Drilling Through

I am reading this morning an excellent essay, by Edward White, about the “judicial culture” of the Supreme Court in the years in which Chase was Chief Justice.

In a photo caption, White quotes Chase commenting on one of his colleagues on the Supreme Court, Samuel Freeman Miller, calling him the “dominant personality” of the Court “whose mental force and individuality are felt by the Court more than any other.”

White does not have a footnote for his caption, so I decided to see if I could find the quote somewhere else. A google search led me to Michael Ross’s excellent book on Miller. Ross uses the same Chase quote about Miller in his preface. Ross’s footnote cites a 1907 biography of Miller, by Charles Gregory.

Twenty years ago, when I was writing my biography of John Jay, finding a 1907 biography would require a trip to the Library of Congress, perhaps even to the rare book room at the Library. Now, however, a 1907 biography is easier to find than a 1971 biography, because it is out of copyright and available on Hathitrust.

Gregory’s 1907 biography Miller has the same quote, with a somewhat cryptic footnote, citing the Annals of Iowa for 1904. The Annals of Iowa are not yet fully scanned and organized in Hathitrust. But they are available on the website of the University of Iowa, and the January 1904 edition of the Annals has a short article by Henry Strong about Justice Samuel Freeman Miller. The article, written to praise Miller not long after his death, includes the following on page 247:

“I remember, many years ago, during the period of reconstruction, walking down the avenue in Washington with Chief Justice Chase. We were speaking of the characteristics of the members of the Supreme Court bench, past and present; their judicial tendencies and their influence upon the court. He then remarked: “Beyond question, the dominant personality now upon the bench, whose mental force and individuality are felt by the court more than any other, is Justice Miller, who is, by nature, by intellectual constitution, a great jurist.”

So here we are at ground zero, the original source of the often-quoted quotation, and we have to ask: is this reliable? A quick check of the index of the Chase’s printed diary shows that Chase never mentioned Henry Strong in his diary. The index to the fifth volume of Chase’s printed letters shows that Chase did not mention Strong in any letters from the last eight years of his life. So it seems that they were not close.

There were several “Henry Strongs” in American history but it the author of this article was the midwestern lawyer and railroad executive, born in 1829 and died in 1911. Strong lived for a while in Keokuk, Iowa, so that he would known Miller. An obituary of Strong (online through the California Digital Newspaper Project) says that Strong lived for a few years in Washington where he was a “great friend” of Miller “and many others in public life.” So Chase and Strong may well have met in Washington. But it seems rather unlikely that Chief Justice Chase would have shared with Strong such candid comments about another member of the Supreme Court.

I go through all this because I think that too many historians do not spend enough time “drilling through” to the original sources of quotes and asking hard questions about whether these quotes are reliable. And to show that the process does not require, in this day and age, hours and hours in the library.