Thomas Johnson (jurist)
|Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States|
August 6, 1792 – January 16, 1793
|Nominated by||George Washington|
|Preceded by||John Rutledge|
|Succeeded by||William Paterson|
|1st Governor of Maryland|
March 21, 1777 – November 12, 1779
|Preceded by||Robert Eden (Royal)|
|Succeeded by||Thomas Lee|
|Born||November 4, 1732|
St. Leonard, Maryland, British America
|Died||October 26, 1819 (aged 86)|
Frederick, Maryland, U.S.
Thomas Johnson (November 4, 1732 – October 26, 1819) was an 18th-century American judge, politician, and a Founding Father of the United States who participated in several ventures to support the Revolutionary War. Johnson was the first (non-Colonial) governor of Maryland, a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he signed the Continental Association, and an associate justice of the Supreme Court. He was the first person appointed to the court after its original organization and staffing with six justices. Johnson's tenure on the Supreme Court lasted only 163 days, which makes him the shortest-serving justice in U.S. history.
Life before the Revolution
Thomas Johnson was born in Calvert County, Maryland, on November 4, 1732, to Thomas and Dorcas Sedgwick Johnson. His grandfather, also named Thomas, was a lawyer in London who had emigrated to Maryland sometime before 1700. The younger Thomas was the fourth of ten children, some of whom later had large families of their own. (Louisa Johnson, daughter of his brother Joshua, married John Quincy Adams.)
Thomas and his siblings were educated at home. As a young man he was attracted to the law, studied it with an established firm, and was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1753. By 1760, he had moved his practice to Frederick County, and in 1761 he was elected to the Maryland provincial assembly for the first time. Johnson married Ann Jennings, the daughter of a judge from Annapolis on February 16, 1766.
In 1774 and 1775, the Maryland assembly sent him as a delegate to the Continental Congress. In the Congress Johnson was allied with those who favored separation from Great Britain. In November 1775, Congress created a Committee of [Secret] Correspondence that was to seek foreign support for the war. Thomas Johnson, along with Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Harrison V, were initially named to the committee.
Johnson returned to Maryland and continued his work in the state's Assembly when the United States Declaration of Independence was signed. In 1775 he drafted the declaration of rights adopted by the Maryland assembly and later included as the first part of the state's first constitution. It was adopted for Maryland by the state's constitutional convention at Annapolis in 1776. He also served as brigadier general in the Maryland militia. Thomas Johnson and his brothers supported the revolution by manufacturing ammunition and possibly cannon. Their former factory, Catoctin Furnace, is now part of a state park near Camp David, just north of Frederick, Maryland.
In 1777, the state legislature elected Johnson as the new state's first Governor. He served in that capacity until 1779. In the 1780s he held a number of judicial posts in Maryland, as well as serving in the assembly in 1780, 1786, and 1787. He pushed a bill through the Maryland Assembly naming commissioners to meet with Virginia's commissioners to "…frame such liberal and equitable regulations concerning [the Potomac] river as may be mutually advantageous to the two states and that they make report thereon to the General assembly." Although Johnson was not a commissioner, the resulting conference agreed to regulate and settle the jurisdiction and navigation on their mutual border of the Potomac River. Their process served as a predecessor to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Johnson attended the Maryland Convention in 1788, where he successfully urged the state's ratification of the United States Constitution.
In September 1789, President George Washington nominated Johnson to be the first federal judge for the District of Maryland, but he declined the appointment. In 1790 and 1791, Johnson was the senior justice in the Maryland General Court system. In January 1791, President Washington appointed Johnson, with David Stuart and Daniel Carroll, to the commission that would lay out the federal capital in accordance with the Residence Act of 1790. In September 1791 the commissioners named the federal city "The City of Washington" and the federal district "The Territory of Columbia".
On August 5, 1791, Johnson received a recess appointment from Washington to the seat on the U.S. Supreme Court that became available after John Rutledge resigned. Formally nominated on October 31, 1791, Johnson was confirmed by the United States Senate on November 7, 1791. Though he received his commission that day, he was not sworn in until August 6, 1792. Johnson was the author of the Court's first written opinion, Georgia v. Brailsford, in 1792. He served on the court until January 16, 1793, when he resigned, citing his poor health and the difficulties of circuit-riding. His tenure of 163 days is the shortest, to date, of any Justice.
Johnson suffered very poor health for many years, and cited it in declining Washington's 1795 offer to nominate him for Secretary of State, as Thomas Jefferson had recommended. He managed to deliver a eulogy for his friend George Washington at a birthday memorial service on February 22, 1800. On February 28, 1801, President John Adams named Johnson chief judge for the District of Columbia when first constituting that body.
Later years, death and legacy
His daughter Ann had married John Colin Grahame in 1788, and in his later years Johnson lived with them in a home they had built in Frederick, Maryland. The home, called Rose Hill Manor, is now a county park and open to the public. Governor Thomas Johnson High School is on half of the Rose Hill property. He died at Rose Hill on October 26, 1819, and was originally buried in All Saints churchyard. His remains were removed and re-interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick.
Johnson was one of the first investors in the Illinois-Wabash Company, which acquired a vast swath of land in Illinois directly from several Indian tribes. Soon after his death in 1819 his son Joshua Johnson and grandson Thomas Graham sued William M'Intosh in the landmark Supreme Court case Johnson v. M'Intosh. The case, which remains one of the most important property decisions in American history, determined that only the federal government could acquire Indian land, so Johnson's descendants did not have good title to the property.
Other schools named after Thomas Johnson include Governor Thomas Johnson Middle School in Frederick, Maryland, Thomas Johnson Middle School in Lanham, Maryland and Thomas Johnson Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1978, the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge was opened to traffic. The bridge crosses the Patuxent River and connects Calvert with St. Mary's Counties. As Johnson was a slave owner, the naming of schools for him has become controversial.
- Catoctin Furnace
- List of justices of the Supreme Court of the United States
- List of United States Supreme Court justices by time in office
- United States Supreme Court cases during the Jay Court
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- See also Christensen, George A. (2008). "Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited". Journal of Supreme Court History. 33 (1): 17–41. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5818.2008.00177.x.
- Kades, Eric (2000). "The Dark Side of Efficiency: Johnson v. M'Intosh and the Expropriation of American Indian Lands". University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 148 (4): 1065–1190. doi:10.2307/3312840. JSTOR 3312840. Archived from the original on 2021-04-29. Retrieved 2021-04-29.
- Dr. Emilie Amt Myersville. "Letter to the Editor. Thomas Johnson not appropriate for a school's name". The Frederick New Post. Archived from the original on 2020-06-26. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
- "Maryland to remove statue of justice who affirmed slavery". Baltimore Sun. Archived from the original on 2020-06-26. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
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- United States Congress. "Thomas Johnson (id: J000175)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- Thomas Johnson at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a public domain publication of the Federal Judicial Center.
- Johnson gravesite in Frederick, Maryland
- Rose Hill Manor Park web pages
- Maryland archives image of 1776 Declaration of Rights
- Thomas Johnson letters – C. Burr Artz Public Library