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REVERDY JOHNSON (1796–1876)

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Originally appearing in Volume V15, Page 463 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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REVERDY JOHNSON (1796–1876), American political leader and jurist, was born at Annapolis, Maryland, on the 21st of May 1796. His father, John Johnson (177o–1824), was a distinguished lawyer, who served in both houses of the Maryland General Assembly, as attorney-general of the state (18o6–1811), as a judge of the court of appeals (1811–1821), and as a chancellor of his state (1821–1824). Reverdy graduated from St John's college in 1812. He then studied law in his father's office, was admitted to the bar in 1815 and began to practise in Upper Marlborough, Prince George's county. In 1817 he removed to Baltimore, oracle on points of learning. Between him and the clergy, indeed, there was a strong religious and political sympathy. He was a zealous churchman, and, though he had qualified himself for municipal office by taking the oaths to the sovereigns in possession, was to the last a Jacobite in heart. The social position of Samuel's paternal grandfather, William Johnson, remains obscure; his mother was the daughter of Cornelius Ford, " a little Warwickshire Gent." At a house (now the Johnson Museum) in the Market Square, Lichfield, Samuel Johnson was born on the 18th of September 1709 and baptized on the same day at St Mary's, Lichfield. In the child the physical, intellectual and moral peculiarities which. afterwards distinguished the man were plainly discernible: great muscular strength accompanied by much awkwardness and many infirmities; great quickness of parts, with a morbid pro I pensity to sloth and procrastination; a kind and generous heart, with a gloomy and irritable temper. He had inherited from his ancestors a scrofulous taint, and his parents were weak enough to believe that the royal touch would cure him. In his third year he was taken up to London, inspected by the court surgeon, prayed over by the court chaplains and stroked and presented with a piece of gold by Queen Anne. Her hand was applied in vain. The boy's features, which were originally noble and not irregular, were distorted by his malady. His cheeks were deeply scarred. He lost for a time the sight of one eye; and he saw but very imperfectly with the other. But the force of his mind overcame every impediment. Indolent as he was, he acquired knowledge with such ease and rapidity that at every school (such as those at Lichfield and Stourbridge) to which he was sent he was soon the best scholar. From sixteen to eighteen he resided at home, and was left to his own devices. He learned much at this time, though his studies were without guidance and without plan. He ransacked his father's shelves, dipped into a multitude of books, read what was interesting, and passed over what was dull An ordinary lad would have acquired little or no useful knowledge in such a way; but much that was dull to ordinary lads was interesting to Samuel. He read little Greek; for his proficiency in that language was not such that he could take much pleasure in the masters of Attic poetry and eloquence. But he had left school a good Latinist, and he soon acquired an extensive knowledge of Latin literature. He was peculiarlyF attracted by the works of the great restorers of learning. Once, while searching for some apples, he found a huge folio volume of Petrarch's works. The name excited his curiosity, and he eagerly devoured hundreds of pages. Indeed, the diction and versification of his own Latin compositions show that he had paid at least as much attention to modern copies from the antique as to the original models. While he was thus irregularly educating himself, his family was sinking into hopeless poverty. Old Michael Johnson was much better qualified to pore over books, and to talk about them, than to trade in them. His business declined; his debts increased; it was with difficulty that the daily expenses of his household were defrayed. It was out of his power to support his son at either university; but a wealthy neighbour offered assistance; and, in reliance on promises which proved to be of very little value, Samuel was entered at Pembroke College, Oxford. When the young scholar presented himself to the rulers of that society, they were amazed not more by his ungainly figure and eccentric manners than by the quantity of extensive and curious information which he had picked up during many months of desultory but not unprofitable study. On the first day of his residence he surprised his teachers by quoting Macrobius; and one of the most learned among them declared that he had never known a fresh-man of equal attainments. At Oxford Johnson resided barely over two years, possibly less. He was poor, even to raggedness; and his appearance excited a mirth and a pity which were equally intolerable to his haughty spirit. He was driven from the quadrangle of Christ Church by the sneering looks which the members of that aristocratical society cast at the holes in his shoes. Some charitable person placed a new pair at his door; but he spurned them away where he became the professional associate of Luther Martin, William Pinkney and Roger B. Taney; with Thomas Harris he reported the decisions of the court of appeals in Harris and Johnson's Reports (18to–1827); and in 1818 he was appointed chief commissioner of insolvent debtors. From 1821 to 1825 he was a state senator; from 1825 to 1845 he devoted himself to his practice; from 1845 to 1849, as a Whig, he was a member of the United States Senate; and from March 1849 to July 185o he was attorney-general of the United States. In 1856 he became identified with the conservative wing of the Democratic party, and four years later supported Stephen A. Douglas for the presidency. In 1861 he was a delegate from Maryland to the peace convention at Washington; in 1861–1862 he was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. After the capture of New Orleans he was commissioned by Lincoln to revise the decisions of the military commandant, General B. F. Butler, in regard to foreign governments, and reversed all those decisions to the entire satisfaction of the administration. In 1863 he again took his seat in the United States Senate. In 1868 he was appointed minister to Great Britain and soon after his arrival in England negotiated the Johnson-Clarendon treaty for the settlement of disputes arising out of the Civil War; this, however, the Senate refused to ratify, and he returned home on the accession of General U. S. Grant to the presidency. Again resuming his practice he was engaged by the government in the prosecution of Ku-Klux cases. He died on the loth of February 1876 at Annapolis. He repudiated the doctrine of secession, and pleaded for compromise and conciliation. Opposed to the Reconstruction measures, he voted for them on the ground that it was better to accept than reject them, since they were probably the best that could be obtained. As a lawyer he was engaged during his later years in most of the especially important cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and in the courts of Maryland.
End of Article: REVERDY JOHNSON (1796–1876)
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