Grier, Robert Cooper

Life Span
Dickinson Connection
Class of 1812
    Full name
    Robert Cooper Grier
    Place of Birth
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    Sectional choice
    Free State
    No. of Siblings
    No. of Spouses
    No. of Children
    Isaac Grier (Father, died 1815), Elizabeth Cooper (Mother), Isabella Rose Grier (Wife died 1886), daughter (born 1830).
    Dickinson (Carlisle College)
    Attorney or Judge
    Relation to Slavery
    White non-slaveholder
    Church or Religious Denomination
    Political Parties
    Union (Unconditional Union, National Union)
    Supreme Court
    Slaveholding in 1860
    Household Size in 1860
    Occupation in 1860
    Supreme Court Justice
    Political Party in 1860
    Residence in 1860
    Religion in 1860
    Wealth in 1860
    Marital status in 1860

    Robert Cooper Grier (Dickinson Chronicles)

    Robert Cooper Grier was born on March 5, 1794 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, the eldest of the eleven children of Presbyterian minister Isaac Grier, a member of the Dickinson class of 1788 and his wife Mary Cooper Grier. Schooled by his father, he entered Dickinson at seventeen and finished in one year as a graduate of the class of 1812. Following this, he served briefly as the principal of the Dickinson Grammar School. He then joined his father at his Northumberland Academy, teaching Latin and Greek, and replaced him as headmaster when he died in 1814. He studied the law and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1817.

    He began practice in Bloomsburg and then moved to the county seat at Danville. There he married Isabelle Rose, in 1829, and developed a thriving private practice. Thanks to his staunch Jacksonian views he was named in 1833 as President Judge of the District Court of Allegheny County. He served that bench for thirteen years and developed a deserved reputation as a highly competent judge.

    Supreme Court Justice Baldwin had died in 1844, and the two year saga of two presidents (Tyler and Polk), at least three nominees rejected by the Senate, and others (including Buchanan) turning down the nomination, ended when the United States Senate unanimously confirmed Robert Cooper Grier as President Polk's appointment to the Supreme Court on August 5, 1846. He joined another Dickinsonian on the nation's highest court, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. Justice Grier sat during a tumultuous period, rendering opinions in various landmark cases, including the famous Dred Scott Case or Scott v. Sandford in 1857. As the only northern justice to concur with the majority in this case and his adamant support of fugitive slave laws, he was bitterly denounced by abolitionists. He was also accused of engaging in unethical behavior, as a result of intimate correspondence concerning pending legal matters with incoming President James Buchanan, throughout the duration of the Dred Scott case.

    Happily for his place in history, his service on the Court over the next decade was unmarked by further stain. On the outbreak of the Civil War, though still a Democrat, he became a staunch supporter of the Union. He cast the deciding vote and delivered the historic opinion on "the Prize Cases" in 1863 which validated the Union's blockade and defined the extent of governmental power in the face of armed rebellion. Serving through the tenure of eight presidents, Grier perhaps stayed too long on the bench. Though he had previously attended every single session during his years as an Associate Justice--he was muscular and over six feet tall--a series of strokes after 1867 reduced his participation to almost nothing and he finally heeded pleas for his retirement on January 31, 1870. He died in Philadelphia on September 25, later that year, aged 76.

    His wife Isabelle died in December, 1886. The couple had one daughter, born in 1830.
    John Osborne and James W. Gerencser, eds., “Robert Cooper Grier,” Dickinson Chronicles,

    Robert Cooper Grier (Eminent Americans)

    In the meantime, the subject of this notice continued at Dickenson [Dickinson] College. His aptitude for the languages and early instruction had placed him far ahead of all competitors in that branch. He was so thoroughly master of the Latin that he could write it with facility, perhaps as well as his mother tongue; and, though indifferent to, and never troubling himself about, college honors, his superior ability and acquirements were not questioned. His instructor in chemistry was Doctor Cooper, formerly a judge in the interior of Pennsylvania, then Professor of Chemistry in Dickenson [Dickinson] College, and afterwards President of Columbia College, South Carolina, whither he had been invited by the state, and known throughout the country for his extensive literary and scientific attainments, and with whom our student was always a favorite. He graduated at Dickenson [Dickinson] in 1812, but taught grammar-school in the college till 1813, when he returned to Northumberland to aid his father in his college duties, now become onerous by the addition of numerous students, and the increasing duties of the enlarged institution. for more of the machinery of education than the institution had before possessed; and the library of a celebrated professor, who had lived the latter part of his life in Northumberland, and not long before had died there, together with his philosophical apparatus, were procured for the college.
    John Livingston, Portraits of Eminent Americans Now Living: Including President Pierce and his Cabinet (New York, 1854), 4: 68.

