William Johnson (1771-1834) served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1804 until his death in 1834. He melded federalists and states' rights views in his opinions. His most important contribution was his insistence on freedom of judicial expression in the form of dissenting opinions.
William Johnson was born on December 27, 1771, near Charleston, South Carolina in St. James Goose Creek Parish, one of two sons born to William and Sarah (Nightingale) Johnson. His father had relocated to South Carolina from New York in the early 1760s and became a hero of the Revolutionary War. When the British captured Charleston, Johnson's father was placed in detention in Florida and the family was evicted from their home. Several months later Johnson's father was released, and the family was reunited in Philadelphia and returned to Charleston together.
Johnson attended grammar school in Charleston, and in 1790 he graduated first in his class from Princeton University. He returned to Charleston to study law under Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a close adviser to President George Washington. Johnson was admitted to the bar in 1793. On March 20, 1794, he married Sarah Bennett, the sister of Thomas Bennett, who would later become governor of South Carolina. The couple had eight children but only two lived to adulthood. They later adopted two children from St. Domingue who had fled the island during a slave revolt.
Became State Legislator, Judge
Under the laws of the time, Johnson was eligible to run for political office due to his property holdings, which included several slaves. In 1794 Johnson was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives as a member of Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party. He served three two-year terms, and in 1798, the last year of his tenure in the lower assembly, he was elected as Speaker of the House.
In 1798 he chose not to seek re-election to the House of Representatives so that he could accept an appointment to the Court of Common Pleas, the state's highest court. For the next six years Johnson gained valuable experience addressing many important issues of the time, most notably the relationship between the states and the infant federal government.
Named to Supreme Court
In 1804 Johnson was tapped as President Jefferson's first Supreme Court nominee. At issue for Jefferson was Republican control of the judiciary. His predecessor, President John Adams, had appointed John Marshall, a staunch Federalist, as chief justice. Marshall took strong control of the court, insisting on unanimous decisions. Prior to Marshall's appointment, nearly twenty percent of the court's decisions contained dissenting opinions; after his appointment, no dissenting opinions had been rendered. Jefferson saw Johnson's independent nature and strong personality as a means to exert a brake on Marshall's dominance. Jefferson nominated Johnson on March 22, 1804. Two days later Johnson received Senate confirmation by a voice vote. On May 7, 1804, at 33 years of age, he took the oath of office.
As Jefferson hoped, Johnson provided an independent voice on the court. Although it was several years before he ventured to issue a dissenting opinion, from early on he struggled to overcome Marshall's insistence that the court present a unified front to the public. Although Johnson was successful in easing the iron grip Marshall held over the court, his opinions were often in line with Marshall's, which sometimes earned him the wrath of the president.
Johnson's first judiciary controversy of note occurred in 1808 in the case Gilchrist v. Collector of Charleston. Under the executive orders of President Jefferson's Embargo Act, the collector of the Port of Charleston refused sailing clearance to vessels in port. Jefferson had issued the orders to withhold trade to France and Great Britain, which were at war with each other and regularly raiding U.S. ships. When Adam Gilchrist, owner of a grounded ship, petitioned Johnson in circuit court, Johnson reportedly boarded the ship himself and issued sailing orders. His opinion upon granting the mandamus stated that the executive instructions had no legal basis, namely, Congress had not authorized the detention of ships, and the president held no executive right to enforce such acts that infringed on personal liberties.
Jefferson was dismayed at this apparent betrayal by his appointee. The Federalists, on the other hand, were overjoyed with Johnson's reproach of the president and made sure the incident was highly publicized. The president turned the matter over to the U.S. Attorney General, Caesar A. Rodney, who rebuffed Johnson's actions, stating that Johnson acted outside the Constitution when he ordered the ship to sail. Although Johnson initially defended his actions, in a separate Supreme Court decision in 1813 he conceded that he had acted outside his jurisdiction. Nonetheless, Johnson's actions were instrumental in cementing the Supreme Court's role as a protector of individual rights and establishing the connection between legislative action and presidential powers. As a result, Congress passed legislation that clearly delineated the president's right to order such detentions.
Another important decision came in 1812 when Johnson issued the court's opinion rejecting common law federal crimes. Up to that time, federal courts had ruled on criminal cases over which they had not been given legislative authority, which was limited by Congress to such offenses as treason and counterfeiting. The matter became political when a federal grand jury indicted several newspaper editors in Connecticut for seditious libel against President Jefferson. Whereas the Federalists believed that the federal government held inherent powers of self-defense that allowed it to prosecute cases without explicit criminal statutes, Jeffersonians viewed the practice of trying common law crimes in federal courts as an abuse of power. When the seditious libel case came before the Supreme Court as U.S. v. Hudson and Goodwin, Johnson issued the court's majority opinion, which refused to extend federal jurisdiction to include criminal cases. According to James W. Ely, Jr. in Historic U.S. Court Cases, "Although the case before the Court concerned prosecution of seditious libel, Johnson addressed the broader issue of whether the federal courts could exercise any non-statutory criminal jurisdictions. … [His] opinion was grounded on federalism and strict construction of legislation. Stressing the limited nature of the federal government, Johnson declared that federal power was 'made up of concessions from the several States' and that the states reserved all powers not expressly delegated." As he often did in opinions, Johnson relied on both Federalist and Republican principles, pleasing and displeasing each party.
