Historical Markers
William Strong Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

William Strong

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
NW corner, 5th and Court Sts., Reading

Dedication Date:
February 16, 1951

Behind the Marker

During the Civil War, the federal government issued more than $450 million worth of paper money, called "greenbacks," to finance the war effort. After the war their continued use or retirement became a heated national political issue. In 1869, the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to end the struggle in favor of the businessmen and creditors, who argued that the devalued dollar was reducing the value of their investments, when it ruled paper money unconstitutional in Hepburn vs. Griswold.

In response, outraged voters joined the Greenback-Labor party, which clamored for the issuance of more paper money to make it easier for millions of struggling Americans to pay off their debts. Two years later, the Court reversed its ruling. The new majority opinion was written by Justice William Strong of Reading, Pennsylvania, one of President Ulysses S. Grant's first two appointees to the Supreme Court.

Oil on canvas of Strong, seated at a desk.
Justice William Strong,, by Robert Hinckle, 1894.
Seven years later the Supreme Court issued one of the most controversial rulings in American history. In 1876, the presidential election ended with 184 electoral votes for Democrat Samuel Tilden, 163 for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, and 22 in dispute. Democratic vigilantes in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana used violence to prevent Republicans, especially African Americans, from voting, so those states sent in two sets of electors.

To determine the outcome, Congress - with the House controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans - created an electoral commission composed of five members of the House, five from the Senate, and five justices from the Supreme Court, including Stone. This commission was supposed to be composed of seven Republicans, seven Democrats and one independent: Supreme Court justice David Davis of Illinois.

When Davis resigned from the Court to become an Illinois Senator, however, the Court replaced him with Joseph P. Bradley, a justice whose voting record was decidedly Republican. Moved by arguments that Democrats had engaged in massive fraud and intimidation, Bradley joined Strong and the other Republicans, who thus awarded the election to Hayes. For his vote, Strong was lauded by Republicans and loudly condemned by many Democrats.

Print showing bust portraits of eight men, identified as, clockwise from top, Oliver P. Morton, James A. Garfield, George F. Hoar, William Strong, Joseph P. Bradley, Samuel F. Miller, George F. Edmunds, and Frederick T. Frelinghuysen; also a group of four men identified as the "Louisiana Returning Board", from left, Kenner, Casenave, Anderson, and Wells. Includes text of four quotes regarding election fraud, such as this by Messrs. Clifford, Field, Bayard, Abbott, Hunton, Thurman & Payne, "We can prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Louisiana and Florida voted for Tilden by decisive majorities, and we are prepared to show up the villainous frauds of the Returning Boards. All we ask is investigation by this commission" and this by U.S. Grant, "No man worthy of the office of President should be willing to hold it if counted in, or placed there, by any fraud. Either party can afford to be disappointed in the result, but the country cannot afford to have the result tainted by the suspicion of illegal, or false returns." In the 1876 presidential election, the election returns in four states were disputed; the final tally of votes showed Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden with approximately 250,000 more popular votes than Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, though Hayes ended up with one more electoral vote than Tilden. On March 2, 1877, Congress met in a joint session and declared Hayes and Wheeler president and vice-president.
"The Political Farce of 1876: Two Negroes and Ten White Men Who Defeated the...
Born in Connecticut, Strong was one of ten children of a Presbyterian minister. After graduating from Yale College in 1828 he briefly taught mathematics and classics, attended Yale law school, and then moved to Reading, Pennsylvania. There, Strong quickly learned Pennsylvania Dutch, became a popular lawyer, a judge, and then a lawyer for the new Reading Railroad. In 1846 he was elected to Congress as a Democrat. At the end of his second term, Strong returned to private practice, then was elected in 1857 to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Strong soon switched his allegiance to the newly formed Republican Party. Highly respected by fellow lawyers and politicians, he might have become chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1864, had President Lincoln not appointed Ohio's Salmon P. Chase of Ohio. In 1868, Strong left the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for a lucrative law practice in Philadelphia. Two years later, he received his appointment to the Supreme Court from President Grant.

On the Supreme Court, Strong generally took conservative judicial positions, consistent with those of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and the nation. Supporting corporations in their disputes with state governments and workers, he wrote opinions forbidding states from taxing interstate railroad freight. On civil rights, his record was mixed. He ruled that African Americans could not be excluded from juries, but that they could receive a fair trial from an all-white jury. In his most controversial opinion, Blyew v. Kentucky(1872), Strong argued that the federal government could not bring civil-rights cases on behalf of deceased - that is, murdered - victims.

Cartoon shows a man holding a top hat in one hand and gesturing toward horde of arriving immigrants. He scolds Uncle Sam.
"Where the Blame Lies," Sackett and Wilhelms Lithograph Co., April 4, 1891.
Strong's behavior on the bench was typical of Pennsylvania judges. In the late 1800s, Pennsylvania courts ruled consistently in favor of the rights of business at the expense of workers, public health, and clean government. They repeatedly issued injunctions to nullify laws passed by the state legislature in 1869, 1872, 1876, 1887, and 1891 that gave unions the legal right to organize and to strike, and that exempted them from criminal conspiracy indictments.

In 1888, the state Supreme Court issued two rulings that unions were liable to civil damages for depriving owners of property rights. Using this formula, the Court issued injunctions prohibiting unions from boycotting businesses, preventing non-union workers from entering a workplace, picketing, harassing non-union workers verbally, or even holding meetings at boarding houses or railroad stations where non-union workers were likely to be found. To cap it off, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an 1897 state law that prohibited companies from firing workers belonging to a union, on the grounds this interfered with owners' property rights.

In the late 1800s, growing numbers of Americans descended from old Protestant families - and the judges who came from those families - also came to fear the waves of immigrants arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe. After he resigned from the Court in 1880, Strong, who feared the influx of Catholic immigrants and the influence of the Catholic Church, became President of the National Association to Secure the Religious Amendment of the Constitution, which sought to declare the United States a Christian nation. He also served as vice-president of the American Bible Society and the American Tract Society, which distributed Protestant religious literature to the poor.

In his firm support of Union war measures, business interests, and Protestant Christianity, Strong exemplified the Republican Party that emerged in late nineteenth-century Pennsylvania and America.
Back to Top