John McLean's appointment to the Supreme Court on March 6, 1829, was ANDREW JACKSON'S first and the first from the old Northwest and Ohio, where McLean had grown to manhood. He studied law with Arthur St. Clair, Jr., was admitted to the bar in 1807, and maintained an active full-time practice in Lebanon, Ohio, until his 1812 election to Congress, where he served two terms. As a
National Republican, he favored a protective tariff and a national bank. From 1816 to 1822 he served as judge of the Ohio Supreme Court where he gained a respect for the COMMON LAW and developed a penchant for bending it "to the diversity of our circumstances," as he put it in one case. While serving on that court, McLean assiduously cultivated political favor, first with JAMES MONROE and JOHN QUINCY ADAMS, and, when the latter began to falter, with Jackson. His efforts paid off, first in 1822 with an appointment as Commissioner of the General Land Office, then in 1823 as Postmaster General, where his brilliant administrative abilities won him a national reputation. Adams reappointed him to head the Post Office Department, and Jackson was willing to do the same but nominated him to the Supreme Court when McLean indicated an unwillingness to make political removals.
McLean served as Associate Justice from 1829 to 1861, during a period of rapid transition in American law. At the outset the new Justice inclined toward Jacksonian STATES ' RIGHTS dogma, as in his dissent from CONTRACT CLAUSE orthodoxy in CRAIG V. MISSOURI (1830). More revealing yet was his practical-minded opinion for the majority in BRISCOE V. BANK OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY (1837), which held that the notes of the Commonwealth Bank were not BILLS OF CREDIT prohibited by Article I, section 10, even though the state owned the bank and the notes circulated as legal tender.
Despite his result-oriented approach in such cases as Briscoe and MAYOR OF NEW YORK V. MILN (1837) (where he supported STATE POLICE POWER regulations against the charge that they were regulations of INTERSTATE COMMERCE), McLean was not a Jacksonian judge. Indeed, he moved steadily toward a conservative nationalism similar to that of Justice JOSEPH STORY, who became his closest friend on the Court. That McLean was solidly conservative on property rights and CORPORATION questions is clear from his majority opinion in behalf of contractual sanctity in PIQUA BRANCH BANK V. KNOOP (1854). His...