Reverdy Johnson: A Constitutional Kind of Guy

The story of Reverdy Johnson is a particularly interesting one if you look at it from the standpoint of a Southerner whose main interest in life was constitutional law, a pursuit that led him to represent people on both sides of the conflict.

A Marylander, Reverdy Johnson* considered himself a Southerner and was sympathetic to Southerners during the Civil War, yet he believed that slavery was evil. When Reverdy inherited slaves from his father well before the Civil War, he emancipated them yet he represented the slaveowner in the Dred Scott vs. Sandford case, and is often credited with helping the slaveowner win the case.

Reverdy Johnson began practicing law in Maryland at about age 20. Involved in a scandal involving the Maryland State Banking scandal, he was acquitted of any wrongdoing, but still ended up getting his house burned down. Despite this blow to his reputation, he went on to represent his state in the United States Senate from 1845 to 1849. Under President Zachary Taylor, he was appointed Attorney General of the United States, but when Taylor died suddenly in 1850, Millard Fillmore assumed office and Reverdy resigned.

During the Civil War, Reverdy was instrumental in keeping Maryland from seceding from the Union. He represented Union Major General Fitz John Porter at his court-martial in connection with his conduct at the Second Battle of Bull Run, but he lost that one.

After President Lincoln was assassinated, Reverdy took an interested in representing Mary Surratt, appearing before the court pro bono, as he had done in the Dred Scott case. His reputation as an attorney was such that many felt Surratt’s life would be spared with Reverdy on the case. However, he left her actual defense to less experienced associates, Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt. She was subsequently convicted and hanged. This topic is depicted in the 2010 film “The Conspirator,” with English actor Tom Wilkinson portraying Reverdy Johnson.

*Note: Although it is more customary to use the last name after introducing one’s subject, in this case, our subject is far more identifiable by his first name. Reverdy was named after his Huguenot grandfather on his mother’s side.

More Interesting facts about Reverdy Johnson:

  • After 1842, he was blind in one eye as a result of an accident with a pistol. It is said this is why he always was shown in profile thereafter.
  • He was also instrumental in resolving the impeachment proceedings of President Andrew Johnson, who later appointed him to the position of U.S. Minister to the United Kingdom.
  • He and his wife, Mary Mackall Bowie, had 15 children. One of them, Matilda Elizabeth Bowie Johnson Gwinn, lived to be 111 years old.
  • Reverdy Johnson is featured in a 1947 play by John Patrick called “The Story of Mary Surratt
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