The Hon. John Meredith Read, LL.D., "a great jurist and a wise statesman," was the son of the Hon. John Read, of Pennsylvania, grandson of the Hon. George Read, of Delaware, and the great-grandson of Col. John Read, of Maryland and Delaware. He was born in the mansion of his grandfather, General Samuel Meredith, to whom his parents were then paying a visit, in Chestnut Street, two doors above Fifth Street, opposite Independence Hall, on the 21st of July, 1797; and he died in Philadelphia, on the 29th of November, 1874, in the seventy-eighth year of his age. He graduated at the University of Pennsylvania at the age of fifteen in 1812; was called to the bar in 1818; elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1822, and again in 1823; and afterwards became city solicitor and member of the select council, and drew up the first clear exposition of the finances of Philadelphia. He was appointed United States district attorney of the eastern district of Pennsylvania, in 1837, and held that office eight years. He was also judge advocate on the Court of Enquiry on Commodore Elliot, solicitor-general of the Treasury Department, and
attorney-general of Pennsylvania. Although his family were eminent and powerful Federalists, he early became a Democrat and was one of the founders of the Free Soil wing of that party. This militated against him when he was nominated to the Senate in 1845, as judge of the supreme court of the United States; for the Southern senators opposed his confirmation, and he consequently requested the president to withdraw his name. He was one of the earliest, most ardent and effective upholders of the annexation of Texas, and the building of railways to the Pacific. He powerfully assisted Andrew Jackson in his war against the United States Bank, and yet after its downfall, Mr. Nicholas Biddle came to him and begged him to be his counsel. In the celebrated trial of Castner Hanway, for treason, Judge Read was engaged with Thaddeus Stevens, and Judge Joseph J. Lewis, for the defendant, and made such a masterly argument, that Mr. Stevens said he could add nothing, for his colleague’s speech had settled the law of treason in this country. This great triumph gave Judge Read an international reputation, and English jurists paid the highest compliments to his genius and learning. He showed his repugnance for slavery in the Democratic Convention held in Pittsburgh, in 1849, where he offered a resolution against the extension of slavery, which concluded with these remarkable words: "Esteeming it a violation of States rights to carry it (slavery) beyond State limits, we deny the power of any citizen to extend the area of bondage beyond the present dimension; nor do we consider it a part of the constitution that slavery should forever travel with the advancing column of our territorial progress."
Holding these strong views he naturally became one of the founders of the Republican Party, and he delivered at the Chinese Museum, in Philadelphia, at the beginning of the electoral campaign in 1856, his celebrated speech upon the "power of Congress over slavery in the territories." This struck a key-note which resounded throughout the country, and his discourse formed the text of the oratorical efforts of the Republican Party. It was under his lead that the Republican Party gained its first victory in Pennsylvania, for he carried that State in the autumn of 1858, as a candidate for judge of the Supreme Court, by nearly 30,000 majority. This brought him prominently forward as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States, and Mr. Lincoln’s friends proposed to nominate Judge Read for President, with Mr. Lincoln for Vice-President. This arrangement was destroyed by the defeat of Judge Read’s supporters by the friends of the Hon. Simon Cameron n the Pennsylvania Republican Convention, in February, 1860. Nevertheless Judge Read received a number of votes in the Chicago Convention, although he had thrown his influence in favor of his friend, Mr. Lincoln. The decisions of Judge Read run through forty-one volumes of reports. In whatever branch of the law a question arose, he met and disposed of it with a like able grasp and learning. He was familiar with civil and criminal law, and their practice, with international and municipal laws, with law and equity, with the titles, limitations, and descents of real and personal estates, with wills, legacies, and intestacies, with the constitution, charters, and statutes of the United States, the States and all our cities. His opinion was adopted as the basis of the Act of March 3, 1863, authorizing the President during the rebellion to suspend the writ of habeas corpus; and throughout the country his talents and his influence were constantly enlisted in behalf of the general government, and all his decisions were governed by the ardent and lofty patriotism which characterizes his conduct through life. He relieved the American Philosophical