December 27, 1771 – Birth of William Johnson, Jr., Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

On December 27, 1771 – this day in history – William Johnson, Jr. was born in Charleston, South Carolina. He attended Princeton College and returned to Charleston to study law. After being tutored by General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, he gained admission to the State Bar and also entered politics as a Jeffersonian Republican. Johnson was elected to the State Legislature for successive terms in 1794, 1796, and 1798. By the last term he had become Speaker of the State House of Representatives.

In 1799, he was elevated to the South Carolina Court of General Sessions and Common Pleas. Three years later, President Thomas Jefferson had his first chance to appoint an associate justice to the Court and named William Johnson, only thirty-two, a staunch Republican on the South Carolina Supreme Court.  The United States Senate confirmed him on May 7, 1804 as the first Supreme Court member who was not a Federalist. 

Official portrait of Supreme Court Justice William Johnson

Oyez writes:

Johnson was an owner of slaves who opposed abolition while also opposing inhumane treatment of Africans.”

Yet, according to Joel Richard Paul, writing in Without Precedent: John Marshall and His Times:

While he acknowledged that slavery was a ‘national evil,’ he rejected the argument that the slave trade was condemned by international law. ‘However revolting to humanity’ this was, Johnson believed that slaves were no different from any other commercial cargo under the law of nations.”

In a case he heard riding circuit in Georgia about several captured slave trading ships, he found that a U.S. court could not enforce laws banning the slave trade against foreign slavers, and the slave traders were entitled to the return of their property. Professor Paul writes, “Justice Johnson’s opinion flew in the face of Congress’s declaration that same year that the slave trade was ‘piracy’ under international law punishable by death.” (p. 355)

[Johnson’s circuit court opinion is reproduced in Carol Necole Brown, “Casting Lots” The Illusion of Justice and Accountability in Property Allocation,” Buffalo Law Review 53, no. 65 (Winter 2005): 130-140, online here.]  

But there is more. The ships and its slaves were claimed by Spain, Portugal, and the captain of a U.S. revenue cutter that hauled the ships in, and who now wanted a bounty. Some of the kidnapped Africans had died and some had escaped, so it was unclear which slaves belonged [sic] to which country. The District Court Judge first hearing the case had determined that 63 should go to Spain, 142 to Portugal, and the remaining 7 would be freed in the United States.

When the case came to the appeals court and was heard by Justice Johnson, he changed the allocation to Spain and Portugal and decided sixteen slaves should be freed to the United States. Furthermore, since the identity of the slaves was unclear, he proposed they draw lots to determine who would go free. As Professor Paul observes, “It would have been unthinkable that any jurist would hazard the freedom of a white man in a raffle, but Johnson had no such scruples when it came to Africans.” (p. 355)

In any event, the lottery didn’t matter; a corrupt Congressman arranged to take the freed Africans, and sent them to work on his own sugar plantation.

During his twenty-nine years on the bench, Justice William Johnson wrote 112 majority opinions, trailing only Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Joseph Story in speaking for the Court.

Jefferson indeed had an ally in Johnson; they complained back and forth to each other about Chief Justice John Marshall. See for example this letter from Jefferson to Johnson, and this scholarly commentary on Johnson’s tenure, “The Life and Judicial Work of Justice William Johnson, Jr.” by Oliver Schroeder, Jr. (95 U. Penn. Law Review 2, 1946), online here.

Johnson died in New York City on August 4, 1834 following surgery on his jaw. He was buried at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Charleston.

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