William Johnson (judge)

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For other people named William Johnson, see William Johnson (disambiguation).
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] The younger Johnson studied law at Princeton and graduated with an A.B. in 1790. He read law in the office of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney before passing 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.) [2]

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.


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.

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. ^ Hanson, George Adolphus. Old Kent: the Eastern Shore of Maryland , Notes Illustrative of the Most Ancient Records of Kent County, 1876, pg 57

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