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.
Smith Thompson was born in Dutchess County, New York, on January 17, 1768, the son of Ezra Thompson and Rachel Smith Thompson. His father was a prosperous farmer and minor political figure, serving as an anti- Fedcralist 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.
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 tie 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, Thompson had ascended to a seat on the New York Supreme Court. He joined the court in the same year as Brockholst Livingston, his wife’s cousin and the man Thompson would eventually succeed on the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1804 Thompson’s former teacher, James Kent, also joined the New York court as its chief justice, a position that Thompson 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, Thompson remained active in the intricate machinadons 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, Thompson’s political alliances seemed to hold out the promise of ever more attractive possibilities.
In 1818 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. Monroe gave the post to Thompson, who joined die president’s cabinet at the beginning of 1819. In his four years of service on the cabinet, Thompson so earned President Monroe’s confidence that when Brockholst Livingston’s death in 1823 created a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the president viewed Thompson as the leading candidate for the position. Other contenders for the seat included James Kent, Thompson’s former teacher and colleague on the New York bench; and Martin Van Buren, his sometime friend, U.S. senator, and future president. Thompson, though, coveted the presidency himself, as a result of which he succeeded in alienating Van
Buren. Apparently knowing that a scat on the high court was his if he desired it, Thompson nevertheless sought to secure Van Buren’s support for a presidential bid by dangling the possibility that Van Buren might secure the Court appointment. The relationship between the two men never recovered after 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 Thompson took the oath of office on February 10,1824. Thus began a 20-year career as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
Thompson’s 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 w'hile seated as chief justice of the Supreme Court, Thompson sought the same position himself in 1828. Earlier in the decade, when Thompson and Martin Van Buren were still on friendly terms, Van Buren attempted to persuade Thompson to give up his seat in Monroe’s cabinet in favor of an attempt to run for the governor of New York. Thompson declined at that time, but in 1828 he agreed to submit himself to the race. Now, however, his former friend Van Buren stood opposite him in the contest. 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 Thompson’s appointment to the Supreme Court, but he would not be bested again. Van Buren won the gubernatorial election, claiming the prize that Thompson had coveted, and the governor would eventually claim a further object of Thompson’s unfulfilled ambition: the presidency of the United States.
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 die 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 Thompson had expressed in dissent won over a majority of the Court, including the chief justice. In Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court was called on to consider whether a Georgia law that attempted to regulate missionary activity in Cherokee country and that was inconsistent with federal treaties was enforceable. In agreeing to consider the case, a majority of die Court retreated from the reasoning of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, decided die previous year. This time, Marshall determined that the Cherokee were, in fact, a sovereign nation and entitled to seek relief for their grievances before the U.S. Supreme Court. This victory for the Cherokee, however, proved illusory. President Andrew Jackson supported the removal of the Cherokee to Indian Territory and refused to enforce the Court’s Worcester decision. In the end, the Cherokee were forcibly evicted from their Georgia lands and relocated by a harsh journey—eventually named the Trail of Tears—that killed many of them.
Thompson’s years on the New York Supreme Court brought him in contact with a variety of legal issues, many of them relating to commercial matters and some involving constitutional questions. While serving on the state court, 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. A decade later, when the dispute arrived at the Supreme Court in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), Chief Jusdce John Marshall held to the contrary for the Court shortly before Thompson himself took a seat as an associate justice. On the New York Supreme Court, however, and 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 his service on the Supreme Court, Thompson, a Presbyterian, was a longtime member of the 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.