his antislavery views and his staunch support for the Union ultimately caused him to migrate to the newly founded Republican party by the start of the Civil War. Strong did not complete his full term on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court but resigned instead to return to what immediately became a prosperous practice lit Philadelphia. Through a tangled course of events, however, he soon became a judge again, although this time he was elevated to an even more illustrious bench.
The sequence of events that placed William Strong on the U.S. Supreme Court began widi the resignation of Robert Grier from the Court, effective February 1, 1870. Grier’s resignation left two seats unfilled on the Supreme Court, one created by Grier’s resignation and the other after Congress increased the number of seats on the Court to nine in 1869. President Ulysses S. Grant wished to replace Grier with William Strong, but congressional sentiment vigorously favored Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of war. Grant capitulated to this pressure and on December 20, 1869, nominated Stanton, who was confirmed by the Senate the same day. (In mid-December, Grier had signaled his intent to resign.) But this expeditious action on the part of Senate proved not quick enough: Within four days, Stanton died before taking the oath of office and joining the Court. Grant subsequently moved to fill the two vacant seats on the Court by nominating William Strong and Joseph P. Bradley on February 7, 1870. As it happened, later that same day the Supreme Court announced its decision in Hepburn v. Griswold (1870), a case involving one of the most controversial matters of the day: the con-stitutionality of the Legal Tender Act. The justices had privately decided the outcome of the case the previous November, and Grant appears to have known the result some two weeks in advance of the announcement. But die timing of the Strong and Bradley nominations and the Hepburn opinion, which found the Legal Tender Act unconstitutional, immediately fueled suggestions that Grant was trying to pack the Court with justices who would uphold the Legal Tender Act. Hepburn had decided the issue by a vote of 4 to 3, and the addition of two new justices supportive of the Act would probably lead to a reversal of Hepburn in short order. Consequently, Democrats cried foul, and they castigated what they claimed to be the president’s machinations in finding two supporters of the Act to fill his vacancies. Strong had voted in support of the Act’s constitutionality when he was a justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and Bradley was accused of signing a written promise prior to his appointment, binding him to vote in favor of the Act.
The charge of “court packing” seems to have been wholly without foundation, though. Both Strong and Bradley did view the Legal Tender Act as constitutional, but it would have been difficult to find Republican nominees who did not approve of the Act. Moreover, the appointments of both men had been in the works for some time before the Court announced its Hepburn decision. In any event, the Senate eventually confirmed Strong’s appointment to the Court in late February and Bradley’s at the end of the following month. William Strong took the oath of office as an associate justice of the Supreme Court on March 14, 1870.
After Strong’s resignation from the Supreme Court in 1880, he continued an active involvement in religious affairs. He had accepted the vice presidency of the American Bible Society in 1871 and continued in this position through 1895. He was also the president of the American Tract Society from 1873 to 1895 and of the American Sunday School Union from 1883 to 1895. These activities reflected an enduring Christian faith, exhibited most famously during the Civil War by Strong’s leadership of an unsuccessful campaign to cure the Constitution’s relative “godlessness” by amending it to acknowledge “the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler of all nations, and his revealed will as the supreme law of the land.”
After retiring from the Court, Strong’s experience as a justice formed the basis for an article he published in the North American Review in 1881, and the reforms he suggested in the article were at least partially implemented by Congress in 1891.
On May 1, 1871, Associate Justice William Strong announced the judgment of the Court in Knox v. Lee (1871) and Parker v. Davis (1871). Strong’s opinions for the Court in the two cases rejected the reasoning adopted by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase in Hepburn and concluded that the federal government had had the power during the Civil War to issue paper money—or greenbacks—and to require creditors to accept this currency for the satisfaction of debts. Chase’s original conclusion to the contrary had summoned die “spirit of the Constitution” as a witness against the Legal Tender Act. The Constitution prohibited states from impairing contractual obligations, and though this clause did not precisely apply to federal laws, Chase urged that the “spirit” though not perhaps the “letter” of the Constitution ought to infer a similar prohibition against federal actions that interfered with contractual obligations. Strong, for a new majority of the Court, rejected this inference and sustained the constitutionality of the federal act.
During his decade of service on the Court, Justice Strong developed a reputation as a talented jurist in commercial cases. He tended to distrust state commercial regulations and this predisposition sometimes placed him on the dissenting side of cases, together with the Court’s other probusiness champion, Stephen Field. In the area of civil rights, Strong shared the inclination common to a majority of the Court during this period to construe the provisions of the Reconstruction Amendments (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments) narrowly. This construction prohibited certain forms of discrimination against newly freed blacks but generally left them at the mercy of Southern officials and citizens intent on denying them basic civil rights and liberties. Justice Strong wrote the opinion for the Court in Strauder v. West Virginia (1880), overturning a state law that excluded blacks from jury service. But he also authored the twisted reasoning of Blyew v. United States (1872). The Civil Rights Act of 1866 made it a federal crime to engage in criminal conduct “affecting persons” denied their lawful rights. Alter the defendant in the case had been acquitted of charges in state court of murdering three African Americans, he was prosecuted in federal court. When the case arrived before the Supreme Court, Justice Strong concluded for a majority of the justices that the Civil Rights Act gave federal courts the power only to try cases affecting living persons. Since the murder victims were dead, there was no federal crime.
William Strong’s tenure on the Court passed in relative obscurity. He was one of the least politically active of the justices. When the disputed presidential election of 1876 caused
Congress to name a special commission to resolve the controversy, Strong counted it a great misfortune when he was appointed as one of the five Supreme Court justices among the members of the commission. In the main, however, Strong attracted little notice during his years on the Court. Unlike several of his colleagues, Strong chose to resign from the Court in 1880 after ten years of service, at a time when his mental and physical faculties were still strong. He preferred, it was said, to have people greet his retirement with the question, “Why does he?” rather than to endure his lingering presence on the Court with the question, “Why doesn’t he?” In fact, some indication exists that he resigned when he did precisely to serve as an example to three justices who had—by common understanding—outstayed their usefulness of the Court: Noah H. Swayne, Nathan Clifford, and Ward Hunt.
He married Priscilla Lee Mallcry in 1836, and the couple had three children—two daughters and a son—before Priscilla died in 1844.