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Ohio FreemasonryHistory

Justice Noah Swayne

By February 15, 2024No Comments
Portrait of Justice Noah Swayne
Ohio Freemason and Supreme Court Justice Noah H. Swayne

As Ohio Freemasons, we traverse a winding path that requires introspection and reflection on the pages of our shared history. Our history is not merely a chronicle of events, but a tapestry woven with the threads of principles, teachings, and the collective wisdom of Masonic brethren across generations. Reflecting on this rich heritage helps guide us through our lifelong journey in the Craft.

In the hallowed corridors of history, we uncover the remarkable journey of Supreme Court Justice Noah Swayne — an Ohio Freemason and the 35th Supreme Court Justice. This Masonic luminary is known for his opposition to slavery, and his story resonates with the very essence of our cherished values. Although Swayne is not generally regarded as the most accomplished justice, his commitment to justice and equality stands as a testament to the profound influence of Masonic teachings in shaping a noble character. 

Swayne’s life was woven with the principles that bind us as Masons. Beyond the courtroom, beyond the judicial robes, lies a Mason who, in his pursuit of justice, became a beacon of light in a tumultuous era.

A Child of Virginia

Noah Haynes Swayne was born in Frederick County, Virginia, on December 7, 1804. He was the youngest of nine children born to Quaker parents, Joshua and Rebecca. Quakers were vehemently opposed to slavery, and it is likely that his upbringing contributed to Noah’s abolitionist views. After Joshua passed away in 1809, Swayne attended a respected Quaker school, Jacob Mendenhall’s Academy in Waterford, Virginia. Following his time in Waterford, he began to study medicine while just a teenager. Noah studied under Dr. George Thornton in Alexandria, Virginia, until Dr. Thornton died suddenly in 1819. 

This was a pivotal moment for young Noah, who used this opportunity to leave the world of medicine behind and instead study law with attorneys John Scott and Francis Brooks in Warrenton, Virginia. Noah was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1823 when he was just 20. Resolute in his deep opposition to slavery, Swayne used this opportunity to leave Virginia, a slave state, and relocate to the free state of Ohio.

Serving Ohio

Now firmly set on his path in Ohio, Swayne established a private practice in Coshocton. The start of his career in public service soon followed, and in 1825, he was elected Coshocton County Attorney. It was during this period the young man found his way to the light of the Craft. In 1827, Swayne became a member of Clinton Lodge No. 96 (known today as Coshocton Lodge). He later affiliated with Columbus Lodge No. 30 in 1841.

Noah was elected to the Ohio state legislature four years after becoming Coshocton County Attorney. Not long after, fellow Freemason Andrew Jackson appointed him as United States Attorney for Ohio in 1830. Brother Swayne relocated to Columbus for his new position and, in 1834, to the Columbus City Council. He practiced law in Columbus for the next 31 years. Two years after joining the city council, Noah was elected to serve in the Ohio House of Representatives as a Jacksonian Democrat.

By this point, Noah had more than a decade of public service under his belt and was well-known among the political circles of Ohio. He fostered a close friendship with Supreme Court Justice John McLean, and the two would be early members and organizers for the Republican Party when it was formed nearly twenty years later in 1855. 

Brother Swayne held onto his position as U.S. Attorney for Ohio under President Martin Van Buren until 1841. As tensions grew amidst the lead-up to the Civil War, Noah’s hatred of slavery pushed him away from his party and toward the emerging Republican Party in Ohio. In April 1861, he was acting as an aide to Republican governor William Dennison when John McLean suddenly died. It was McLean’s wish that Swayne would take his place on the high court, thus beginning Swayne’s campaign to become a jurist.  

On the Supreme Court

Swayne was popular among Republicans and had plenty of support from across the Union, including the entire Ohio congressional body. He leaned into his anti slavery beliefs as he pushed to replace McLean and become President Abraham Lincoln’s first Supreme Court appointment. His efforts paid off, and on January 22, 1862, Lincoln named Swayne to the high court. Two days later, the Senate confirmed Swayne to the bench.

Noah served as a Supreme Court justice for the next 20 years, and his tenure was largely defined by his consistent support of Lincoln’s war measures. He voted in the majority during the Prize Cases of 1863, upholding the seizure of Confederate ships and the naval blockade of southern ports, which Lincoln had ordered without congressional authorization.

He coveted the chief justice position, even attempting to secure it just one year after joining the court following the passing of Chief Justice Roger Taney in 1864. The role ultimately went to fellow Ohioan Salmon Chase, who passed away in 1873.

Illness, Death, and Legacy

As the 1870s wore on, Swayne was now an older man with waning health. He was reluctant to leave the bench until 1881 when President Rutherford B. Hayes promised that he would name fellow Ohio attorney and Noah’s close friend Stanley Matthews as his replacement. Brother Swayne resigned on January 25 at the age of 77. He died three years later, on June 8, 1884, in New York and is buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C., alongside Chief Justice Edward Douglass White and justice-designate Edwin M. Stanton.

To date, Brother Swayne is the only Quaker to have served on the Supreme Court. And, while his judicial career is not considered the most impressive, he played a critical role in early Ohio politics and legislative matters. Additionally, his support of Lincoln’s war measures was important at a complex time in American history. Today, a collection of Swayne’s legal papers, pre-dating his service as a Justice, is housed at the Ohio Historical Society.

Justice Swayne was a living testament to the principles that define our noble fraternity. His unwavering patriotism and staunch opposition to slavery echo the very core of our Masonic teachings. In one of the nation’s most challenging times, this Brother stood as a beacon of light, navigating the tumultuous waters with a compass forged by principles that transcend the limitations of the era. His commitment to justice, equality, and the eradication of injustice symbolizes the essence of Masonry—a force that transcends boundaries, shaping character and leaving an indelible mark on generations of men and our communities.

As we reflect on Justice Swayne’s journey, let us carry forward the torch of Masonic principles that illuminated his path. May his legacy inspire us to be steadfast in our commitment to justice, equality, and the noble ideals that bind us as brethren.

Read our feature articles on other former Supreme Court Justices who were also Masons: Thurgood Marshall and William Burnham Woods!