William Johnson (judge)

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William Johnson
Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
In office
May 7, 1804 – August 4, 1834
Nominated by Thomas Jefferson
Preceded by Alfred Moore
Succeeded by James Moore Wayne
Personal details
Born December 17 or 27, 1771
Charleston, South Carolina
Died August 4, 1834(1834-08-04) (aged 62)
New York, New York
Political party Democratic-Republican
Religion Presbyterian

William Johnson (December 17 or December 27, 1771 - August 4, 1834) was a state legislator and judge in South Carolina, and an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1804 to his death in 1834.

Youth and early career[edit]

Johnson was born in Charleston. His father, William Johnson, was a revolutionary, and represented Charleston in the general assembly of South Carolina. The elder Johnson was deported by Sir Henry Clinton to St. Augustine with other distinguished patriots of South Carolina.[1] His mother, Sarah Johnson, née Nightingale, was also a revolutionary. "During the siege of Charleston, [she quilted] her petticoats with cartridges, which she thus conveyed to her husband in the trenches." [1] At Princeton in New Jersey, Johnson would be mentored by George Witherspoon in the art of being a Gentlemen, as well as sciences to prepare himself for law study.[2] He would graduate with a A.B. in 1790. After the end of the war, the new found republic was in need of political talent. The well-educated William Johnson would find the start of his Career during his apprenticeship under Charles Cotesworth Pinkney, who was a prominent lawyer, and federalist politician based in Charleston, South Carolina.[3] The experience acquired under Pinkney would grant Johnson the ability to pass the bar in 1793. In 1794, he married Sarah Bennett. They had at least one child, Anna Hayes Johnson, who was the second wife of Romulus Mitchell Saunders and mother of Jane Claudia Saunders Johnson (wife of General Bradley Tyler Johnson, Confederate Civil War General from Maryland.) [4]

Important Figures in William Johnson's Life[edit]

William Johnson Senior was a major influence on his son. Johnson moved from New York to Charleston, South Carolina. In Charleston, Johnson would establish himself in public affairs. He was elected one of the five commissioners of the Markets and Workhouse in April, 1774.5 The next year he would become a member of Charleston parishes to the Second Provincial Congress. He, and a group of others, constantly dissented against British attempts to control the colonies, such as the Townshend Act.  Johnson, and others who stood alongside him took action, and brought an end to importing British goods as much as they could. Johnson also served the revolutionaries by stealing weapons from the British. Furthermore, Johnson helped defend Charleston in combat until the city fell in May, 1780.5

It would be his seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives that would give William Johnson a good political platform to stand on.

 William Johnson's heavy role in in politics, as well as his hand in the rebellion against British power, would influence William Johnson Jr. in his future political career. Johnson Jr. was also influenced by a diverse educational background. Johnson Sr. would send his son, Johnson Jr., to the College of New Jersey in Princeton. College of New Jersey offered an extremely well rounded Education, and at a moderate tuition fee.5 Those who went would study English, public speaking, and history, mathematics, geography, and philosophical and literary studies. William Johnson Jr. would be under the tutelage of John Witherspoon, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who had become the head professor at University of New Jersey in Princeton.5 He would later recall the influence of his University days in a letter to a friend, “I have now passed the meridian of life, and I shall die in conviction that to minds which acquire a taste for intellectual improvement the days of a college life are among the happiest spent on earth.5

Johnson would place his son in the tutelage of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a prominent lawyer in Charleston. Pinckney was the ideal tutor for someone who was trying to get experience in that field. Pinckney himself had been educated by William Blackstone who was an extremely influential figure in the field of law. Pinckney was also well educated at Oxford University.5

Work in state politics[edit]

Johnson followed in his father's footsteps, representing the city of Charleston (and the nascent Democratic-Republican Party) in the state's house of representatives from 1794 to 1798. In 1796, he was selected as the speaker of the state house. In 1798, the formation of the state's highest court created a demand for judges; Johnson, a key figure in South Carolina politics, was appointed as an associate justice on the court of general sessions.

Appointment to the Court[edit]

The home of Justice Johnson still stands at 156 Rutledge Ave. in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

Johnson was nominated to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court by Thomas Jefferson on March 22, 1804, as the successor of Alfred Moore. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on May 7, 1804, and received his commission on the same day. He was the first of Jefferson's three appointments to the court, and is considered to have been selected for sharing many of Jefferson's beliefs about the Constitution. Johnson was the first member of the U.S. Supreme Court that was not a member of the Federalist Party.


William Johnson Jr. was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives on October 15, 1794. He would serve from 1794-98 as the Cashier of the House, and in 1798, Johnson Jr. would be elected to Speaker of the House, and he would serve in that role until 1799.5

During Johnson’s terms at the South Carolina House of Representatives, Johnson would work with court officials in order to fix the salary of the chief justice of the state to 600 pounds per year. Johnson would use this position to make attempt to defeat bills that went against his convictions in the court. The assembly found Johnson’s legal skills to be very useful as well. Johnson was assigned to a committee that had the soul purpose of examining what laws were near their expiration date. In his second term, they would appoint him to a joint Senate house committee that would review the printing of legislation. Johnson also proved to be a thorn in the side of those who wanted to enhance governor’s positions to a higher status by garnering support to strike down bills that would increase the governor’s salary to that of a small fortune. On multiple-occasions he garnered support to strike down other types of reform that Johnson fundamentally disagreed with.5

Thomas Jefferson was elected to presidency in 1801.5 One of his major goals as president was to reorganize the court system in order to overcome the power of the Federalists.5 This was during the era of the John Marshall court, which was in complete control of the Federalists. John Marshall was one of Jefferson’s main political opponents at that time. Jefferson’s presidency had kept them on the defensive as they constantly had to take steps in order to consolidate their power. After several clashes with the Federalist controlled court, Thomas Jefferson would nominate William Johnson Jr. to be a judge on Supreme Court in 1804.5 William Johnson would be the “first Democratic-Republican justice of the U.S. Supreme Court”.6 Jefferson would order Johnson to express his constitutional opinions, and dissent against the John Marshall court decisions.

