Appointed by President Andrew Jackson
Louis McLane was born on May 28, 1784, in Smyrna, Delaware. Circumstances for the young McLane in Delaware were fortuitous, claims his biographer, because he was “of Scottish and English descent, Methodist in religion, Federalist in politics, son of a military hero, and a Wilmington lawyer of downstate birth.” These factors provided the basis for his success.
McLane's father paved the road for his son's advancement because of his role as a leading citizen of Delaware. Allen McLane served in several major battles during the Revolutionary War, including Yorktown, by which time he had been commissioned a captain. During the 1790s the elder McLane supported the Federalist Party and in 1797 was appointed customs collector at Wilmington by President Washington. McLane would retain his collectorship into the 1820s, all the while establishing political contacts that helped clear a path for his son.
The young McLane also inherited some of his father's personality traits: “a choleric temper, a vigorous spirit, and an ardent ambition.” He has been variously described by historians as “intelligent and able, ” “clear minded and efficient, ” “volatile, opinionated, one who loved power and the wielding of it, a tactful person who was skillfully diplomatic, and a manager of men.”
McLane enjoyed a varied education. It began with a brief enrollment in the Friends School in Wilmington. Not long after, McLane's father obtained a commission for him as a midshipman in the Navy. He was assigned to the Philadelphia under the command of Stephen Decatur, and at 15 years of age set sail for the West Indies. Although it was an exciting voyage, a naval career was not congenial to his aspirations, so he enrolled in the Newark Academy, Delaware, on his return. He eventually settled on the law, and once again his father's influence was significant. The elder McLane was friends with one of the most famous Delaware lawyers and politicians, James Bayard. It was to Bayard's law office in Wilmington that Louis McLane began his apprenticeship in about 1804. After surviving a duel with another of Bayard's apprentices, John Barratt, McLane was admitted to the bar in 1807.