Pinkney, William (1764–1822)

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PINKNEY, WILLIAM (1764–1822)

William Pinkney studied law under samuel chase and subsequently practiced in Baltimore. Although he opposed the ratification of the constitution in the Maryland convention of 1788, he later became one of the nation's foremost constitutional lawyers. He held public office continuously from 1788 until his death, serving in the state legislature, in both houses of Congress, as a diplomat in important foreign capitals, and as attorney general of the United States under President james madison. Although as a young man he favored gradual compensated emancipation in Maryland, Pinkney was a vigorous spokesman for the slave states in the Senate debates over the missouri compromise (1820).

Between political and diplomatic assignments Pinkney conducted what was probably the most lucrative legal practice in the United States, arguing seventy-two cases before the Supreme Court. He was counsel for the New Hampshire state appointed board of trustees in dartmouth college v. woodward (1819), unsuccessfully arguing that the college was a public corporation whose charter could be altered by the state. In mcculloch v. maryland (1819), however, he won the day, contending for the constitutionality of a congressionally chartered bank and against the power of the state to tax it. And in cohens v. virginia (1821) he successfully argued for the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction over state criminal cases.

As an advocate, Pinkney won the praise of both judges and opposing counsel. Chief Justice john marshall called him "the greatest man I ever saw in a court of justice" and Marshall's successor, roger b. taney, said that in thirty years, "I have seen none to equal Pinkney." His enduring significance in American constitutional history derives from his incisive and original arguments in cases of first impression.

Paul Finkelman


Pinkney, Rev. Williiam 1853 The Life of William Pinkney. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

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Pinkney, William (1764–1822)

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