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John M. Read papers
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Collection Details
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  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: John M. Read papers
    Inclusive Dates: 1797-1921
    Bulk Dates: 1853-1862
    Collection Number: mssJMR
    Collector: Read, John M. (John Meredith), 1797-1874
    Extent: 20 boxes
    Repository: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
    Manuscripts Department
    1151 Oxford Road
    San Marino, California 91108
    Phone: (626) 405-2191
    Fax: (626) 449-5720
    Email: reference@huntington.org
    URL: http://www.huntington.org
    Abstract: The John M. Read papers consists of correspondence, estate records, financial documents, legal documents, and letterpress books related to Read’s career as an American lawyer, jurist, and politician.
    Language of Material: The records are in English.

    Administrative Information


    Collection is open to qualified researchers by prior application through the Reader Services Department. For more information, please go to following web site .

    Publication Rights

    The Huntington Library does not require that researchers request permission to quote from or publish images of this material, nor does it charge fees for such activities. The responsibility for identifying the copyright holder, if there is one, and obtaining necessary permissions rests with the researcher.

    Preferred Citation

    John M. Read papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

    Acquisition Information

    Purchased by the Library Collectors' Council from Carmen D. Valentino Rare Books & Manuscripts, January 16, 2016.
    Addenda gift of Carmen D. Valentino Rare Books & Manuscripts, May 2016.


