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JOHN M. READ,
This eminent Pennsylvanian is descended from a Revolutionary stock of great distinction and prominence. His grandfather, George Read, (grandson of a wealthy citizen of Dublin, Ireland,) was a man of distinguished ability, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the convention that framed the Constitution of the United States, a Judge of the Court of Appeals in Admiralty under the Confederation, a Senator in the First Congress, and, lastly, Chief Justice of the State of Delaware. His grand-uncle, George Ross, of Lancaster, was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Two of the brothers of George Read were actively engaged and rendered valuable service in the Revolutionary contest. Thomas was a captain in the Continental navy, and James an officer in the army. Both fought under Washington at Trenton and Princeton, and James served as major at Brandywine and Germantown. Lieutenant-Colonel Gunning Bedford, who belonged to the Delaware regiment, and was Governor of Delaware after the war, was a brother-in-law.
His father, John Read, was educated to the bar, and admitted to practice in 1792. He settled in Philadelphia, where he married, in 1796, a daughter of Samuel Meredith, an active patriot of the Revolution, and the first Treasurer of the United States, of whose father General Washington was an intimate friend and frequent guest. The brother-in-law of Mr. Meredith, George Clymer, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a framer of the Constitution of the United States; and Mrs. Meredith was a sister of General John Cadwalader and of Colonel Lambert Cadwalader : her brother-in-law, General Philemon Dickinson, of Trenton, commanded at the Millstone, and also the Jersey militia at the battle of Monmouth; and her cousin, John Dickinson, was the author of the celebrated “Farmer's Letters."
John Read was a man of influence and talent. He served for two sessions in the Legislature of Pennsylvania as a Representative from Philadelphia, and an unexpired term of four years in the Senate, was for some years City Solicitor, and in 1819 was made President of the Philadelphia Bank. He resigned that post in 1841, and died, about five years ago, at an advanced age.
John Meredith Read, the subject of this communication, is the eldest son of John Read. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, and graduated very young. Students, at that period, often left the university, crowned with its honors, with no more Latin and less Greek than is now required for admission to Yale or Princeton; and it is not likely that Mr. Read was an exception to the ordinary rule.
He was admitted to the bar in 1818, and at that period looked as little like one given to the wasting of midnight oil in recondite studies as those least troubled with ambitious dreams. tall of stature, and with a face fresh, ruddy, and animated. He, however, read much, and had a strong propensity for literature; but he was no student in the proper sense of the term, and partook, with a zest natural to the young, of social enjoyments. Life had not yet presented itself to him in its serious aspects, and he thought little of the honors of the profession for which he was ere long to compete. Within a year, however, of his admission to the bar, he was appointed Solicitor for the Philadelphia Bank, and in that capacity became concerned in some important cases, in the management of which he exhibited a remarkable aptitude for legal practice. As business increased, a sense of its responsibilities compelled him to labor in order to acquire the learning necessary for the full performance of his duties, and he soon became distinguished for the diligence with which he prepared his cases, as well as for the ability with which he tried them. By degrees he acquired a rooted attachment to his profession, and studied the law as a science. He habitually came into court armed at all points, and gave his client the advantage of a masterly manipulation of the facts, and the utmost support of authority of which his cause was capable. He was not liable to be confused, disconcerted, or flurried, betrayed no surprise at an unexpected development of the facts, but went through his case steadily and without excitement, master of it
and of himself, never forgetting for a moment the decorum due to the administration of justice, nor the courtesies becoming the practice of an honorable profession. He partook largely of the chivalric spirit of the bar of the olden time,—was fair and generous to an opponent, and shared liberally with a colleague the fruits of his own laborious preparation. Though early noted as a rising man, his upward course was necessarily slow and toil
There were giants in those days at the bar, and they monopolized the heavy practice, leaving but the gleanings of the field to their youthful co-laborers.
In the fall of 1823, Mr. Read was elected a member of the House of Representatives of Pennsylvania, and during the session of the following winter took an active part in the debates of that body, and proved himself an able and influential member. He was re-elected the next year, and had for his colleagues Judges Kane and Stroud, and Mr. Meredith, late Secretary of the Treasury under General Taylor, constituting the strongest delegation ever sent by Philadelphia.
