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.
Mr. Strong was the first child born to William Lighthouse Strong, a 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, United States, where he was born on May 6, 1808.
After his early schooling, William Strong entered Yale at the age of 15 and graduated in 1828. The following few years he taught school while studying law at 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 Pennsylvania.
Mr. 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. In 1846 William 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.
In 1857 William 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 did not complete his full term on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court but resigned instead to return to what immediately became a prosperous practice in 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 with the resignation of Robert Grier from the Court, effective February 1, 1870. Mr. Grier’s resignation left two seats unfilled on the Supreme Court, one created by Robert 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 Mr. Grier with William Strong, but congressional sentiment vigorously favored Edwin M. Stanton, Mr. Lincoln’s secretary of war. Ulysses Grant capitulated to this pressure and on December 20, 1869, nominated Mr. Stanton, who was confirmed by the Senate the same day. In mid-December, Robert Grier had signaled his intent to resign. But this expeditious action on the part of Senate proved not quick enough: within four days, Mr. Stanton died before taking the oath of office and joining the Court. Ulysses 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 constitutionality of the Legal Tender Act. The justices had privately decided the outcome of the case the previous November, and Mr. Grant appears to have known the result some two weeks in advance of the announcement.
But the timing of the William Strong and Joseph Bradley nominations and the Hepburn opinion, which found the Legal Tender Act unconstitutional, immediately fueled suggestions that Mr. Grant was trying to pack the Court with justices who would uphold the Legal Tender Act. Mr. 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 his 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. Mr. Strong had voted in support of the Act’s constitutionality when he was a justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and Joseph 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 William Strong and Joseph 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 Mr. Strong’s appointment to the Court in late February and Mr. 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 retiring from the Court in 1880, Mr. 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.
He began his 15-year term of office, holding the position of a judge, 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. Mr. Strong spoke for the majority, upholding the government’s power to enact legal-tender legislation and defending such power under the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution.
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, William 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.
William Strong married Priscilla Lee Mallcry in 1836, and the couple had three children - two daughters and a son - before Mrs. Mallcry died in 1844. Mr. Strong’s second wife gave birth to another son and two more daughters.