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b. Jan. 3, 1776
d. Dec. 7, 1844
7th Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio
Term
Feb. 17, 1809
to Never Commissioned

THOMAS MORRIS

Thomas Morris, named by some of his political contemporaries as the first abolitionist U.S. Senator, was born in Berks County, Pa. on Jan. 3, 1776. Morris was the fifth child born to Isaac and Ruth Henton Morris. The Morris family moved to Clarksburg in western Virginia where Thomas worked on the family farm and was taught to read by his mother from the family Bible and books from his father’s small library. After his 16th birthday in 1793, Morris joined Capt. Levi Morgan’s Company of Wood Rangers patrolling along the Ohio River to defend the area from possible Indian attack.

Morris left the family farm in 1795 to travel to the small Baptist community of Columbia that was located to the west of Cincinnati, where he soon found employment as a clerk in a small grocery. In 1800, Morris moved his young family to Williamsburgh in Clermont County and opened a tavern. Morris’ business venture failed and, in 1802, he was imprisoned briefly for debt. Morris left Williamsburgh and moved to Bethel, where he worked as a brick maker by day and studied law in the evenings. Morris was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1804 and soon demonstrated his ability as an effective advocate known for his clever cross-examinations.

In 1806, Morris was elected by Clermont county voters to his first term in the Ohio House of Representatives and re-elected in 1808 and 1810. Clermont County voters also elected Morris to r the Ohio Senate five times and he served terms during the years 1813-1814, 1821-1822, 1825-1828 and 1831-1832.

At the beginning of his first term in the legislature in 1806, Morris joined the block of Republicans who were committed to the political philosophy of absolute legislative supremacy. During the legislative session of 1808-1809, Morris’s fellow House members placed him in charge of conducting the impeachment trials against circuit court Judge Calvin Pease and Supreme Court of Ohio Justice George Tod. The impeachment charges resulted from Pease’s and Tod’s actions in the case of Rutherford v. McFadden (1807 unreported) where first Pease declared an act of the legislature unconstitutional, then Tod was among the two justices who unanimously affirmed Pease’s decision after appeal to the Supreme Court. Morris failed to obtain convictions against Pease and Tod by one vote in each case.

Meeting in joint session on Feb. 17, 1809, members of the Ohio House elected Morris to a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. The legislature also passed in 1810 the infamous “Sweeping Resolution” that ended all court terms of common pleas court judges and Supreme Court justices in 1810. The enactment of the resolution and the General Assembly’s elimination of one of the Justice’s seats on the Court meant that Morris never served on the Court when it met in Columbus or rode the Court’s appellate circuit. Benjamin Tappan recorded in his diary that Morris became embittered over the General Assembly’s treatment of him, especially when it elected the formerly impeached Fairfield County Court of Common Pleas Judge William W. Irwin to the Supreme Court in 1810. As a result, Morris switched sides in the legislative supremacy debate, opposed the “Sweeping Resolution” and championed the idea of judicial review.

While in the Ohio House, Morris repeatedly introduced legislation to have the practice of imprisonment for debt outlawed. With his election to the Ohio Senate in 1821, and throughout his tenure there, Morris promoted the idea of state funding for public schools and the use of textbooks that did not favor any particular religion. Morris repeatedly offered legislation that called for the direct election of holders of all government offices. In 1829, Morris introduced a bill to prohibit judges from charging juries on the facts of cases, leaving judges with the authority to sum up the evidence, declare the law that applied to each case and present the rules in the administration of justice. Morris believed juries should weigh the facts of cases independent of judicial instructions. He also felt that judges were becoming too powerful and he had no faith in the infallibility of courts.

Morris campaigned unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a seat in the U.S. House in 1826 and 1832. In 1828, Morris joined Samuel Medary to establish in Bethel, the Ohio Sun, a Jacksonian newspaper.

During the 1828 presidential campaign Morris played a key role in a group called the committee of correspondence, made up of Andrew Jackson supporters who drafted letters to local newspapers answering charges by Jackson’s opposition and attacking President John Quincy Adams, Jackson’s opponent. Following Andrew Jackson’s election as president that November, Morris assumed the role of floor leader in the Ohio Senate for legislative proposals identified with Jacksonian Democracy. In 1833, before leaving the Ohio Senate to begin his term as a U.S. Senator, Morris drafted Ohio’s resolution supporting President Jackson in the nullification crisis.

After Morris’ failed campaign for election to the U.S. House in November 1832, the Ohio General Assembly met in joint session in December and by a 54-49 vote elected Morris to the U.S. Senate to succeed Democrat Benjamin Ruggles. By 1838, Morris was a political lame duck and, in December 1838, Ohio Democrats refused to re-elect him to a second term, instead turning to Chillicothe politician William Allen.

Morris returned to Ohio and continued to champion the cause of abolition. After being read out of the Ohio Democratic Party in January 1840, he joined Salmon P. Chase to work on fugitive slave cases, notably the John Van Zandt case. Van Zandt was an Ohio farmer charged with violating the fugitive slave law then in effect.

At the Liberty Party’s Buffalo Convention on Aug. 30, 1843, Morris was nominated for the office of vice president following the nomination of Cincinnati abolitionist James G. Birney for president. A little more than a month after the election, Morris suffered “a fatal attack of apoplexy” on Dec. 7, 1844, at his family farm and died. Morris is buried at Bethel Cemetery.

Morris married Rachel Davis on Nov. 19, 1797 in the Columbia, Ohio settlement. The couple raised and educated 11 children. Rachel died Jan. 16, 1853, near Cincinnati, at the age of 74 and was buried along side her husband.