Justice Joseph Story, the most prominent figure on the bench next to Marshall, vehemently disagreed with Johnson's common law opinion. He wrote a sharply worded dissent and disregarded Johnson's majority decision in his own rulings. Johnson butted heads with Story again over extending the jurisdiction of the admiralty into inland waterways. Johnson, who believed in limiting the powers of the government at sea, was also unsympathetic to extending corporate power. Although he concurred with the constitutionality of maintaining a federal bank, he denied the bank's right to sue in federal court.
Johnson, a firm believer in states' rights, was opposed to the federal government superseding its power; however, at the same time, he was a staunch defender of the union, especially in matters of trade and commerce. Because he did not fit easily into any camp, he incurred the wrath of both parties. The Federalists bemoaned Johnson's close reading of legislative authority, and the Jeffersonians, with whom he aligned himself politically, complained of his restrictive interpretation of executive power and his commitment to states' rights.
Resentment in the South
Johnson was viewed with growing ambivalence in his home state. His pro-union sentiment did not play well in South Carolina at a time when anti-federalism was strong. Resentment grew in 1823 after Johnson invalidated the South Carolina Negro Seaman Act in circuit court in the case Elkison v. Deliesseline. According to the act, all free black seamen who docked in a South Carolina port were required to be jailed during the time their ships were in port. Johnson ruled that such an ordinance violated the federal government's power over commerce and greatly weakened the state of the union. Despite the ruling, South Carolina continued the practice of incarcerating black sailors, and Johnson defended his opinion in a series of letters, written under the pen name Philonimus, which were printed in the Charleston newspapers. Though Johnson was against the abolition of slavery, he did abhor the inhumane treatment of slaves and further alienated his home state by denouncing South Carolina for withholding the rights of due process to slave rebel Denmark Vesey.
Johnson provoked the anger of South Carolinians again when he rebuked the state's efforts to nullify the Tariff of 1828. According to vice president John C. Calhoun, who vehemently opposed the tariff in an anonymous letter, the Constitution was not supreme law, but rather a contractual agreement among sovereign states. States therefore had the right to nullify or reject any federal requirements they believed to be unconstitutional. Johnson, who saw nullification as a serious threat to the stability of the union, once again voiced his opinions in the South Carolina newspapers, first under the pseudonym Hamilton and later in a signed eight-point statement that rejected nullification. Johnson became so unpopular in his home state that he moved to Pennsylvania in 1834.
The First Great Dissenter
Johnson's opinions were sometimes very sound and forthright; however, other times he tended to lack clarity, often basing his opinions on abstract political or natural law theories. He was in many ways overshadowed by Marshall. Johnson did play an important role in reinstating the standard practice of submitting dissenting opinions. Prior to Marshall's reign, each Supreme Court Justice offered a separate, or seriatim, opinion. Over the course of his 29 years as a Supreme Court Justice, Johnson wrote 112 majority opinions, 21 concurrences, 34 dissents, and five seriatim opinions for a total of 172. Only Justices Marshall and Story rendered more opinions.
In his 1953 article on Johnson in The William and Mary Quarterly, Donald Morgan noted that Johnson "set up a record of separate utterance unparalleled in the early Court. … As elsewhere, Johnson's approach to opinion procedure was experimental. Besides expressing his views alone and agitating for seriatim opinions, he even introduced views held privately in an opinion rendered for the majority. The outcome of his ventures in strategy is clear: it was the establishment of that procedure for rendering the decrees of the Supreme Court which most harmoniously reconciled authoritativeness with intellectual freedom—the single statement for the majority combined with separate utterances by independents." Thus, Johnson is often referred to as "the first great Dissenter."
Not always completely comfortable with his roll as instigator on the court, Johnson found himself distracted by outside interests, including land speculation and writing. He published a two-volume biography of Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene in 1822 and the Eulogy of Thomas Jefferson in 1826. He was also a member of the American Philosophical Society, and he contributed frequently to its meetings and publications. Although Johnson's independent temperament made him prickly with those who did not share his opinions, Johnson was also known as a man of sincerity, modesty, and warm-heartedness. He died unexpectedly on August 4, 1834, in New York City, due to post-surgical complications after jaw surgery.
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Chase, Harold, Samuel Krislov, Keith O. Boyum, and Jerry N. Clark, Biographical Dictionary of the Federal Judiciary, Gale, 1976.
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Hall, Kermit L., ed., The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Johnson, John W., Historic U.S. Court Cases, 1690-1990: An Encyclopedia, Garland Publishing, 1992.
Mauro, Tony, Illustrated Great Decisions of the Supreme Court, CQ Press, 2000.
Roller, David C., and Robert W. Twyman, The Encyclopedia of Southern History, Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Witt, Elder, Congressional Quarterly's Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court, 2nd ed., Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1990.
The William and Mary Quarterly, January 1953.