John McLean and The Western Star

By Charlie Zimkus

John McLean’s legacy in Lebanon hits its citizens’ driveways every Thursday in the form of The Western Star, Ohio’s oldest continuously published weekly newspaper.

A Congressman, Supreme Court Justice and frequent presidential candidate, McLean was born in Morris County, N.J., on March 11, 1785. At age four, his family moved west, relocating several times before settling in 1799 in what is now the community of Ridgeville in north-central Warren County. Ridgeville was laid out by McLean’s father, Fergus, in 1814.

At age 18, McLean went to Cincinnati to study law under Arthur St. Clair Jr., son of the Northwest Territorial governor. McLean supported himself financially by writing at the office of the Clerk of Court in Cincinnati and at the county offices in Lebanon. Some of the early records in the Warren County Courthouse are in McLean’s handwriting.

In July 1806, McLean drove an ox cart to Cincinnati to pick up an old Ramage printing press and brought it to Lebanon. He set up the press on the second floor of a house on Main Street, half a block east of town square. On Friday, February 13, 1807, McLean printed 100 copies of the first edition of The Western Star. Its four pages failed to break much news. In addition to local advertisements, it reported on what Congress had done in December and what Napoleon had been up to in October.

That same year, McLean married Rebecca Edwards and was admitted to the bar. He soon began practicing law, his true passion. Three years later he sold The Western Star to his brother, Nathaniel, who would go on to start The St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Meanwhile, John entered politics. He served in the House of Representatives from 1813 until 1816, when he began a six-year stint as associate judge on the Ohio Supreme Court.

Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams both chose McLean to serve as Postmaster General in their cabinets. But by 1829, McLean had had his fill of cabinet posts, declining offers of Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy from President Andrew Jackson.

Jackson instead nominated him for the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served as associate justice from March 7, 1829 until his death in Cincinnati on April 4, 1861.

McLean's most noteworthy action on the bench came in form of a dissenting opinion in the Dred Scott Case. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that blacks could not become citizens or sue in federal court, and that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional for restricting slavery in U.S. territories. McLean’s eloquently written dissenting opinion is studied by students and lawyers to this day.

During his 32-year career as a Supreme Court Justice, McLean was three times in the running for presidential nominations, although he was never chosen. In 1860, fellow Lebanon son Thomas Corwin campaigned vigorously for McLean to lead the Republican Party ticket. The nod instead went to Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln.

In the final years of his life, McLean lived in Cincinnati, where he died on April 4, 1861 at age 76. He is buried at Spring Grove Cemetery.

Warren County Historical Society photos
John McLean, around the time he founded The Western Star
An authentic death mask from the collection of the Warren County Historical Center