Rufus Wheeler Peckham Jr. was born November 8, 1838, in Albany. He was the youngest of three boys to Isabella Adeline Lacey and Rufus W. Peckham, a prominent lawyer, later judge and member of U.S. House of Representatives. Both his parents came from old New York families dating back to the seventeenth century. Peckham attended Albany Boys Academy and later received private study in Philadelphia. After his studies, he spent a year traveling throughout Europe with his eldest brother, Wheeler Hazard Peckham. Upon arriving back to Albany, he studied law under his father.
In 1859, Peckham was admitted to the New York Bar and began to work at his father’s firm Tremain & Peckham. The same year his father was elected to the New York Supreme Court, and Peckham took his father place alongside his brother, Wheeler. His clients included banks, insurance companies and most notably the Albany Susquehanna Railroad which he defended against the Erie Railroad. Led by Jim Fiske and Jay Gould they became notorious years later in the Black Friday gold panic of 1869.
On November 14, 1866, Peckham married Harriet Maria Arnold, the daughter of D.H. Arnold, President of the Mercantile Bank of New York. The couple resided in Albany and had two sons, Henry “Harry” Arnold, and Rufus Wheeler Peckham. The family resided at 107 State Street in Albany, adjacent to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
Following down the same path as his father, he was also interested in politics and became the District Attorney for the City of Albany, later Albany County District Attorney, a position previously held by his father. From 1869 – 1872 he served as special assistant to the New York State Attorney General where he gained prominence prosecuting suspects in a railroad express-car robbery. Peckham aligned himself with well-connected upstate Democrats, most notably Grover Cleveland who later become the Mayor of Buffalo, Governor of New York and President. Peckham served as a delegate from New York at the 1876 and 1880 Democratic conventions.
In 1881, he served as the corporate counsel for the City of Albany, the following year he was unsuccessful in getting the Democratic party nomination for New York State Court of Appeals. However, in 1883 he was elected to the New York State Supreme Court, and in 1886 became a judge of the New York Court of Appeals until 1895. His election to the court received widespread criticism at it was seen as partisan politics by President Cleveland.
Peckham’s father also served on New York Court of Appeals, being elected in 1870. However, in 1873 he died at sea when the French steamer Ville Du Havre collided with the Scottish steamer Loch Earn off the coast of France. He and his wife Mary were among the 226 passengers and crew who perished. Their bodies were never recovered, and a cenotaph sits at Albany Rural Cemetery in the family plot. It sits beside the grave of his first wife and Peckham’s mother, who died when he was nine years old.
While at the New York Court of Appeals, Judge Peckham was politically neutral in his decisions, siding with Republicans from time to time. In 1891, he voted with them upholding Republican victories in several contested elections. These independent decisions became key factors when he was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. While on the court he served on the board of trustees as at Albany Law School.
Following the death of Justice Samuel Blatchford in 1893, President Cleveland put forth William Hornblower, a New York City lawyer and in 1894 Wheeler Peckham. Both received opposition from New York Senator, and former governor David Hill blocking both votes. Senator Hill took revenge at Hornblower for investigating his ally, New York Deputy Attorney General Isaac Maynard, who had been suspected of tampering with election returns. At the time of Wheeler’s confirmation, he was President of the New York State Bar and had appointed a committee to investigate Maynard. Hill was quoted saying that “if the president had only nominated the other Peckham, he would have voted for his confirmation.” Cleveland nominated Senator Edward White of Louisana to fill the vacancy.
In 1895 Justice Howell Jackson died and Cleveland sent a letter to Hill asking if “the younger Peckham would still be acceptable.” Peckham was nominated with an unopposed confirmation six days later. He has been the last Supreme Court Justice nominated by a Democratic President in a Republican-controlled Senate. Though Peckham enjoyed the lower courts, he has been quoted saying after the nomination “if I have got to be put away on the shelf I suppose I might as well be on the top shelf.”
Peckham served as U.S. Supreme Court Justice from December 1895 until his death in 1909. During his time he wrote 303 opinions and nine dissents. He is known for writing the majority opinion in the landmark case Lochner v. New York (1905) which the court found the New York Bake Shop Act, a law that limited the hours of a bakery worker to “a ten-hour day or sixty-hour workweek” as unconstitutional. In his opinion, he states that “Clean and wholesome bread does not depend on whether the baker works ten hours per day or 60 hours a week… The freedom of master and employees to contract with each other … cannot be prohibited or interfered without violating the 14th Amendment.”
He also wrote the opinion for Ex parte Young (1908) which states that a federal court may prevent enforcement of state law despite State’s sovereign immunity. Another case Peckham sided with the majority was in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which upheld the constitutionality of separate-but-equal facilities, allowing fort he continuation of Jim Crow laws until Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Peckham purchased their summer home west, Coolmore in 1884 in the area known at the time as Knowersville. As the Peckhams and other wealthy families became summer residents, delivery of mail became an issue; a village in western New York had the same name. Local paper The Enterprise wrote an article following a movement to rename the village in honor of Peckham, who at the time, was a judge for the Court of Appeals. Though some liked the idea of the Village of Peckham, NY, some spoke out against it. Another summer resident and Albany socialite, Lucie Rochefort Cassidy, widow of William Cassidy, editor of the Albany Argus was able to influence President Cleveland to rename it to the village of Altamont in 1890.
Justice Peckham died on October 24, 1909, at age 70 and is buried in his family’s plot at Albany Rural Cemetery. Both of his brothers and his sons preceded him. In 1896 his youngest son Rufus Wheeler Peckham married Harriet Weld Corning, the only daughter to Erastus Corning and Mary Parker, sister to Parker Corning who founded Albany International. Their marriage lasted a few years with Rufus dying in 1899. Peckham’s wife Harriett passed away in 1917 and is interred next to him.