U.S. senator and statesman William Pinkney (1764-1822) was notable for his support of the Missouri Compromise, a piece of legislation designed to restrict the advance of slavery that was passed by Congress in 1820.
William Pinkney began his career as an attorney but quickly entered the realm of politics as a congressman in his home state of Maryland. His talent for public speaking attracted the attention of presidents from Washington to Madison, gaining Pinkney promotion to U.S. diplomat and his ultimate election as a U.S. senator. Among his most noteworthy accomplishments in the political arena was his skill in negotiating the Missouri Compromise of 1819, although this was eclipsed in the mind of legal scholars by his defense of such landmark cases as McCulloch vs. Maryland. He appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court over seventy times before his death in 1822 and was the acknowledged leader of the U.S. bar throughout his career.
Pinkney was born in Annapolis, Maryland, on March 17, 1764. His father, born in England and still loyal to the English crown, incurred the wrath of many of his colonial neighbors after the colonies declared independence in 1776. During the Revolutionary War he, like many other loyalists, had his lands confiscated. Thirteen-year-old Pinkney, who had by now begun his studies at the King Williams School in Annapolis, left school due to his family's new-found poverty and began what would become a lifelong course of independent study and learning. A few years later Pinkney sought out the tutelage of a Baltimore physician and began the study of medicine. While debating medical matters with his fellow medical students in 1782, Pinkney was overheard by attorney Samuel Chase, a former delegate to the Continental Congress who would be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1796. Chase was impressed by the eighteen-year-old Pinkney's arguments and oratory and decided to offer the young man the chance to train as an attorney. Pinkney joined Chase in February of 1783 and was called to the Bar of the state of Maryland in 1786.
Setting up a private law practice in Hartford County, Maryland, Pinkney quickly gained a high profile due to his ambition, his intellect, and the striking appearance he presented in public. Constantly seeking the public eye, he easily fell into the political realm and in the spring of 1788 was elected to the state of Maryland's convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Despite the opposition of both Pinkney and his mentor Chase, the Constitution was approved. Despite his unpopular stance at the convention, Pinkney won a seat to the U.S. House of Representatives and served his constituents there beginning in 1788; a term in the Second Congress was cut short by questions regarding Pinkney's right to represent a constituency wherein he had no established residence and he resigned after only a few months. In 1789, a year after becoming a member of Congress, Pinkney married Ann Maria Rodgers, with whom he would have ten children.
While representing his region in the legislative realm, Pinkney retained his law practice and became known for his unrestrained oratory and his obvious delight in gaining the spotlight. Considered almost snobbish by some contemporaries, Pinkney's manner of dress was considered almost foppish in his delight with fashion and rich textiles, and this characteristic became more extreme as he aged. In his later years Pinkney, who insisted on the best in food and spirit, resorted to a corset to present a more slender figure and used cosmetics to accentuate his features. Despite his vanity, he presented a striking figure, and in 1796 President George Washington appointed Pinkney as joint commissioner, along with fellow attorney Christopher Gore, to London, where the United States wished to argue its right to claim international maritime losses under the Jay Treaty. Although the work of the two men ultimately proved unsuccessful in promoting American interests, Pinkney spent his free time immersing himself in the classics, in British law, and in the study of history and literature. He also began what proved to be a lifelong interest in dictionaries and lexicons.
Upon his return home eight years later in 1804, Pinkney was heralded for an unrelated victory in successfully defending the state of Maryland in its efforts to regain monies held by a British Bank. His victory in this court action, begun by Chase several years before, proved a book to the reestablishment of Pinkney's private law practice, now located in Baltimore. In December of 1805 he was appointed Maryland's attorney-general, but after six months he resigned this post to return to private practice.
Pinkney's study of British law and his involvement in litigation surrounding the Jay Treaty made him something of an expert in defending American maritime interests. When British Admiralty courts began to exact punishment on the former colonies by condemning and confiscating the cargoes of certain U.S. ships under an invalid article of war, Pinkney authored a legal strategy against this action and submitted it to Congress. His Memorial of the Merchants of Baltimore, on the Violation of Our Neutral Rights resulted in his appointment by President Thomas Jefferson to act as an emissary to the English Parliament. Together with then foreign minister James Monroe, Pinkney debated both the matter of war reparations and the legality of the impressment— the coercive or forced enlistment—of American sailors by the English Navy. While Pinkney and Monroe managed to gain a signed agreement from Parliament, it failed to include three conditions stipulated by Jefferson, and it was never even submitted to Congress for ratification.
During this stay in England in the company of Monroe, Pinkney gained the political connections and experience necessary to assume his fellow commissioner's post as U.S. Minister to England after Monroe was transferred to Madrid, Spain, in October of 1807. Frustrated by an obstinate Parliament still resentful over the loss of its former colonies, by the British Admiralty's authorization of attacks upon neutral U.S. ships during England's war with French emperor Napoleon, and the active opposition of pro-British constituents at home, Pinkney ended negotiations, resigned his post, and returned home four years later, in February of 1811. Despite the fact that Pinkney's skills as a diplomat did not match his acumen as an attorney, the tensions between the United States and England were undoubtedly incapable of being diminished by the efforts of a single man; they erupted a year later in the War of 1812.
