The Green Bag (1889–1914)/Volume 9/Number 7/Attorney-General McKenna
CALIFORNIA, in its relation to the Union as a State, dominates the Federal department of justice in the adminisration of President McKinley; and for the second time the attorney-generalship locally leaves the section of the Union east of the Rocky Mountains. Hitherto several States have monopolized the office: Virginia, during four presidential terms, with Edmund Randolph, Charles Lee, William Wirt and John Y. Mason; Pennsylvania, seven times with William Bradford, Richard Rush, Henry D. Gilpin, Jeremiah T. Black, Titian J. Coffee, Wayne McVeagh and Benjamin H. Brewster; Massachusetts, six times with Theophilus Parsons, Levi Lincoln, Caleb Cushing, Ebenezer R. Hoar, Charles Devens and Richard Olney; Maryland, the same number with Robert Smith (who under Jefferson held the office only a few months and then joined the large army of totally forgotten Smiths), William Pinkney, Roger B. Taney and Reverdy Johnson, whose legal fame will ever remain green, and John Nelson, who made as inconsiderable a figure in office as did his President, John Tyler; Kentucky boasted possession of the office during four presidential terms: twice with John J. Crittenden, with John Breckenridge and James Speed; New York thrice with Benjamin F. Butler the great, William M. Evarts and Edwards Pierrepont; Ohio, also four times with Henry Stanbery, Edwin M. Stanton, Alphonso Taft and Judson Harmon; Georgia twice with John M. Berrient, Amos T. Ackerman; and, only once, Maine with Nathan Clifford; Delaware with Caesar A. Rodney; Tennessee with Felix Grundy; South Carolina with Hugh S. Legaré; Connecticut with Isaac Toucey; Missouri with Edward Bates; Indiana with William H. Miller; Arkansas with Augustus H. Garland, and Oregon with George H. Williams. Rhode Island remains the only New England State never represented in any Federal Cabinet and in company with Florida and Texas among Southern States. The early and less known attorney generals were the hardest worked of all, because during the first quarter century of the Federal government all legal questions that concerned the government were embarrassing by reason of their novelty.
Attorney-General Joseph McKenna was born of parents of Irish descent, in Philadelphia, fifty-four years ago, and was brought by them to California when he was twelve years old and there educated. It was the initial wish of his parents that he should embrace the priesthood, as the family were of the church of Rome, but young McKenna carried his pious rectitude into the legal profession and with that quality of soul has thus far illustrated it. His home was in the interior County of Solona. He had only been at its bar five years when he was elected its district attorney, and for a second term—so popularly had he discharged his office with desirable tact and proof of high legal ability. “I tried to vindicate what learning I had,” he once remarked to an intimate, “because my County of Solona bore the revered name of Solon, the lawgiver, who ameliorated the harsh statutes of Draco.” With an intellectual cast of countenance of Hibernian type and eloquent eyes, Attorney-General McKenna at times shows as pretty bits of wit as belong to the land of Philpot Curran. “Joe McKenna,” as his townsmen of Suisin—the county seat — affectionately called him, was its leading lawyer. His office adjoined the Court House, and one of his functions was as agent for lawyers in San Francisco and other legal centers of the State, to keep for them watch and ward of their calendar cases and at tend to any necessary interlocutory motions. Being an Irishman by descent and an earnest American patriot, it was natural that he took early interest in politics and that he was on the Republican side. In his thirty-second year his County sent him to the State legislature, where he so made his mark that his constituents named him for Congress, but he was twice unsuccessful. He was, however, a believer in the Robert Bruce apothegm which a poet has rendered for juveniles by a song, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." A third trial proved successful, as did a fourth and a fifth canvass. One term being under the administration of President Harrison, who, when a vacancy occurred in the ninth Federal judicial district (in California) by the death of that intrepid Circuit-Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, appointed him to that high office. His juridical opinions, pronounced as appeal judge during the five years of his non-interrupted term, are to be found in the "Federal Reporter," beginning at about volume forty-nine. When examined they will show succinctness of style, breadth of argument and precision of comment that will induce any layman even who reads them to exclaim, in the language of Ben Franklin's Quaker litigant, "Well, if this is not good common law it is good enough common sense."
Mr. McKenna's congressional career proved to be the stepping stone to his present office for, serving on the same committee with a congressman named McKinley, from Ohio, a strong friendship arose between them with mutual respect and esteem, especially as to McKenna's legal fence in committee room. So that when the whirligig of politics placed the Ohio comrade in the White House, being called upon by political exigencies to provide California with a Cabinet place, the President bethought him of his old associate, McKenna, who had won new legal laurels on the bench, and conferred upon him his present office; affording the Executive an opportunity to put another good Republican lawyer in the vacated judicial place and, in the event of Justice Field retiring on a pension, placing the attorney general on the Supreme bench, following the precedent set by President Jackson in taking ex-Attorney-General Roger B. Taney from a Cabinet post and placing him on the Federal bench. While legal abilities often lead their possessor into political office, it is not often that political office leads toward a juridical position.
While circuit judge at San Francisco, Judge McKenna displayed tact as well as skill in construing treaties and expounding international law, when many controversies arose respecting the treatment of Chinese emigrés arid their status of residency, there by demonstrating his eminent fitness for his present post, which will contemplate many treaty questions and international legal inquiries touching the neutrality laws, the bearing of the Greek blockade upon American commerce and construction of tariff complications or reciprocal treaties, or in transcontinental railway and corporate trust questions. Any lawyer, who shall even listlessly turn the leaves of the many volumes of opinions of attorney generals in the libraries of the Federal departments, can understand and appreciate how delicate and far-reaching are the questions which come before an attorney general. He is also senior adviser to a hundred Federal district attorneys. With previous legislative, executive and judicial experience preceding his as sumption of his present office, Attorney-General McKenna's career, be it short or long, may be expected to add fresh luster to that already imparted to it by a Parsons, a Wirt, a Crittenden, a Johnson, a Cushing, a Black, and an Evarts.