During his time as a Jurist on the Supreme Court, Johnson would work on cases such as Gilchrist v. Collector of Charleston, a case that dealt with Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, Gibbons v. Ogden, Ogden v. Saunders, Holmes v. United States, etc. Johnson would never live up to the promise that he had made with Thomas Jefferson, often times siding the Marshall Court decisions in which he was supposed to be dissenting against.7


In his years on the Court, Johnson proved to be a very independent mind: while the Chief Justice, John Marshall, was able to steer the opinions of most of the justices in most cases, Johnson still developed a reputation for dissent. Johnson's independence was further displayed in 1808 when he defied the orders of the Collector of the Port of Charleston, the United States Attorney General Caesar A. Rodney, and President Thomas Jefferson (the very man who had nominated Johnson to his position) because he felt that the executive branch's control of maritime trade was an overextension of its constitutional powers. (Johnson was nominated to be Collector of the Port of Charleston himself, on January 23, 1819, but ultimately elected to remain on the Court.)

In 1822, Johnson authored a book about major general Nathanael Greene.

Much later in his service on the court, during the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina from 1831–1833, Johnson again displayed his desire for independent thought by moving away from his residence in South Carolina, so as not to be swayed by the intensity of public opinion there.

Johnson died in 1834 in New York after surgery on his jaw.

The First Dissenter[edit]

In 1807, Justus Bollman, Samuel Swartwout, and Aaron Burr would be arrested with the accusation of committing treason. There had been a plot to provoke war between the US, and Spain. In Washington, they were committed for treason. The case would move to the Supreme Court after Bollman, Swartwout, and Burr appealed for a writ of habeas corpus. The Marshall Court would grant the writ except for the dissenter William Johnson.5 This is considered by William Johnson’s only Biographer, Donald G. Morgan, the case that would make William Johnson the first dissenter.7 According to Henry J. Abraham, William Johnson participated in 270 Court majority opinions, of which he wrote thirteen dissents, and one concurrence.8

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Johnson, Bradley T. "The Memoir of Jane Claudia Johnson." Southern Historical Society Papers, volume XXIX, 1901, pg 34.
  2. ^ Morgan, Donald G. Justice William Johnson, the First Dissenter: The Career and Constitutional Philosophy of a Jeffersonian Judge. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1954.
  3. ^ Morgan, Donald G. Justice William Johnson, the First Dissenter: The Career and Constitutional Philosophy of a Jeffersonian Judge. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1954.
  4. ^ Hanson, George Adolphus. Old Kent: the Eastern Shore of Maryland , Notes Illustrative of the Most Ancient Records of Kent County, 1876, pg 57

[1] Morgan,

Donald G. Justice William Johnson, the First Dissenter: The Career and Constitutional Philosophy of a Jeffersonian Judge. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1954.

 [2]  Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "William Johnson", accessed November 22, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Johnson.

[3] VANBURKLEO, SANDRA F. 2007. "In Defense of “Public Reason”: Supreme Court Justice William Johnson." Journal Of Supreme Court History 32, no. 2: 115-132. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed November 22, 2015).

[4] Abraham, H.J. 2002. "John Marshall’s Associate Justices." Journal Of Supreme Court History 27, no. 3: 286-292. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 22, 2015).

Further reading[edit]

  • Abraham, Henry J. (1992). Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506557-3. 
  • Cushman, Clare (2001). The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1995 (2nd ed.). (Supreme Court Historical Society, Congressional Quarterly Books). ISBN 1-56802-126-7. 
  • Flanders, Henry. The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874 at Google Books.
  • Frank, John P. (1995). Friedman, Leon; Israel, Fred L., eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0-7910-1377-4. 
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed. (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505835-6. 
  • Martin, Fenton S.; Goehlert, Robert U. (1990). The U.S. Supreme Court: A Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Books. ISBN 0-87187-554-3. 
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. (1994). The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing. p. 590. ISBN 0-8153-1176-1. 
  • White, G. Edward. The Marshall Court & Cultural Change, 1815-35. Published in an abridged edition, 1991.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Alfred Moore
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
May 7, 1804 – August 4, 1834
Succeeded by
James Moore Wayne
  1. ^ Morgan, Donald G. (1954). Justice William Johnson, the First Dissenter: The Career and Constitutional Philosophy of a Jeffersonian Judge. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. pp. 3–54 &168–189. ISBN 0872490602. 
  2. ^ The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (2015). "William Johnson". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Britannica. Retrieved November 22, 2015. 
  3. ^ Vanburkleo, Sandra F. (2007). "In Defense of "Public Reason":Supreme Court Justice William Johnson."". America: History & Life. 
  4. ^ Abraham, H.J. (2002). "John Marshall's Associate Justices". Journal of Supreme Court History.