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Miller, Samuel Freeman
(April 5, 1816–October 10, 1890)

–prominent Keokuk lawyer and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1862- 1890)—wrote more than 600 majority opinions during his lengthy tenure on the Court. Today he is chiefly remembered as the author of the Court's opinion in the Slaughterhouse Cases, an important decision interpreting the privileges and immunities clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

    Miller was born on a farm in Kentucky. After initially pursuing a medical career, Miller decided to switch to law, which he began studying in his spare time while still practicing medicine. Miller was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1846, and he set up a law office in his hometown of Barbourville in the southeastern part of the state. Active in community affairs, Miller grew dissatisfied with Kentucky when the state enacted a new, proslavery constitution in 1849. Miller decided to look westward, to the free-soil state of Iowa, and moved there with his family in 1850, settling in Keokuk.

    Keokuk in the 1850s was an important stop on the Mississippi River, and the town viewed itself as a future rival to St. Louis and Chicago during a time when municipal fortunes would rise and fall with the locations of new bridges and railroad lines to the West. Miller quickly entered into the legal and business life of the community and soon established himself as one of the leading lawyers in town, enjoying a busy real estate practice. Miller's first wife died during that time, and he later married the widow of an earlier law partner. Miller also became involved in local politics, and he helped found the Republican Party in the state. An early opponent of slavery, Miller condemned the practice during an unsuccessful campaign for the Iowa Senate as "the most stupendous wrong, and the most prolific source of human misery, both to the master and slave, that the sun shines upon in his daily circuit around the globe."Keokuk's first Unitarian church was organized with Miller's assistance; the denomination's opposition to slavery and capital punishment strongly appealed to the socially progressive Miller. He remained active in church affairs during his life and was later elected president of the church's national conference.

    The Panic of 1857 brought a sudden and painful end to Keokuk's prosperity. Land values plummeted, businesses closed, and commerce dried up. Miller shifted much of his law practice to debt collection, though he himself suffered large losses as an investor in local real estate; years later he was still attempting to sell investment property that he had purchased during the boom.

    Miller was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln, and, with the start of the Civil War, he actively supported the Union cause. Strongly favored by Iowans and other westerners to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, Miller was appointed by President Lincoln to a seat on the Court in 1862–the first member of the Supreme Court who lived west of the Mississippi River.

    On the Court, Miller cast votes supporting Lincoln's exercise of his presidential powers. After the conclusion of the war, he took a firm approach to Reconstruction and strongly favored the rights of the newly emancipated slaves. One matter before the Court that put that philosophy to the test was the Slaughter house Cases (1873), one of Miller's most significant opinions. At issue was a Louisiana statute that granted a monopoly to a slaughterhouse in New Orleans. The measure was designed to concentrate butchering in one area of the city, and in that way to promote public health. Miller's majority opinion for the Court upheld the statute against a challenge by white butchers, who argued that the legislation violated the privileges and immunities clause of the 14th Amendment because it improperly limited their right to practice their occupation. Scholars have long been divided in their interpretations of the decision. Some have believed that the Court wanted to draw limits in the case on the lengthy process of Reconstruction; others have thought that the Court hoped to secure a role for the Southern legislatures, which included many former slaves as members.

    Miller took a practical approach to law. As a lawyer, he preferred clarity and reason over lengthy citations of old precedents, and he pursued a similar approach in his work as a member of the Supreme Court. His legal philosophy was pragmatic rather than theoretical, and he aimed to reach the right result in cases, even if it was not the outcome dictated by the Court's earlier decisions. Miller's own social views changed with the century. When he arrived in Keokuk in 1850, he was optimistic about the prospects for free labor and the opportunities for ambitious persons from modest backgrounds to advance in life. He was, after all, an example of the self-made man: one who, with education and ambition, had risen to a prominent station in life. He later became concerned, though, that the development of urban industries and the growth of large corporations limited personal freedom and opportunities. Miller's distrust of eastern bondholders and financiers, developed in the wake of Keokuk's economic collapse and expressed in a number of opinions he wrote while on the Court, enhanced his popularity in the West, and he was mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate.

    Miller was a sociable person, and he was popular among both the employees of the Supreme Court and his judicial colleagues, who respected his independence and his intellectual leadership.

    Miller suffered a stroke on October 10, 1890, while walking from the Court to his home in Washington, D.C. He died three days later, on October 13, and was interred in Keokuk.
Sources A full biography is Michael A. Ross, Justice of Shattered Dreams: Samuel Freeman Miller and the Supreme Court during the Civil War Era (2003). See also William Gillette, "Samuel Miller," in The Justices of the United States Supreme Court, ed. Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, vol. 2 (1997); and Bernard Schwartz, A History of the Supreme Court (1993).
Contributor: Benjamin K. Miller