Smith Thompson was a United States Secretary of the Navy from 1819 to 1823, and a United States Supreme Court Associate Justice from 1823 until his death in 1843. He interpreted parts of the Commerce Clause from the United States Constitution; however, his anti-federalist views often made him a dissenter as a Supreme Court justice.
Mr. Thompson was born in Amenia, Dutchess County, New York, United States on January 17, 1768. He was the son of Ezra Thompson and Rachel Smith Thompson. His father was a prosperous farmer and minor political figure, serving as an anti-Federalist delegate to the New York convention assembled in the summer of 1788 to consider ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
The future Supreme Court justice attended the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University), graduating in 1788. Thereafter, he taught school for a time while also studying law in tire offices of James Kent and Gilbert Livingston for three years.
Mr. Thompson began his own law practice in 1792 and connected himself to a minor tributary of the prominent New York Livingston family two years later by marrying Sarah Livingston, the daughter of his former legal mentor, Gilbert Livingston. This family aided his political aspirations, contributing to his election to the New York Assembly in 1800 and to the New York Constitutional Convention of 1801. By the beginning of 1802, Smith Thompson had ascended to a seat on the New York Supreme Court. He joined the court the same year as Mr. Brockholst Livingston, his wife’s cousin and the man Mr. Thompson would eventually succeed on the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1804 Smith Thompson’s former teacher, James Kent, also joined the New York court as its chief justice, a position that he later gained after Kent became chancellor of New York in 1814. In all, Smith Thompson served 16 years on the New York court.
During his years on the New York bench, Smith Thompson remained active in the intricate machinations of New York politics. His involvement in partisan maneuverings brought him into association with Martin Van Buren, a relationship of such amiableness that the Van Burens named their fourth son Smith Thompson Van Buren. The following years, however, would place the two men at odds as their separate political aspirations collided. But for the time, at least, Mr. Thompson’s political alliances seemed to hold out the promise of ever more attractive possibilities.
In 1818 Smith Thompson’s reputation attracted the attention of President James Monroe, who sought to fill the cabinet position of secretary of the Navy with an appointment from the Atlantic states. Mr. Monroe gave the post to Mr. Thompson, who joined the president’s cabinet at the beginning of 1819. In his four years of service on the cabinet, Smith Thompson so earned President Monroe’s confidence that when Mr. Brockholst Livingston’s death in 1823 created a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the president viewed him as the leading candidate for the position. Other contenders for the seat included James Kent, Mr. Thompson’s former teacher and colleague on the New York bench; and Martin Van Buren, his sometime friend, U.S. senator, and future president. Mr. Thompson, though, coveted the presidency himself, as a result of which he succeeded in alienating Van Buren.
Apparently knowing that a seat on the high court was his if he desired it, Mr. Thompson nevertheless sought to secure Mr. Van Buren’s support for a presidential bid by dangling the possibility that Martin Van Buren might secure the Court appointment. The relationship between the two men never recovered after Smith Thompson abandoned his presidential hopes and accepted the post on the Supreme Court that President Monroe had reserved for him. The Senate confirmed his nomination on December 19, 1823, and he took the oath of office on February 10, 1824. Thus began a 20-year career as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
His early years on the Court did not purge him of other political aspirations. Taking a lead from the example of John Jay, who three decades before had successfully run for governor of New York while seated as chief justice of the Supreme Court, Smith Thompson sought the same position himself in 1828. Earlier in the decade, when Mr. Thompson and Martin Van Buren were still on friendly terms, Mr. Van Buren attempted to persuade him to give up his seat in President Monroe’s cabinet in favor of an attempt to run for the governor of New York. Smith Thompson declined at that time, but in 1828 he agreed to submit himself to the race. Now, however, his former friend Martin Van Buren stood opposite him in the contest. Mr. Van Buren, known as "the Little Magician" for his remarkable adroitness in political maneuvering, had endured his former friend’s duplicity at the time of Mr. Thompson’s appointment to the Supreme Court, but he would not be bested again. Martin Van Buren won the gubernatorial election, claiming the prize that Mr. Thompson had coveted, and the governor would eventually claim a further object of Smith Thompson’s unfulfilled ambition: the presidency of the United States.
Mr. Thompson, on the other hand, remained on the Supreme Court. He wrote one of his most famous opinions - a dissent - a few years after the failed gubernatorial attempt. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Court faced the issue of whether it had authority to hear a claim brought by the Cherokee Indians. The state of Georgia had attempted to control lands that had been protected by treaty for the benefit of the Cherokee, who requested an order from the Supreme Court to prevent this interference. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Marshall insisted that the Court had no power to hear the case, since the Cherokee did not amount to the kind of foreign nation authorized to bring a claim before the Court under Article III of the Constitution. Justice Thompson, in dissent, argued to the contrary, saying that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation and thus entitled to seek relief from the Supreme Court in their conflict with the state of Georgia. Within a year, the status of the Cherokee in the United States returned to the Supreme Court. This time the position that Smith Thompson had expressed in dissent won over a majority of the Court, including the chief justice.
Smith Thompson was a Presbyterian.
While serving on the state court, Smith Thompson formed the basis of a constitutional philosophy that would eventually put him at odds with John Marshall, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. This philosophy championed state authority to regulate broadly in the commercial area, even in cases that conflicted with federal law. For example, in Livingston v. Van Ingen (1812), he wrote an opinion upholding a state steamboat monopoly granted by New York to Robert Livingston and dismissed the contention that the state law violated Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. Later on the nation’s high court, Smith Thompson developed the view that the U.S. Constitution contemplated concurrent powers by Congress and the states over matters affecting interstate commerce. Besides, Mr. Thompson did not share Chief Justice John Marshall’s nationalist views and dissented from many of his opinions.
American Bible Society
Justice Smith Thompson sat on the Court for 20 years. During this period, he suffered the death of his wife Sarah, but he promptly renewed his attachment to the New York Livingston family by marrying Eliza Livingston, a cousin of his first wife. In addition to the two sons and two daughters born of his marriage with Sarah, his union with Eliza produced two more daughters and a son.