    John Meredith Read was born in Philadelphia, son of John Read (1769-1854) and Martha Meredith, and grandson of George Read (1733-1798) and Samuel Meredith (1741-1817). Read graduated at the University of Pennsylvania in 1812, at the age of fifteen. Six years later he was admitted to the bar and opened a law practice in Philadelphia. His office, on 1322 Chestnut Street, grew into a booming legal practice that handled a wide variety of civil and criminal cases, the law of equity, the titles, limitations, and descents of real and personal estates, wills, legacies, and intestacies. Read was known as one the ablest debaters in the state and an expert in international, municipal, and constitutional law. Read served in the state legislature (1822-1824) and was the solicitor for the city of Philadelphia and member of the select council.
    A committed Democrat, he had been an admirer and friend of Andrew Jackson. In 1833-1834, he assisted Jackson in his struggle against the Bank of the United States. He had served as the United States Attorney of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (1837-1841) and judge advocate on the Court of Enquiry on Jesse Elliot, who was involved in a long feud with Commodore Perry over their respective conduct at the Battle of Lake Erie. In 1844, he organized and presided over a large meeting protesting the anti-Catholic and anti-Irish “Bible riots.”
    In 1845, President Tyler nominated Read for a Supreme Court judgeship, but the Senate refused to act on the nomination. From July to December 1846, Read served as the Attorney General of Pennsylvania. His short tenure fell on a controversy over public funding for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company; when Philadelphia government approved an initial $1.5 million subscription to the Pennsylvania Railroad, Read argued that the city had no right to subscribe for the stock. Read was one of the founding members of the committee to consolidate the city of Philadelphia, the effort that ended with the passing of the Act of Consolidation, more formally known as the act of February 2, 1854 (P.L. 21, No. 16). The act created the consolidated City and County of Philadelphia, which expanded the city’s territory and eliminated other municipalities bringing all municipal authority within the county under the auspices of the Philadelphia government. The consolidation was drafted to help combat lawlessness that the many local governments could not handle separately and to bring in much-needed tax revenue for the city. Read lobbied for the consolidation in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and acted as the chief advisor to Governor William Bigler.
    Read was a well-known and respected corporate lawyer who represented quite a few railroad and canal companies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and argued before the Supreme Court. His corporate clients included the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company, the Camden and Amboy Rail Road and Transportation Company, the Hempfield Railroad Company, Philadelphia, Easton, and Water Gap Railroad Companies. In 1849, he fought against the effort of the New Jersey legislature to impose tolls upon the navigable waters between New York and South Amboy. He was an adventurous and evidently prudent businessman who heavily and by all indications successfully invested in real property and railroads in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.
    He had also become known as an increasingly vocal opponent of slavery. Read, like his good friend David Wilmot (1814-1868), had been one of the earlier supporters of the annexation of Texas and supported the Mexican War. He, however, objected to the expansion of slavery into the territories. He heartily supported Wilmot’s failed effort to ban slavery from the new territories by attaching rider bills that appropriated money for the war. In 1849, at the Democratic Convention in Pittsburg, Read offered a strong anti-slavery resolution that defined the extension of slavery as “a violation of States rights.” In March 1850, he delivered an anti-slavery speech supporting the effort to ban slavery in California. In 1851, Read represented Castner Hanway, a Pennsylvania abolitionist accused of treason in conjunction with Christiana riot. His co-chairs were Thaddeus Stevens and Joseph J. Lewis. W. Arthur Jackson, Read’s junior partner, later wrote a popular account of the trial. In 1855, Read represented an enslaved woman, Jane Johnson in the celebrated trial of Passmore Williamson.
    In 1856, Read emerged as one of the leaders of the Republican Party. He was the chief organizer of the First National Convention of the Republican Party in Philadelphia that endorsed Fremont and William L. Dayton. Read was instrumental in the Republican victories in both municipal elections of early May and congressional contests in October of 1858. Read carried the state as a candidate for the state Supreme Court by a near 30,000 votes. This success brought him forward as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Read and Simon Cameron emerged as leading contenders for the nomination; both approached Lincoln to be their running mates. After Cameron defeated Read at the state nominating Convention in February 1860, Read threw his support behind Lincoln; he commissioned what became the official portrait of the candidate.
    With the outbreak of the Civil War, Read became a staunch champion of the Union cause. At the end of April 1861, he wrote to Lincoln and Sumner to urge the President to call up 300,000 volunteers. John M. Read’s opinion served as the basis for the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, 12 Stat. 755 (1863), which authorized the President to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in response in time of war and provided for the release of political prisoners detained prior to the passage of this act. As a supreme court justice, Read also supported other controversial acts of Congress - the Enrollment Act passed on March 3, 1863, which instituted the second case of military draft in America and Legal Tender Acts (1862-1863). In 1862, Read ruled in favor of the American Philosophical Society in a lawsuit brought against it by the city of Philadelphia that tried to tax the Society’s famous Hall in Independence Square. Read was actively involved in the 1863 gubernatorial elections and Lincoln’s 1864 re-election campaign.
    Read married Priscilla Marshall (1808-1841) in 1828; the couple had two children: J. Meredith Read (1831-1896) and Emily Marshall Read Hyde (d. 1854). In 1855, he married Amelia Thomson (d. 1886), sister of his close friend and client John Renshaw Thomson (1800-1862).
    His son, J. Meredith Read attended Brown University, and he received his law degree in 1859 from Albany Law School. He was appointed aide-de-camp to Governor of Rhode Island with rank of colonel. In 1859-1860, he presided over the state Wide-Awake Club. In 1860, J. Meredith Read became State Adjutant General. In 1868, he was instrumental in the election of Ulysses Grant to the presidency, and after the election was appointed United States Consul General to France and Algeria. In 1870-1872, he acted as consul general of Germany, and in 1873 became the first United States Minister to Greece and served until 1879.