Declining further service in the Legislature, he applied himself with increased diligence to his profession. He was appointed City Solicitor, and became counsel for a number of large mercantile firms. Having been elected a member of the City Select Council, he thought it his duty to investigate the condition of the finances, and to understand the sources of its revenues and the subjects of its expenditures. His habits of exhaustive research qualified him for a species of labor which to most minds is, of all others, the most repulsive; and it was not long till he presented, in a forcible and luminous speech,—which was subsequently published in “Hazard's Register,"—the first connected view ever given to the public of the operations of the financial department of the city government. An ordinance drawn by him, providing for quarterly and annual accounts in a special shape, was passed by the Councils; and by its means the community, for the first time, were enabled to understand the management of their municipal affairs.
When the proposition for the amendment of the Constitution of Pennsylvania was first promulgated, he hesitated to join in the movement, although he was satisfied that certain alterations could be made which would prove beneficial. Having studied
the subject with his usual care, he prepared an address to the people of Pennsylvania, which was adopted at a town-meeting held in Philadelphia, and, having been circulated throughout the State, furnished the basis of the scheme of reform which was subsequently worked out by the convention and ratified by the people.
Soon after the accession of Martin Van Buren to the Presidency, Mr. Read was appointed United States District Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and held the office till 3d of March, 1841. After his resignation, Mr. Read was retained as the special counsel of the Government by the Solicitor of the Treasury, notwithstanding his adverse political position,-a compliment to his professional standing not less honorable to the appointing power than to him.
While officiating as District Attorney, he was appointed, by the Secretary of War, Judge Advocate of the Court of Inquiry upon Commodore Elliot, and was afterwards appointed to the same position in the court-martial constituted for the trial of that distinguished officer. Although much bitterness of feeling was manifested between the accusers and accused, and the feeling affected in no small degree the friends of the respective parties, every one paid tribute to the fairness, candor, and ability of the Judge Advocate; and the voluminous proceedings, embracing some fourteen hundred pages, exhibit not a single exception taken to his ruling by the very able counsel engaged in the defence.
Standing now in the foremost rank of his profession, eminent as well for the depth and variety of his learning as for his talents, he was designated by public opinion as the proper successor to Judge Baldwin. He was accordingly nominated, in 1845, to the Senate as a Judge of the Supreme Court of the United States. The nomination thus made, however, was not acted upon by the Senate. “There was"-says a biographer of Mr. Read—“an adverse influence in that body prescient of the future, and a Northern man with Southern principles was demanded for the position. To that influence, Mr. Read's unswerving fidelity to the law and the Constitution—which, it was well known, could not be made in his hands flexible instruments of a power in the State greater than the State itself-constituted an insuperable objection."
In 1846, Mr. Read was appointed Attorney-General of Pennsylvania, and held the office about six months, when he resigned.
For the twelve years that intervened between his relinquishing the office of Attorney-General and his election as Judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania he pursued the practice of the law with unabated diligence, and prosecuted his studies with an ardor that would have done credit to a youthful aspirant to the honors of the profession. He made himself acquainted with all branches of the law, civil and criminal, municipal and federal, equity and admiralty, constitutional and international, and with all of them acquired a scientific familiarity. During the interval referred to, he was engaged in many important trials,--among the rest, in that of the United States vs. Hanway, in 1851, for treason. His speech, which was the closing one in the case on the part of the defence, and occupied the court during three days of its session, was a most masterly effort. In his preparation for trial he had studied thoroughly the English law of treason and our own, made himself familiar with the slave-codes of all the Southern States and the decisions of the courts under them, and was ready to answer any suggestion that might come from the opposite side. His speech was never fully reported. If it had been,-says a competent authority,—it would have settled the law of treason in the United States for the present century.
But, although now in the busiest part of his life, he found time to pay some attention to politics, and in 1849 attended as a delegate the Democratic Convention at Pittsburg, and successfully advocated the adoption of a resolution offered by Samuel W. Black, now Governor of Nebraska Territory, against the extension of slavery into the Territories of the United States. The resolution reads thus
“Resolved, that the Democratic party adheres now, as it ever has done, to the Constitution of the country. Its letter and spirit they will neither weaken nor destroy; and they redeclare that slavery is a domestic, local institution of the South, subject to State law alone, and with which the General Government has nothing to do : wherever the State law extends its jurisdiction the local institutions can continue to exist. Esteeming it a violation of State rights to carry it beyond State limits, we deny the power of any citizen to extend the area of bondage beyond its present dominion; nor do we consider it a part of the Constitution that slavery