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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Hon. John Mclean Founded The Western Star

Dallas Bogan on 28 July 2004
Dallas Bogan, Warren County, Ohio and Beyond (Bowie Maryland: Heritage Press, 1979) page 224
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

There is so much to be written about one of Warren County's finest men that only books could record his superior achievements. However, with just a few words, the writer will humbly try to review the life of one of the County and Nation's finest, John McLean.
John was born in Morris County, N.J., March 11, 1785, the son of Fergus McLean, an immigrant from the north of Ireland. Fergus was of Scotch descent and John's mother was of Dutch descent. Fergus was determined to locate with his family to the Ohio Valley. He was delayed for a short time in western Virginia, later moving to Jessamine County, Ky., and thence to the neighborhood of Maysville, KY.
He purchased and opened a farm in what is now Clearcreek Township. He later laid out the town of Ridgeville in 1814. Fergus and his eldest son, John, visited their newly purchased land as early as the spring of 1796. Together they cleared a parcel of ground, planted it in corn, and returned to their family in Kentucky. John occasionally made the journey from Maysville to the clearing in Warren County on foot, packing his supplies with him.
The McLean family was large and very poor. This situation caused John to endure many hardships. Nevertheless, he had acquired a keen sense for education and sought to pursue it. There were neither high schools nor any good elementary schools near his home. In 1802, he traveled two miles up the Licking River in Kentucky to study Latin under Robert Stubbs. To pay for this education he sometimes chopped down trees and helped clear the land for his neighbors.
At the age of 19, John was apprenticed to John Stites Gano, Clerk of Common Pleas of Hamilton County. An agreement was made that Fergus was to supply all wearing apparel and account for all sickness, accident, or disasters incurred by young John for a period of two years. He was also restricted from marrying during this period. Gano in turn was to educate him in the duties of clerk and provide him with comfortable lodging.
John studied law under Arthur St. Clair, Jr., at Cincinnati. For self-support, he wrote in the courthouses at Cincinnati and Lebanon. While a law student in the small town of Cincinnati, he found there were neither social functions nor evening recreations. He joined a society that had a great number of outstanding members, one being Dr. Daniel Drake, then a young physician. His energies were so great that on one occasion, when he was to participate in a debate, he questioned himself about the subject and sat up all night in preparation. His extra effort paid off, for the next evening he was well rewarded for his nights toil.
In 1793 an old press of the Ramage pattern was floated down the Ohio River to Fort Washington, now the site of Cincinnati. On this press was published the Queen City's first "recognized" newspaper, "The Liberty Hall."
In 1806, McLean learned the old Ramage press was for sale. Racing against time, he caught the first stage to the Queen City for the express purpose of purchasing it.
He loaded the press and type into a cart and borrowed a yoke of oxen from Judge Gano. He drove the oxen himself to the home of David Fox at Deerfield. Here he remained overnight and the next day proceeded on to Lebanon. His success was assured, and in a few weeks, the primitive old machine was installed and running in the City of Cedars.
That following year, the press began striking off the first edition of The Western Star, a newspaper that still carries the excellent tradition it was founded on. It is at present time the oldest weekly newspaper in Ohio, the first issue being published February 13, 1807.
Fergus McLean aided his son in the distribution of the newly established newspaper. He rode many miles on horseback throughout the countryside delivering the paper and taking subscriptions. Mail delivery was disgusting at this time, and it was possible that during this dilemma, young John got some ideas regarding the reconstruction of the postal department, a service he later provided.
It was a good year for McLean. At the age of 22 he had started a newspaper, was admitted to the bar, and took a bride, Elizabeth Edwards. After a short time, he sold his newspaper to his brother Nathaniel, who operated it until he entered the War of 1812.
John Collins converted John to the Methodist faith about 1811. He was active in this denomination the rest of his life.
In 1812, he was elected to public office, being chosen a Representative to Congress. The State was at this time divided into congressional districts, the first district consisting of Warren, Hamilton, Butler and Preble counties. Jeremiah Morrow had been a Representative to Congress in this district the previous ten years.
McLean ran for reelection in 1814 without opposition, and it is reported that he received the vote of every voter who went to the polls. While serving in this capacity, he was a leader in Congress that appropriated funds to rebuild Washington after its burning during the War of 1812. He also introduced bills to pension the widows and families of non-commissioned men killed in the war. The Thirteenth Congress assembled in the old post office and patent building until Washington was rebuilt.
Federal troops had been occupying the Cincinnati courthouse during the war and, due to carelessness, a fire was started and the facility burned. McLean secured passage of a bill to compensate Cincinnati for this loss.
In 1816, he was unanimously elected a Judge of the Ohio Supreme Court. With this new post he was forced to resign his seat in Congress. His new position lasted six years until President Monroe appointed him Commissioner of the General Land Office. The following year, in 1823, he was appointed Postmaster General of the United States.
The previous parties had mismanaged the postal department. Order was restored and supervised with such great precision that Postmaster McLean and his department met with eminent praise.
A deficit of $150,000 was facing him when accepting this assignment. Under him, new postal routes were established and modern offices were built. In 1827, through his reorganization, it had attained a balance of $100,000.
By unanimous vote both Houses of Congress voted to raise his salary from $4,000 to $6,000 a year. John Randolph voted against the pay raise, stating his belief that it should be reduced to $4,000 should McLean leave office.
John Quincy Adams was next elected President and agreed to allow McLean to serve in the same capacity, his total tenure being six years. Andrew Jackson, as President, offered the jobs of Secretary of War and Navy to McLean. He refused the request because of the former's plan of removing political opponents from office. Jackson then asked McLean to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, a position he accepted and held for 31 years until his death, April 4, 1861.
From 1834 to 1841, tragedy darkened his personal life. Three of his daughters, his mother, his father, his brother William, and his wife Elizabeth, all died.
In 1843, he married Sarah Belle Garrard, the widowed daughter of Israel Ludlow, one of the founders of Cincinnati. A son, Ludlow, was born to this union but lived only a few weeks. Sarah accompanied her husband in his job assignment and soon became well known in Washington and Philadelphia circles.
McLean was continuously in high political or judicial office for forty-nine consecutive years. He was distinctively identified with the party opposed to the extension of slavery. Possibly John McLean's most important and long-lasting moment was when he dissented in the vote regarding the Dred Scott case. His judgment has gone down in history as a monumental stride toward human rights.
In 1856, he was a presidential candidate in the first Republican convention ever held. He received 196 votes to 396 for Fremont. He was also a write-in candidate for the same office in 1860.
He became ill in 1859, but through a committal to his workload, he continued until the close of that session of court. He became very sick due to a cold during Lincoln's inauguration and returned home to Cincinnati on March 22, 1861. He contracted pneumonia on April 3 and died the next day.
Fifty carriages gathered at the Cincinnati courthouse on the afternoon of the 6th. Together they drove to his funeral in a pouring rain almost at the same moment guns were being fired at Ft. Sumter, marking the beginning of the Civil War. He is buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.
Many American history books contain excerpts concerning John McLean's aspiring lifetime. In this writer's opinion, he has without a doubt achieved the highest honors of any fellow Warren Countian.

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