    Scope and Content

    The bulk of this archive is about John Meredith Read, Sr. (1797-1874) a man of remarkable accomplishments and strong convictions. Having served as the United States federal judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, he was nominated for the United States Supreme Court in 1844, only to be denied confirmation because of his vocal opposition to slavery.
    The letterpress books contain the entirety of John Meredith Read, Sr.’s private, professional, and political correspondence between 1853 and 1868. All the letterpress books include an index, except for JMR 5, which appears to be incomplete. A large body of the letters are addressed to his son, John Meredith Read, Jr., documenting his studies at Brown University, life in New York, legal practice, and Civil War career. Read also corresponds with nearly everybody in the legal profession. The political contents in these letterpress books adds new, previously unknown information about the turbulent politics of the antebellum decade and the Civil War.
    The letters addressed to David Wilmot (1814-1868) are particularly important because no Wilmot papers have survived. In a private letter dated April 10, 1854, Read having been propelled to action by Stephen A. Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, urges Wilmot to be at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to help pass an anti-Nebraska resolution.
    These letterpress books also showcase a successful law practice where correspondence with fellow lawyers, clients, and opposing counsel is abundant. The cases range from contested wills, administration of estates, and contested elections. Read was also involved in political lobbying on behalf of transportation companies including the Philadelphia & Trenton, Camden & Amboy, Erie, Susquehanna & Lehigh Turnpike, and Delaware Raritan Canal.
    Boxes 10-16 consist of loose correspondence primarily related to John Meredith Read, Sr. The topics in the letters range from investments, legal activities, personal matter, business affairs, and politics. There are a few letters between Read’s father, John Read, and his son, John Meredith Read, Jr. Also found in these boxes are letters written by Charles Macalester (1798-1873), a businessman and Presbyterian Church philanthropist; Michael Meylert (1823-1883), a prominent businessman from Laporte, Pennsylvania; William Henry Rawle (1823-1889), a Philadelphia lawyer and legal author; and Lieutenant Colonel Harrison Ritchie (1825-1894).
    Boxes 17-20 include accounts related to the Cadwalader and Dickinson families; estate records related to the Meredith and Read families; miscellaneous financial and legal documents; and some intriguing cases Read handled. Other families represented in this portion of the collection include Champion, Clymer, Hollinshead, Kennard, Sarkies, and Zane.

    Indexing Terms

    Personal Names

    Aitken, Marshall W. (Marshall William), 1798-1865, addressee
    Alexander, William G., addressee
    Ashmead, John W. (John Wayne), 1806-1868, addressee
    Bache, Hartman, 1797-1872, addressee
    Bache, Marie Del Carmen Meade, 1810-1877, addressee
    Bancker, Charles G., 1808-1861, addressee
    Bancroft, George, 1800-1891, addressee
    Bell, Thomas S. (Thomas Sloan), 1799 or 1800-1861, addressee
    Bigler, William, 1814-1880, addressee
    Bowman, George W., approximately 1810-, addressee
    Brewster, Benjamin Harris, 1816-1888, addressee
    Bullitt, John Christian, 1824-1902, addressee
    Cadwalader, John, 1805-1879, addressee
    Cadwalader, Thomas, 1795-1873, addressee
    Carroll, William Thomas, -1863, addressee
    Cavender, Thomas S., 1821-1896, addressee
    Clymer, Meredith, 1817-1902
    Conrad, Robert Taylor, 1810-1858, addressee
    Dayton, William L. (William Lewis), 1807-1864
    Dickinson, Philemon, 1804-1882, addressee
    Draper, Simeon, 1806-1866, addressee
    Durar, Enoch, 1811-1878, addressee
    Evans, Henry S., 1813-1872, addressee
    Fallon, Christopher, 1809-1863, addressee
    Findlay, John K. (John King), 1803-1885, addressee
    Frazer, William E., 1803-1883, addressee
    Gamble, James, 1809-1883, addressee
    Gatzmer, William Henry, 1807-1895
    Green, James S. (James Sproat), 1829-1892, addressee
    Hegins, Charles W., addressee
    Horwitz, Phineas J. (Phineas Jonathan), 1822-1904
    Jordan, Ambrose Latting, 1789-1865, addressee
    Macalester, Charles, 1798-1873
    Meylert, Michael, 1823-1883
    Middleton, Daniel Wesley, 1805-1880, addressee
    Rawle, William Henry, 1823-1889
    Read, John M. (John Meredith), 1797-1874
    Read, John Meredith, 1837-1896
    Read, John, 1769-1854
    Ritchie, Harrison, 1825-1894
    Stockton, Robert Field, 1795-1866, addressee
    Wilmot, David, 1814-1868, addressee
    Woods, Alva, 1794-1887, addressee

    Corporate Names

    Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company
    Lehigh Valley Railroad Company
    Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad Company
    Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- )


    Bonds -- United States
    Guardian and ward -- United States
    Practice of law -- United States
    Railroads -- United States
    Stocks -- United States
    Transportation -- United States

    Geographic Areas

    New Jersey
    New York (N.Y.)
    New York (State)
    Philadelphia (Pa.)
    United States -- Politics and government
    Washington (D.C.)


    Estate records
    Financial records
    Legal documents
    Letterpress copybooks
    Letters (correspondence)