William Cushing in color.
William Cushing by Max Rosenthal.
From 1747 to 1751 he attended Harvard College (now Harvard University), where he received the classical education thought appropriate for colonial gentlemen. After teaching grammar at a school for a year in Roxbury, Massachusetts, William Cushing returned to Harvard to study theology. But the traditional family ties to law soon tugged him away from this vocational path and into an apprenticeship with Boston lawyer Jeremiah Gridley that began in December 1754 and ended with his admission to the bar in 1757.
Mr. Cushing’s career as a lawyer was lackluster. He began practicing in his hometown of Scituate, but when his practice there did not quickly blossom into prosperity, he moved to Pownal borough, an area that would eventually become Maine. This migration did little to improve William Cushing’s circumstances. He had an inability for holding onto clients that generally spells the ruin of a legal practice, and his career in law might have met a premature end had he not been appointed as a probate judge. This appointment did not secure him material success, but it nevertheless set him on the path that he would follow for the remainder of his days. When his father prepared to retire from the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature, the elder Mr. Cushing petitioned Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson to assign the vacancy to his son. Though Thomas Hutchinson seems not to have immediately preferred William Cushing for this post, he ultimately assigned it to Mr. Cushing in 1772, and thus perpetuated what now appeared to be a family dynasty of Massachusetts judges.
The Scarcely a year after William Cushing’s appointment to the Massachusetts bench, Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson insisted that judges, whose salaries had previously been paid by the legislative assembly, be paid instead by the Crown. The Massachusetts legislative assembly responded by threatening to impeach any judge who accepted the Crown’s stipend or failed to make a public declaration of willingness to be paid by the assembly. When Chief Justice Peter Oliver declared in favor of receiving payment from the Crown, the assembly promptly launched impeachment proceedings against him and threatened the same against Mr. Cushing if he failed to accept the assembly’s salary. Forced to choose sides, William Cushing elected to receive payment from the assembly, thus casting his lot with the growing revolutionary spirit. Mr. Cushing’s decision to side with the Massachusetts assembly temporarily alienated him from Hutchinson and other colonial authorities, who refused to seat him on the Governor’s Council, but it eventually secured his place in the post colonial commonwealth of Massachusetts as an associate justice of the Superior Court.
In 1777 he was elevated to chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, a position he occupied for the next 12 years. Mr. Cushing filled the seat vacated by John Adams, who had been named to the Superior Court in 1775 but had not actually served, due to his work in the Continental Congress and a variety of other duties. In 1777, though, Mr. Adams was appointed commissioner to France. He therefore formally resigned from the Massachusetts Superior Court. As chief justice of Massachusetts’s highest court, William Cushing attended the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1779 along with the other justices of that court. He seems to have played no significant role in the proceedings, though after the convention was over, he vigorously championed the new Massachusetts constitution on his circuit travels. The constitution’s ultimate ratification resulted in his court earning a new name - the Supreme Judicial Court, but Mr. Cushing remained its chief justice.
In 1788 William Cushing served as vice president of the Massachusetts ratifying convention, presiding over much of the convention while its president, John Hancock, suffered from illness. Thereafter, upon the Constitution’s ratification and the election of George Washington as president, Mr. Cushing was nominated by Washington on September 24, 1789, to fill one of tire first positions on the new nation’s highest court. Confirmed by the Senate two days later, William Cushing took the oath of office on February 2, 1790, and joined Chief Justice John Jay, and associate justices James Wilson and John Blair in the Supreme Court’s first session that day.
Mr. Cushing would occupy a seat on the Supreme Court for the next 21 years, and though his tenure would surpass those of all the justices with whom he initially served, his presence made no significant impact on the Court. He wrote 19 opinions while on the Court and these, like the man himself, were characterized by brevity and terseness. Like the other early justices of the Supreme Court, William Cushing may have found its first years tedious through the onerous work of circuit riding and the relative insignificance of its work. He joined with a majority of the Court in the vastly unpopular decision of Chisholm v. Georgia, (1793) and witnessed the country’s quick rebuke of that decision through enactment of the 11th Amendment to the Constitution.
Frustrated, perhaps, by the limitations of his seat on the Court, William Cushing decided to run for governor of Massachusetts in 1794, while still on the Court. He lost by an embarrassingly wide margin to Samuel Adams. John Jay’s subsequent election as governor of New York in 1795 offered Mr. Cushing the possibility of a consolation for his political defeat. After Mr. Jay’s resignation, President Washington first nominated John Rutledge for the post of chief justice. Senate refused to confirm him.
Consequently, on January 26, 1796, Mr. Washington nominated William Cushing for the position. Although he attended one presidential dinner party as chief justice, he shortly declined the nomination, pleading financial circumstances as reason not to accept the added responsibilities of chief justice. He served out his days as an associate justice, bound to the bench even in old age because the decades of judicial service had left him with no private wealth on which to retire. Toward the end, he considered resignation from the Court and its arduous circuit-riding responsibilities, but he wavered in reaching a decision until his death made it for him.
William Cushing was an adherent of anti-slavery politics.
In 1774 William Cushing married Hannah Phillips, who became his companion on his rides through the circuit of the court.