Upon his return home, Pinkney was recognized for what he did best; he was appointed attorney-general to President James Madison. After war broke out, the thirty-eight-year-old statesman left his post to become a major in the Maryland militia. His decision to do so was prompted as much by Congress's request that he relocate his home to Washington, D.C. as it was by enthusiasm for the battlefield. Wounded at the battle of Bladensburg shortly after enlisting in 1814, he returned to civilian life, and his work before the Maryland Supreme Court quickly found him back in politics. Serving in Congress briefly from March of 1815 to the following spring, he once again retired to pursue U.S. diplomatic interests, this time as U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia. Eastern Europe proved a less entertaining prospect than had London, and Pinkney quickly handled the business at hand—recalling all Russian diplomats in the United States following the arrest by a Russian consul named Kosloff, broaching the possibility of a commercial treaty with Russia, and establishing more amicable relations with that country. He quickly returned to the United States and the practice of law. Pinkney was elected to the U.S. Senate in December of 1819 to fill a vacancy resulting from the death of Senator Alexander Contee Hanson and retained his position in Congress until his death three years later in 1822.
During Pinkney's three years as a senator he made his most significant contribution to U.S. history. By the early nineteenth century slavery had already begun to loom as an issue that threatened to divide the country along regional lines, and it was revisited repeatedly as new regions made application for statehood. The application for statehood made by the Missouri territory in 1819 threatened to disrupt the balance between slave states and free states. Pinkney, eloquently representing the interest of the slave-holding states, helped to draft what became known as the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri's admission as a slave state to be balanced by Maine's admission as a free state and made the concession to the north of prohibiting slavery in the sections of the Louisiana Purchase that would later become Kansas and Nebraska. While the Missouri Compromise helped to maintain a tenuous union among the states until the mid-1850s, the Supreme Court's 1857 ruling in the case of the runaway slave Dred Scott overturned this ruling by claiming that the Missouri Compromise unfairly deprived citizens of their property—in this case the slave Scott—and was unconstitutional. This ruling was one of the many factors precipitating the U.S. Civil War only three years later.
Despite his dedication to serving his country, Pinkney's true love remained the law, which provided a showcase for his intellect and his many skills as a speaker. His arguments made before the U.S. Supreme court during the final two decades of his thirty-six years as a practicing attorney remain some of the most respected in U.S. legal history. Among the seventy-two cases he argued before the Supreme Court are many landmarks, the most notable being McCulloch vs. Maryland and Cohens vs. Virginia. Brought before the court in 1819, McCulloch vs. Maryland concerned the distribution of power between the states and the federal government and specifically involved the right of the federal government to incorporate a bank and the individual states' rights to tax that bank's branches. James McCulloch, a cashier at the Baltimore branch of the government's Second Bank of the United States, refused to pay the state-levied tax. When the right to tax a federal institution was upheld by the Maryland court, McCulloch appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Pinkney's eloquent argument in defense of the plaintiff impressed the Court, which sided with the plaintiff while also rendering a controversial decision that dramatically broadened the powers of the federal government. Argued before Chief Justice John Marshall in 1821, a year before Pinkney's death, Cohens vs. Virginia was an attempt to overturn Marshall's ruling in McCulloch. While Pinkney's clients won, the underlying attempt failed.
After Pinkney's death in 1822 he was widely eulogized as the most talented attorney of his time. Supreme Court Chief Justices Marshall and Roger Brooke Taney cited his abilities, Taney noting in his Memoir that "I have heard almost all the great advocates of the United States, both of the past and present generation, but I have seen none equal to Pinkney." Unfortunately for those who would follow after him, Pinkney never drafted his speeches on paper, but memorized them. His death was a fitting end to his dramatic life: while making final arguments against opposing counsel Daniel Webster in the case of Richard vs. Williams, he collapsed on the floor of the U.S. Supreme Court and was carried home to survive only two more days. Following his death on February 25, 1822, at the age of fifty-seven, Pinkney was laid to rest in the Congressional Cemetery; his portrait now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Johnson, Allen, and Dumas Malone, editors, Dicitonary of American Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929.
Tyler, Samuel, editor, Momoir of Roger Brooke Taney, 1876.
Van Doren, Charles, editor, Webster's American Biographies, G.& C. Merriam Company, 1979.
Wheaton, Henry, Some Account of the Life, Writings, and Speeches of William Pinkney, E. J. Coale, 1826.
Shapiro, Steven M., "William Pinkney: The Supreme Court's Greatest Advocate," Appellate. Net, http://www.appellate.net (July, 1999).