James M. Wayne joined the Supreme Court the year that Chief Justice John Marshall died. He participated in the partial reorientation of constitutional law brought about by a Court presided over by Roger B. Taney. He served as an associate justice during the tumultuous years preceding the Civil War, and he participated briefly in the judicial affairs of the tattered nation that emerged from that war.
James Moore Wayne was born in 1790 in Savannah, Georgia, to Richard Wayne and Elizabeth Clifford Wayne. His father had migrated to the colonies from England in 1759 to serve in the British Army, setding originally in Charleston, South Carolina, where he married Elizabeth. During the Revolutionary War, he served first in die South Carolina Regiment of Volunteer Militia, but after being captured and paroled by the British, he eventually joined the Brirish military. His wife’s family connections saved him from the fate common to Loyalists, and the pair moved in 1789 to Savannah, where Elizabeth gave birth to James the following year.
James’s father rapidly established himself in Savannah, gradually acquiring plantations, slaves, a wharf, and a store. The family secured a tutor to provide the early education of the future justice, and the boy proceeded so rapidly in his studies that he was able to enter the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton) in 1804 at the age of 14; he graduated four years later. Thereafter he studied law, first under the direction of a prominent Savannah attorney and then under Judge Charles Chauncey of New Haven, Connecticut. In 1810 Wayne returned to Savannah after his father died and pursued law studies with his brother-in-law, Richard Stites.
He was admitted to practice in 1811 and subsequently began a legal partnership with Samuel M. Bond. After the two lawyers parted company in 1816, Wayne set up his own practice. In these early years he also served in a volunteer cavalry company during the War of 1812, eventually becoming a captain in the unit.
James Wayne took his first step into politics in 1815, when he was elected a representative to the Georgia legislature from his county. At the conclusion of his second term, Wayne turned his hand next to local politics, serving as mayor of Savannah from 1817 to 1819. From this post he returned to the practice of law, his income supplemented by a parttime position as a judge in Savannah’s Court of Common Pleas. This job immersed him in a variety of minor civil and criminal matters. His ambition lay higher, though, and in 1822 he won a seat on the Georgia Superior Court. He served on this court until 1828, when he began the first of four terms of service in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he proved himself a vigorous supporter of President Andrew Jackson. He agreed with Jackson’s plan to deny the Cherokee an independent sovereignty within the state of Georgia and to remove them instead to Indian Territory, and he agreed as well with Jackson’s fierce opposition to renewal of the charter for the Bank of the United States. In the nullification controversy over South Carolina’s opposition to die “tariff of abominations” of 1828, Wayne supported the president’s “force bill,” which authorized Jackson to use military force if necessary to collect the tariff in South Carolina. Though himself opposed to the tariff, Wayne demonstrated his allegiance to the Union by denying that South Carolina could legitimately nullify the federal tariff law or secede if federal authorities moved to collect the tariff by force.
By the time Justice William Johnson of North Carolina died in 1834, James Wayne had shown himself to be a loyal Jacksonian with both political and judicial experience. President Jackson therefore promptly nominated him to the vacant seat of the Supreme Court on January 6, 1835, and Wayne was confirmed at once by the Senate.
Associate Justice James Wayne arrived on the Court a few months before Chief Justice John Marshall died. He thus became a charter member of the Court presided over by Marshall’s successor, Roger B. Taney. In many ways, though, Wayne proved to be more Marshall’s successor titan Taney did. He demonstrated— unusually for a Southerner of his time—a Marshall-like commitment to a strong national government, most particularly in his conviction that Congress had exclusive power to regulate matters affecting interstate commerce. He would eventually be called by Benjamin Curtis, his colleague on the Supreme Court, one of the “most high-toned federalists on the bench.”
Wayne’s federalism prompted him to dissent in the most important commercial case decided by the Taney court: Cooley v. Board of Wardens (1852). At issue in Cooley WAS a Pennsylvania statute that required ships using the port of Philadelphia to pay a fee if they did not utilize the services of a local pilot, with the fee being used to support a relief fund for pilots and their widows and children. A majority of the Taney court upheld this law against a challenge that it intruded on Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce, concluding that piloting laws were by their very nature matters of local rather than national concern. Justice Wayne dissented, arguing that Congress’s power over interstate commerce was exclusive and clearly applied to die law in question.
A slave owner himself, Wayne regarded the issue of slavery as amendable only to such federal laws as supported the constitutional rights of slaveholders. Thus, he applied his generally nationalistic principles in Pnjiq v. Pennsylvania (1842) to join in the Court’s holding that Congress had exclusive power to pass regulations involving the recapture of fugitive slaves. But when Congress wielded its power to restrict the introduction of slavery into new territories, such as in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Wayne perceived an intrusion on the rights of slaveholders. He therefore joined in Chief Justice Roger Taney’s infamous opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), in which Taney found that blacks were disqualified per se from the possibility of being U.S. citizens and that the Missouri Compromise, insofar as it deprived slaveholders of their lawful property in slaves, was unconstitutional. In fact, when it appeared that the Court might attempt to bypass the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise and resolve the case instead on a more narrow, technical ground, Wayne was an advocate for settling the slavery question decisively, a course that the majority of his brethren ultimately followed.
After the war ended, Justice Wayne’s commitment to the vanquished South became more pronounced. He returned home to Georgia at once to repair ties there, and on the Court he was vigorous in resisting postwar efforts to punish the South. He voted with the majority of the Court in Cummings v. Missouri (1867) and Ex parte Garland (1867), holding unconstitutional those state and federal laws that disqualified Southerners from practicing various occupations unless they swore that they had not supported the Confederacy. Furthermore, Justice Wayne refused to act as a circuit judge in Southern states subjected to military reconstruction rule. These acts of loyalty to the South would climax his long career on the Court.
The war placed James Wayne, both a Unionist and a Southerner, in a precarious position. Unlike his fellow Southerner on the Court, Associate Justice John Archibald Campbell of Alabama, Wayne refused to resign his seat once war broke out. His own son, Major Henry C. Wayne, resigned from the United States Army and returned to Georgia to fight for the Confederacy. Justice Wayne, however, continued to serve on the Court, both out of conviction that the secession of the Southern states was illegitimate and out of a desire to represent the interests of those states on the Court. In the turmoil of the times, however, his home state failed to see any Georgian loyalty in Wayne’s continuance on the Court. According to the South, he was, in the words of one newspaper attack, “no more of us.” The Confederate District Court for Georgia declared him an “Alien Enemy” and seized his property: “Lots, parts of Lots & parcels of land and also said Stocks & negro slaves,” all having been collectively valued at around $50,000. Only the in-dustry of his son Henry, Adjutant General in Georgia after his resignation from the U.S. Army, managed to save the family property. Henry Wayne filed a petition with the court to recover his father’s property and was granted it, subject to the condition that Justice Wayne satisfy from it any debts due to “faithful citizens of any of the Confederate States.” Justice Wayne, for his part, continued to prove himself most “un-Southern” in his support of President Lincoln’s attempts to preserve the Union by the force of arms. In the Prize Cases (1863), Wayne joined the slender majority of five out of nine justices who upheld Lincoln’s order commanding a naval blockade of Southern ports.