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William Burnham Woods

“The most drastic and usually the most effective remedy for fear is direct action.” — William Burnham Woods

A painting of William B. Woods in his judicial attire
A portrait of Supreme Court Justice William Burnham Woods

As a member of Newark Lodge No. 69 (since renumbered to 97) in Newark, Ohio, Brother William Burnham Woods undoubtedly discovered the value of living a life of integrity and service to others. He was raised, studied, and worked for much of his life in our great state, serving the Union Army in the Civil War, Ohio as Mayor of his hometown, and our nation as a justice of the Supreme Court. 

Schooling and Legal Career

William Woods was born in Newark, Ohio, on August 3, 1824. He was raised in Newark and attended college at Western Reserve University (later renamed Case Western Reserve University) in Hudson, Ohio. Midway through his higher education, Woods transferred to Yale University, from which he graduated in 1845 with honors and received an Artium Baccalaureus.

Once he finished college, he returned to Newark and embarked on his lifelong career in law. He began his study by clerking for a local lawyer named S. D. King. Woods was admitted to the bar two years later, in 1847, and immediately began working for King’s firm as a partner. Brother Woods practiced law with King in his hometown of Newark for fifteen years until 1862.

In the Service

In his younger days, Woods was a loyal Democrat and was elected Mayor of Newark in 1856. From there, his constituents sent him to represent them in the Ohio General Assembly in 1858. Shortly after that, he was made Speaker of the House and Minority Leader in Ohio while continuing his work as a lawyer. 

The nation was steadily marching towards the Civil War, and, as a Democrat, Wood was reluctant to support combat with his Southern colleagues. However, given his opposition to slavery, he eventually came to recognize it was necessary. In 1862, he departed the Ohio State House to enlist and fight for the Union. He was commissioned as lieutenant colonel of the 76th Ohio Infantry, which fought in the Western Theater.

During the war, Willian saw plenty of combat and fought at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, Jackson, and Vicksburg. For his service, he rose through the ranks, and in 1863, he was promoted to colonel. Woods served with such distinction that Generals Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman, and John A. Logan recommended him for promotion to brigadier general in 1865. After the war ended and his time in the military concluded in February 1866, Woods was bestowed the brevet rank of major general. 

Rising Through the Courts

Following his military service, Woods was eager to resume his career in law. He settled in the South, living for a year in Mobile, Alabama, where he reopened his law practice shortly before moving his practice to Montgomery. While in Alabama, Woods bought his own property and began cultivating cotton, hiring former enslaved individuals to work as sharecroppers. He also served as a Chancellor for the Middle Chancery Division of Alabama in Montgomery from 1868 to 1869.

In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant sought to reward Woods again. He appointed Woods as a United States Circuit Judge for the United States Circuit Court for the Fifth Circuit on December 8, 1869, to a new seat. The U.S. Senate confirmed him on December 22, 1869, and he received a commission the same day. 

For the next ten years, Woods dutifully performed his role as a member of the fifth circuit. Among the many cases he ruled on, the Slaughterhouse Case was one of the most important brought to Woods’s circuit court. This case tested the issue of the reach and breadth of the 14th Amendment. Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley and Woods found that a state that created a monopoly in the slaughterhouse business violated the privilege and immunities clause of the new 14th Amendment and, therefore, was void. 

Supreme Court Tenure and Death

After a decade on the fifth circuit, Woods was nominated by President Rutherford B. Hayes on December 15, 1880, to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The nomination faced little opposition and Woods was confirmed by the United States Senate by a vote of 39 to 8 on December 21, 1880, and took the oath of office on January 5, 1881.

Upon his appointment, Woods became the first person to be named to the Supreme Court from a former Confederate state since 1853. Because he was known as a Northerner, Union veteran, and Republican Party member, the U.S. Senate’s Republican majority considered him a palatable nominee.

Justice William Woods served on the court for the next six years. He did not take a leadership position, and because of his conservative principles and his exercise of judicial restraint, Woods historians do not consider him an influential justice. Woods was struck with an illness for much of his time as a member of the high court.

Still, he wrote 218 opinions during his tenure, demonstrating his ability to offer a sophisticated analysis of the complexities of federal law. He continued to serve until 1886, until his failing health prevented him from continuing. He later died in Washington, D.C., on May 14, 1887. 

While little is known about his experience in the fraternity, what historians have uncovered about his life shows him to be an upright man, a just judge, and a devoted public servant. The willingness of the public to elect him to office and the enthusiastic support from his superiors in the military and government reflect the respect he earned through his actions. 

Want to learn about other Masons that have led in modern politics? Read our articles on Harry Truman, Thomas Worthington, and FDR!