Morrison Waite, nicknamed "Mott", was born November 27, 1816 in Lyme, Connecticut--a pleasant village which boasted of having played its part in the Revolutionary War. Mott's father was a country lawyer, a Yale graduate, a man of culture--known as a modest but capable man, who had established a reputation for integrity, fair-mindedness and firmness. Mott's childhood, as that of his four brothers and sisters, was simple and uneventful and family ties were close. He was educated at the one room Village School, spent a year studying Greek and Latin at a private school and was accepted by Yale College at age 17.
Waite was a good student, keeping meticulous record of his expenses. He was a member of the debate society and Phi Beta Kappa. In 1837, after graduation, Morrison returned to Lyme for a year where he read law under his father. He then decided to "take hold" in Maumee, a town of fewer than one thousand in Northwest Ohio, then a frontier area. An uncle, Horace Waite, worked as a merchant there. On November 1, 1838, investing $31.43 in furniture to outfit a second floor room, Waite affiliated himself with Samuel M. Young, a lawyer who had arrived in Maumee a few years earlier. After studying under Young, Waite was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1839. The two then established the firm of Young & Waite.
The new firm was kept busy since economic conditions in Ohio were unsettled because of the panic of 1837. Early cases involved foreclosing on mortgages, disentangling business complications, straightening out property titles, collecting debts and settling bankruptcy matters. By 1841 the firm had attracted a large clientele and the County Commissioners reported that of the 19 lawyers in Maumee and Toledo, the firm of Young and Waite had the highest earnings.
In 1840 back in Lyme, Mott married Amelia Warner, his childhood sweetheart and second cousin. The couple eventually had a daughter. As a western lawyer, Waite spent much time on horseback, riding circuit. Frequently, the judge and two or three lawyers traveled in a body, visiting county seats scattered through the wilderness that was then northwestern Ohio. In 1844, Waite took and won his first case before the Supreme Court of Ohio. His name appears regularly in court records thereafter.
Waite served one term as mayor of Maumee and one term in the Ohio General Assembly during 1849-1850. He was a devout Episcopalian and a member of the Whig party, an abolitionist, but less fiery than some. He told friends he did not enjoy his term in the legislature.
In 1850, Young and Waite opened a Toledo branch. Waite moved his residence to Toledo and was elected to the City Council in 1851. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1862. Badly divided over the Civil War, the radical Republicans supported the incumbent James Ashley who demanded that the administration make abolition its primary goal and criticized Lincoln sharply for failing to prosecute the war vigorously. Waite became the conservative candidate, accepting out of a deep feeling of loyalty toward Lincoln. Edward Phelps ran as the "white man's candidate" and as an avowed enemy of Negro freedom. Waite carried Lucas County by a margin of two to one, but Ashley took the district 7013 to Waite's 5850 and Phelp's 5234.
Waite's law practice continued to thrive and the firm now also represented railroads and banks with its general practice. Morrison's brother Richard, fresh out of Yale, joined him in establishing a new firm of "M.R. and R. Waite". They practiced together for 18 years.
In 1871 the Treaty of Washington was negotiated during President Grant's first term. An international board of arbitration was to pass American claims against Britain based on the violation of the Neutrality Act. The U.S. claimed that a Confederate Warship and raider, renamed the Alabama, after being built and fitted out in England, were throughout its activities restocked and rearmed in British Carribean ports. This, the U.S. argued, violated the principle that during wartime, a neutral nation ought to use due diligence in preventing either belligerent nation from acquiring warships within its jursidiction or using its ports as a naval base.
To his surprise, Waite was selected as one of the three legal counsel representing the United States in this endeavor along with his old friend and Yale classmate, William Evarts. The team's successful arguments in Geneva led to an eventual award of over fifteen million dollars for the United States. According to some observers, this was the first and only positive accomplishment of the Grant administration.
Waite was feted upon his return to Toledo, with dinners, speeches and programs in his honor. Shortly afterward, the Ohio legislature voted to prepare a new state constitution, with delegated elected from each county. Both political parties in Lucas county nominated Waite, and upon his arrival in Columbus, he was elected to serve president of the constitutional convention. Waite eventually served only a year, for Salmon P. Chase, the Chief Justice died on May 7, 1873.
Grant had great difficulty finding a Chief Justice since his administration had a reputation for being notoriously corrupt. While stubbornness and loyalty to subordinates had been an asset to the military, for a president, it proved disastrous. Two nominees were rejected by the Senate. Four others, asked by Grant to serve, refused nomination. Waite's work on the arbitration commission impressed Grant as well as the fact that he was an Ohioan--the state that had furnished the bulk of his cabinet and other appointed posts. Waite's father had become the chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court and, along with others, was a great supporter for his son's nomination. Morrison's honesty was unquestioned and, since he was relatively unknown, he had few enemies and thus recieved quick confirmation.
The docket of Waite's term was busy. His decisions showed him an advocate of judicial restraint. He held to faith acquired in his frontier experiences that people acting through their own legislatures know their own best interests. He preseumed statutes to be constitutional and believed in states' powers of sovereignty. The Waite court has been criticized for enforcing the civil rights amendments and statutes passed during and after the Civil War. Waite interpreted these laws strictly in accord with his personal legal philosophy. As a result, minimal protection was granted.
Justice Morrison R. Waite took office in 1874 at the age of 58. He served 14 years and died of pneumonia in office in 1888. His body was returned to Toledo where he was buried in Woodlawn cemetery. He served the nation faithfully and was honored at the time of his death for his character, honesty and good works.