Johnson Jr., William (1771-1834)
William Johnson Jr. (1771-1834)
Supreme court justice
Youth. William Johnson Jr. was born on 27 December 1771 in Charleston, South Carolina, the second son of William and Sara Johnson. His father was a prosperous blacksmith who took an active role in public affairs and was elected to the legislature. Young William entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1787 and was educated in the classics, mathematics, and history. Johnson studied law in Charleston under Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who had studied in London under Sir William Blackstone. Johnson received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1790 and in recognition of his outstanding scholarship was chosen to deliver the Latin Salutatory.
State Leader. Johnson was elected to the South Carolina Assembly in 1794 and later served as its speaker. He presided over the movement to reform South Carolina’s judicial system and successfully advocated improved access to the courts by establishing a series of circuit courts. In 1799, at the age of twenty-seven, Johnson was appointed to the South Carolina Appellate Court, where he earned a reputation for fairness and strong reasoning skills.
High Court. On 22 March 1804 President Thomas Jefferson nominated Johnson as his first appointment to the Supreme Court. Jefferson, irritated by the Federalist leanings of the judiciary and, in particular, by the power of the formidable Chief Justice John Marshall, was delighted in 1804 to finally have a chance to appoint his own man to the Court. Johnson came recommended to Jefferson as “a zealous democrat” of “irreproachable character.” Johnson was only thirty-two years old when he took the oath of office as associate justice of the Supreme Court in May 1804. Johnson has been referred to by at least one biographer as the “first dissenter,” a description which is factually not true. (Judge James Iredell cast the Court’s first dissenting opinion in 1793). Johnson was, however, the High Court’s most frequent dissenter in its early years, delivering a total of thirty-three dissenting opinions between 1805 and 1834. Johnson’s most memorable decision came in the one matter in which he opposed the same president who appointed him.
Rebuking the President. The case arose from the application of Jefferson’s controversial Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited the export of goods from the United States to foreign ports. The embargo was an effort to keep the United States out of the war between England and France by maintaining a rigid isolationist posture. Congress had granted Jefferson sweeping enforcement powers, to which the president had added orders to local officials on maintaining the trade ban. In 1808 the collector of the port of Charleston, South Carolina, Simeon Theus, confronted a dilemma. A ship docked in his port, full of rice and cotton and, according to its owner, headed for Baltimore, appeared to be in compliance with the Embargo Act. Yet recent orders from Jefferson’s Treasury Department “encouraged” the detention of all ships regardless of appearance. Faced with the possibility that he would be removed from his post for failure to follow presidential orders, Theus detained the ship even though he did not believe it was in violation of the law. The ship’s owner, Adam Gilchrist, petitioned Judge Johnson, sitting as the circuit judge, to order Theus to release his ship. Johnson saw the Treasury Department rules as inappropriate executive intrusion into the decision-making of local port officials. The president was trying to take on powers not contemplated by the Embargo Act by substituting his judgment for that of local collectors. Johnson did not believe that the collector, with no evidence to detain the ship, should follow presidential orders that amounted to “an unsanctioned encroachment upon individual liberty.” In a direct rebuke to President Jefferson, Johnson declared that the “officers of our government, from the highest to the lowest, are equally subjected to legal restraint.” Freedom to engage in commerce was as essential a right to a person as “the air that he breathes, or the food that he consumes.” On 28 May 1808 Johnson ordered the ship free.
Reaction. President Jefferson was furious at this challenge to his authority and instructed Attorney General Caesar Rodney to publish a criticism of Johnson’s decision. Rodney did so, challenging Johnson’s jurisdiction over the matter and accusing the justice of meddling with executive affairs. Johnson responded with a statement to the press and made the case for judicial intervention when individual liberties were at stake. The courts, he wrote, are the “constitutional expositors” of the law, and in “a country where laws govern, courts of justice necessarily are the medium of action and reaction between the government and the governed.”
Republican Dissenter. For the most part Johnson was a loyal and dedicated Jeffersonian Republican, and he became a regular critic of Chief Justice John Marshall. Johnson became a prolific dissenter and, even when he was in the majority, he often wrote a separate concurring opinion. Though he often disagreed with Marshall, Johnson supported the Court’s fundamental role in constitutional decision making. Toward the end of his career, Johnson opposed John Calhoun’s nullification theory, embraced by many South Carolinians, as “a silly and wicked delusion.” He was also a prolific writer and active in the Charleston Horticultural Society. Johnson’s health began to fail in 1832, and he died in Brooklyn, New York, on 4 August 1834.
Percival E. Jackson, Dissent In The Supreme Court (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969);
Donald G. Morgan, Justice William Johnson: The First Dissenter (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1954).