Society from arbitrary taxation by deciding that the land in Independence Square, on which its hall stands was granted by the State forever for public uses; and, as it could not be sold by any form of execution, no taxes could consequently be a lien upon it. His judgment also placed the Public Buildings of Philadelphia on their present site. Another famous decision was that refusing an injunction to prevent the running of the passenger tramways on Sunday. He could not consent to stop the "poor man’s carriage, the passenger car." Many thousand copies of this opinion were printed in the East and West, and it carried public opinion with it wherever it was read. His associate on the Supreme bench, Judge Williams, in his address to the bar of Philadelphia said: "Chief Justice Read possessed talents and learning of a very high order, and his personal and official influence were very great. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word; a gentleman of the old school, of the very highest sense of honor, of great dignity of character, and in social intercourse kind, affable and courteous. He was a true friend, strong and unswerving in his attachments, ready to make any sacrifice for his friends, and when they were in trouble he was untiring in his efforts to serve them. He was a man of the strictest integrity, and despised everything that was low and vile. With him the equity and justice of the case was the law of the case. He was a man of chivalrous courage, persistent purpose, and inflexible will. He did not know what fear is." A partial list of Chief Justice Read’s published writings are to be found in Alllibone’s "Dictionary of Authors," and his merits as a lawyer and a judge, were ably and eloquently portrayed by the Hon. Eli K. Price, in his discourse upon Chief Justice Read, before the American Philosophical Society. "Judge Read was one of the last of the great Philadelphia lawyers, for he was a leader among such men as the Sergeants, Binney, Chauncey, the Rawles and the Ingersolls." In speaking of his inherited qualities. Colonel Forney said: "Chief Justice Read belonged to a race of strong men. He was a man of the most marked individuality, and was constantly engaged in originating useful measures for the welfare of the General and State Governments, and his amendments formed an essential part of the constitutions of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and his ideas were formulated in many of the statutes of the United States which owed their existence to him. He was contented to create useful legislation which smaller men often fathered. He never sought office, and frequently refused the highest national posts.
Chief Justice Read was Grand Master of Masons of Pennsylvania, his great-grandfather, Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, having been one of the founders of Masonry in that Province, and members of his family, the Reads, having filled the highest offices in Masonry, in Delaware.
There are many portraits of Chief Justice Read. One hangs in Masonic Hall in the gallery of Grand Masters, another adorns the Supreme Court-room in Philadelphia, but perhaps the best likeness is a miniature by J. Henry Brown, which was admirably engraved by Samuel Sartain. This engraving was copied in the London Graphic, in connection with a spirited notice of Chief Justice Read, written by his kinsman, Charles Reade, the famous novelist.
Chief Justice Read married first, Priscilla, daughter of Hon. J. Marshall, of Boston, on the 20th of March, 1828; Mrs. Read who was born the 19th of December, 1808, died in Philadelphia, on the 18th of April, 1841. She was the granddaughter of Lieut. Marshall, of the Revolutionary army, and eighth in descent from a captain in Cromwell’s army, who was promoted for conspicuous services at the siege of Leicester, and at the battles of Marston Moor and Naseby. Mrs Read and her sister Emily Marshall, afterwards, Mrs. William Foster Otis, of Boston, were the most celebrated belles of their day. By his first wife, Chief Justice Read had six daughters, of whom only one survived infancy, viz., Emily Marshall Read, who married, in 1849, William Henry Hyde, Esq., and died in 1854, leaving an only daughter, Emma H. Hyde, who married George W. Wurts. Esq., First Secretary of Legation and Chargé d’ Affaires of the United States, at Rome, and died at Rome without issue.
By his first wife, neé Marshall, Chief Justice Read had also an only son— General John Meredith Read, late United States minister to Greece.
Chief Justice Read married secondly in 1865, Amelia, daughter of Edward Thomson, Esq, and sister of Hon. John R. Thomson. United States Senator from New Jersey, and of Admiral Edward Thomson of the United States navy.
Chief Justice Read died at Philadelphia, on the 29th of November, 1874, in his seventy-eighth year. His widow, Mrs. Amelia Thomson Read, survived him twelve years, dying the 14th of September, 1886, without issue.