    Robert Cooper Grier (American National Biography)

    Grier sat on the Supreme Court for nearly a quarter century in tumultuous years. He delivered major opinions in many areas, including bankruptcy law, commerce, patent law, and federal court procedure and jurisdiction. Several of these opinions were important in his day, but few had lasting doctrinal significance. In twentieth-century ratings of Supreme Court justices, Grier is ranked as average. His opinion in the Prize Cases, recognized by Ulysses S. Grant as a "great service" in the nation's "darkest hours," stands as his most important contribution to American constitutional law.
    Stuart A. Streichler, “Grier, Robert Cooper,” American National Biography Online, February 2000,

    Robert Cooper Grier (Albany Law Journal)

    Before speaking of the close of Judge Grier’s official career, it is proper to say more of his private character. His support of his mother and ten brothers and sister, to which we have already referred, when he was yet young in the law, was an act which richly merited the success he subsequently enjoyed, and should win for his memory the respect of everyone. It was an undertaking that might have discouraged a young man of less determined character and ability, though equally liberal and affectionate at heart. The support of eleven persons and the liberal education of them was a gigantic work for a young man left in poverty and just entering upon the practice of his profession. But young Grier assumed his burden, and carried it with an upright form and cheerful front, overcoming all difficulties. His brothers were well and liberally educated and settled in business or professions. His sisters lived with him till they were married and his mother (who was the daughter of the Rev. Robert Cooper, of Cumberland county) until she died. As a son and father, as well as in all subsequently formed domestic relations, his private life was distinguished by the kindest and tenderest affections, and no man was more beloved by his family and friends.
    "The Late Robert Cooper Grier," The Albany Law Journal, October 15, 1870, p. 294.

    Robert Cooper Grier (New York Times)

    Hon. ROBERT COOPER GRIER, until recently the oldest of the Judges of the Supreme Court of the United States, died at Philadelphia, on Sunday evening, at the advanced age of seventy-seven. He has been suffering from paralysis for many years, and his death is not an event altogether unexpected. He was born in Cumberland County, Penn., on the 5th of March, 1794. Educated by his father, Rev Isaac Grier, a distinguished theologian and teacher, until he was seventeen, he then entered as a student at Dickinson College, where he graduated with high honors in 1812. After teaching for a year at Dickinson College, he settled in Northumberland, where his father had removed, and established a seminary of high repute. He assisted his father up to 1815, when the latter died, and was succeeded by ROBERT as principal. In this capacity he served for a year or two; taught astronomy, mathematics, Greek and Latin, lectured on chemistry, and in the intervals studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1817, and practiced at Bloomsburg, whence in 1818 he removed to Danville. At that place he pursued his profession with great success, supporting his mother and ten younger brothers and sisters, whom he liberally educated. On the 4th of May, 1838, he was appointed President-judge of the District Court of Alleghany County, at Pittsburg, where he removed in the same year, and resided until September, 1848. He removed to Philadelphia on the 4th of August, 1846, was nominated Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President POLK, in place of Justice BALDWIN, deceased, and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, This position he continued to fill until his failing health a few months ago compelled him to resign and take the benefit of the act of Congress of April, 1869, which continued to him the same salary which he received as Judge.

    In early life Judge GRIER was a Federalist, and in later years acted with the Democratic Party, but on the breaking out of the rebellion he pronounced unmistakably in favor of the efforts made for the preservation of the Union. He presided at a public meeting at Williamsport, Penn., in 1861, and earnestly exhorted the people to their duty in the crisis. In ability and learning, he held a high rank among American jurists, and in his private life was greatly esteemed as a high-minded and patriotic citizen, and a man of pure and upright character. He has passed away after a long and useful life, and leaves a place which few public men are capable of filling.
    "Hon. Robert C. Grier," New York Times, September 27, 1870, p. 5: 3.
    Chicago Style Entry Link
    Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents . Boston: Bedford Books, 1997. view record
    Hensel, William Uhler. The Christiana Riot and the Treason Trials of 1851: An Historical Sketch. Lancaster, PA: The New Era Printing Company, 1911. view record
    Howard, Benjamin Chew. Report of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Opinions of the Judges thereof, in the Case of Dred Scott versus John F. A. Sanford. Washington, DC: Cornelius Wendell, 1857. view record
    Katz, Jonathan. Resistance at Christiana: The Fugitive Slave Rebellion, Christiana Pennsylvania, September 11, 1851: A Documentary Account. New York: Cromwell, 1974. view record
    Rossiter, Clinton. The Supreme Court and the Commander in Chief. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976. view record
    Slaughter, Thomas P. Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. view record
    Swisher, Carl B. The Taney Period, 1836-64. New York: Macmillan, 1974. view record
    How to Cite This Page: "Grier, Robert Cooper," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,