Cushing, William (1732–1810)

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CUSHING, WILLIAM (1732–1810)

William Cushing served on the United States Supreme Court, in an undistinguished manner, for nearly twenty-one years. Born into a politically well-connected, upper middle class Massachusetts family, he graduated from Harvard College, and then studied law; he was admitted to the bar in 1755. He practiced law in Maine, where he represented the interests of large landholders against squatters and debtors. In 1771 he succeeded his father as a judge of the Massachusetts Superior Court. Because many of his family had loyalist leanings and he owed his position to a royal appointment, Cushing expressed his political views cautiously during the 1770s, when colonial resistance to British policies turned into revolution. Although he chose the patriot side in 1776, some ardent radicals doubted his enthusiasm for independence. Nonetheless he was appointed to the newly created superior court and became chief justice for the state in 1777 when john adams resigned the post. He also served as a member of the convention that wrote the massachusetts constitution of 1780.

While chief justice, Cushing played an important role in bringing about the end of slavery in Massachusetts, beginning with commonwealth v. jennison (1783). In his charge to the jury, Cushing interpreted the clause of the state constitution that declared that "all men are born free and equal" as abolishing slavery in the state. Unsympathetic to the debtors in western Massachusetts who prevented the collection of taxes and closed the courts during shays ' rebellion, Cushing opposed their activities while riding circuit and presided over the treason trial of the leaders; some of his sentences included the death penalty. He advocated ratification of the constitution in 1788 and served as vice-president of the state ratifying convention.

george washington appointed Cushing the first associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1789. Despite his extensive judicial experience he did not play a very active role on the Court. Although he participated in many of the most important cases of the 1790s—chisholm v. georgia (1973), Ware v. Hylton (1796), hylton v. united states, (1796), and calder v. bull (1798)—his opinions tended to be brief, and dealt with narrow legal and procedural questions. Ceremonious in his deportment, Cushing was the last member of the Court to wear a wig. His affability and courtesy enabled him to enforce the Sedition Act with minimal rancor. After 1800, illness, age, and the difficulties of riding circuit caused him considerable hardship. He could no longer adequately perform his duties, and he probably would have retired early if a federal pension had been available. He died, while still a member of the Supreme Court, in 1810.

Richard E. Ellis


Johnson, Herbert Alan 1969 William Cushing. Pages 57–70 in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds., Justices of the Supreme Court, 1789–1969, Vol. I. New York: Chelsea House.