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judge , Lawyer

James Iredell was an American lawyer and political essayist. He was a leading Federalist in North Carolina and was appointed as one of the original justices of the U.S. Supreme Court by George Washington served from 1790 until his death in 1799.


Mr. Iredell was born on October 5, 1751 in Lewes, East Sussex, United Kingdom. His father, a not particularly successful merchant, suffered a stroke in 1766 that forced him to retire and made it necessary for James Iredell to find work that would assist in the support of his family. A relative subsequently secured Mr. Iredell a position in the colonies as comptroller of customs for Port Roanoke at Edenton, North Carolina. There Mr. Iredell worked for his cousin, Henry E. McCulloh, who was the collector of customs for the port and who, being absent frequendy from Edenton, soon relied on James Iredell to collect the duties for the port and to manage his real estate holdings. Mr. Iredell’s salary for the post went to support his family; he cared for his own needs through fees he collected.


James Iredell met and began to study law under Samuel Johnson, an important Edenton lawyer. Under Mr. Johnson’s tutelage, he acquired the legal training necessary for admission to practice before the Inferior Courts of North Carolina in 1770 and before the Superior Courts the following year.


Mr. Iredell took a leading role in the development of North Carolina’s legal structure. He assisted in revising the state’s laws in 1776, and the following year, when he was still only 27 years old, he was elected to one of the three positions on the state’s highest court. He resigned after six months, however, to return to his law practice. In 1779 he was first appointed interim attorney general by the governor of North Carolina, then was formally elected to this position by the state legislature. With the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1781, James Iredell left his public position to return to the private practice of law, and for the rest of the decade he worked mainly at establishing a prosperous legal practice.

In September 1789 Mr. Washington nominated six men to serve on the Court, but one of these - Robert H. Harrison - declined his commission. On February 8, 1790, George Washington nominated Mr. Iredell to fill the sixth seat on the Court, not only because of his abilities and Federalist sympathies, but also because North Carolina, so lately become a state, had not yet had any of its citizens nominated to fill important positions within the new national government. The Senate confirmed his appointment the same day.

Though James Iredell joined the Court with great enthusiasm, he soon felt the demands of circuit riding onerous, especially because it fell to him to ride the southern circuit. With the addition of North Carolina to the nation, this circuit embraced North and South Carolina, as well as Georgia. The Judiciary Act of 1789 required Supreme Court justices to make two circuits of their assigned states each year and each, for the southern circuit, required in excess of 1,800 miles of travel. In addition to these circuit obligations, the justices also participated in two Supreme Court terms each year. By 1792 Mr. Iredell had complained to Chief Justice John Jay that the combined obligations were more than a justice could conscientiously fulfill. Congress the same year amended the Judiciary Act to rotate the responsibility for riding the southern circuit among the justices, but in his first four years of service on the Court, Iredell rode the circuit five times.

Mr. Iredell served nearly 10 years on the Court before his health failed. While en route to Philadelphia for the fall term of the Court in 1799, he became ill. He returned to his home in Edenton, North Carolina, where he died on October 20.


  • Achievement An 1889 engraving of James Iredell, Sr. by Albert Rosenthal. of James Iredell

    The youngest of George Washington’s appointments to the Supreme Court, James Iredell gained his seat after another nominee had declined a similar commission from the president. He was not yet 40 years old when he joined the Court, and death would remove him from his post before a decade had passed.

    Iredell County, North Carolina, was established in 1788 and was named for Mr. Iredell. Moreover, SS James Iredell, a ship in World War II, was named after him. The James Iredell House at Edenton listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.


After the colonies declared their independence in 1776, James Iredell joined in the spirited debates about what forms of government the newly independent commonwealths should adopt. He sided with other conservatives in favoring independent executives, judges with life tenure, and property requirements for voting and office holding, rather than with radicals and their more purely democratic aspirations.

Mr. Iredell left a brief and partially puzzling record as a justice of the Supreme Court. His famous dissent in Chisholm v. Georgia ( 1793) has sometimes caused proponents of states’ rights to adopt him as a patron saint. But his judicial activity as a whole resists ready categorization. Both as an attorney and as a judge, James Iredell insisted that constitutions generally, and the U.S. Constitution in particular, superseded contrary laws and that courts had the power to declare such laws void. At least in the framing era, a strong commitment to judicial review normally allied itself with Federalist sympathies. James Iredell, was in fact, a Federalist in his outlook, championing the cause of the new union and spearheading North Carolina’s entry into that Union. His abiding commitment to a dual sovereignty that included both the national government and the governments of states was greater, though, than other members of the Court were prepared to embrace. But the nation’s ratification of the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, which reversed the majority’s result in Chisholm, also ratified a view more consistent with Iredell’s than with the other early justices on the Supreme Court.


Quotations: "The power of impeachment is given by this Constitution, to bring great offenders to punishment. It is calculated to bring them to punishment for crimes which it is not easy to describe, but which every one must be convinced is a high crime and misdemeanor against the government."

"It would be not only useless, but dangerous, to enumerate a number of rights which are not intended to be given up; because it would be implying, in the strongest manner, that every right not included in the exception might be impaired by the government without usurption; and it would be impossible to enumerate every one. Let any one make what collection or enumeration of rights he pleases, I will immediately mention twenty or thirty more rights not contained in it."

"Had Congress undertaken to guarantee religious freedom, or any particular species of it, they would then have had a pretense to interfere in a subject they have nothing to do with. Each state, so far as the clause in question does not interfere, must be left to the operation of its own principles."


Mr. Iredell married Samuel Johnson’s sister Hannah in 1773, and the couple ultimately had two daughters and a son. Their son, James Iredell, Jr., eventually shared his father’s political inclinations, becoming governor of North Carolina and a U.S. senator.

Hannah Johnson - American

Henry E. McCulloh - American

James Iredell, Jr. - American - official , politician