Biography of Chief Justice Morrison
by Robert Dixon, Master, Morrison R. Waite,
Morrison Waite, nicknamed "Mott",
was born November 27, 1816 in Lyme, Connecticut--a pleasant village
which boasted of having played its part in the Revolutionary War.
Mott's father was a country lawyer, a Yale graduate, a man of
culture--known as a modest but capable man, who had established a
reputation for integrity, fair-mindedness and firmness. Mott's
childhood, as that of his four brothers and sisters, was simple and
uneventful and family ties were close. He was educated at the one
room Village School, spent a year studying Greek and Latin at a
private school and was accepted by Yale College at age 17.
Waite was a good student, keeping meticulous record of his
expenses. He was a member of the debate society and Phi Beta Kappa.
In 1837, after graduation, Morrison returned to Lyme for a year
where he read law under his father. He then decided to "take hold"
in Maumee, a town of fewer than one thousand in Northwest Ohio,
then a frontier area. An uncle, Horace Waite, worked as a merchant
there. On November 1, 1838, investing $31.43 in furniture to outfit
a second floor room, Waite affiliated himself with Samuel M. Young,
a lawyer who had arrived in Maumee a few years earlier. After
studying under Young, Waite was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1839.
The two then established the firm of Young & Waite.
The new firm was kept busy since economic conditions in Ohio were
unsettled because of the panic of 1837. Early cases involved
foreclosing on mortgages, disentangling business complications,
straightening out property titles, collecting debts and settling
bankruptcy matters. By 1841 the firm had attracted a large
clientele and the County Commissioners reported that of the 19
lawyers in Maumee and Toledo, the firm of Young and Waite had the
In 1840 back in Lyme, Mott married Amelia Warner, his childhood
sweetheart and second cousin. The couple eventually had a daughter.
As a western lawyer, Waite spent much time on horseback, riding
circuit. Frequently, the judge and two or three lawyers traveled in
a body, visiting county seats scattered through the wilderness that
was then northwestern Ohio. In 1844, Waite took and won his first
case before the Supreme Court of Ohio. His name appears regularly
in court records thereafter.
Waite served one term as mayor of Maumee and one term in the Ohio
General Assembly during 1849-1850. He was a devout Episcopalian and
a member of the Whig party, an abolitionist, but less fiery than
some. He told friends he did not enjoy his term in the
In 1850, Young and Waite opened a Toledo branch. Waite moved his
residence to Toledo and was elected to the City Council in 1851. He
ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1862. Badly divided over the
Civil War, the radical Republicans supported the incumbent James
Ashley who demanded that the administration make abolition its
primary goal and criticized Lincoln sharply for failing to
prosecute the war vigorously. Waite became the conservative
candidate, accepting out of a deep feeling of loyalty toward
Lincoln. Edward Phelps ran as the "white man's candidate" and as an
avowed enemy of Negro freedom. Waite carried Lucas County by a
margin of two to one, but Ashley took the district 7013 to Waite's
5850 and Phelp's 5234.
Waite's law practice continued to thrive and the firm now also
represented railroads and banks with its general practice.
Morrison's brother Richard, fresh out of Yale, joined him in
establishing a new firm of "M.R. and R. Waite". They practiced
together for 18 years.
In 1871 the Treaty of Washington was negotiated during President
Grant's first term. An international board of arbitration was to
pass American claims against Britain based on the violation of the
Neutrality Act. The U.S. claimed that a Confederate Warship and
raider, renamed the Alabama, after being built and fitted out in
England, were throughout its activities restocked and rearmed in
British Carribean ports. This, the U.S. argued, violated the
principle that during wartime, a neutral nation ought to use due
diligence in preventing either belligerent nation from acquiring
warships within its jursidiction or using its ports as a naval
To his surprise, Waite was selected as one of the three legal
counsel representing the United States in this endeavor along with
his old friend and Yale classmate, William Evarts. The team's
successful arguments in Geneva led to an eventual award of over
fifteen million dollars for the United States. According to some
observers, this was the first and only positive accomplishment of
the Grant administration.
Waite was feted upon his return to Toledo, with dinners, speeches
and programs in his honor. Shortly afterward, the Ohio legislature
voted to prepare a new state constitution, with delegated elected
from each county. Both political parties in Lucas county nominated
Waite, and upon his arrival in Columbus, he was elected to serve
president of the constitutional convention. Waite eventually served
only a year, for Salmon P. Chase, the Chief Justice died on May 7,
Grant had great difficulty finding a Chief Justice since his
administration had a reputation for being notoriously corrupt.
While stubbornness and loyalty to subordinates had been an asset to
the military, for a president, it proved disastrous. Two nominees
were rejected by the Senate. Four others, asked by Grant to serve,
refused nomination. Waite's work on the arbitration commission
impressed Grant as well as the fact that he was an Ohioan--the
state that had furnished the bulk of his cabinet and other
appointed posts. Waite's father had become the chief justice of the
Connecticut Supreme Court and, along with others, was a great
supporter for his son's nomination. Morrison's honesty was
unquestioned and, since he was relatively unknown, he had few
enemies and thus recieved quick confirmation.
The docket of Waite's term was busy. His decisions showed him an
advocate of judicial restraint. He held to faith acquired in his
frontier experiences that people acting through their own
legislatures know their own best interests. He preseumed statutes
to be constitutional and believed in states' powers of sovereignty.
The Waite court has been criticized for enforcing the civil rights
amendments and statutes passed during and after the Civil War.
Waite interpreted these laws strictly in accord with his personal
legal philosophy. As a result, minimal protection was
Justice Morrison R. Waite took office in 1874 at the age of 58. He
served 14 years and died of pneumonia in office in 1888. His body
was returned to Toledo where he was buried in Woodlawn cemetery. He
served the nation faithfully and was honored at the time of his
death for his character, honesty and good works.