The son of a South Carolina blacksmith, William Johnson forged the tradition of dissent on the Supreme Court. Appointed by President Thomas Jefferson, Johnson served his tenure on a Court dominated by Chief Justice John Marshall. And though Marshall successfully wielded both his position and the force of personality to present a largely united face for the Court in most cases, Johnson remained a frequent renegade.
William Johnson was bom in Charleston, South Carolina, on December 27, 1771, on die eve of the Revolutionary War. His father was a blacksmidi, a longtime state lawmaker, and a Revolutionary patriot. Through William’s mother, Sarah Nightingale Johnson, the Johnson family would eventually inherit substantial wealth. But the elder Johnson’s patriotic activities made him an enemy of the British, and after their capture of Charleston, he became a prisoner of war, held for a time in Florida and only united with his family after two and a half years.
The Revolutionary War seems not to have gready Johnson’s educational opportunities. He graduated in 1790 from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) first in his class. Thereafter he studied law with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the prominent South Carolina Federalist who had himself studied law at the Inns of Court in England. Johnson was admitted to the bar in 1793.
In 1794 he married Sarah Bennett and was elected to serve the first of three two-year terms in the South Carolina House of Representatives. While serving as a state legislator, Johnson fell under the sway of Jeffersonian principles. By 1798 he had been made speaker of the House of Representatives. The following year he earned an appointment to the newly created South Carolina Court of Common Pleas.
When Associate Justice Alfred Moore resigned his scat on the Supreme Court in 1804, Jefferson quickly moved to fill the vacant seat with a jurist more inclined to the president’s political philosophy. William Johnson seemed well suited to penetrate the Federalist citadel with Jeffersonian principles. He was nominated by the president on March 22,1804, and confirmed by the Senate within two days.
Though Johnson reported to Jefferson that he had “bent with the current” on the issue of writing separate opinions, he nevertheless amassed an impressive record of dissent. Not only was he quick to announce his disagreement with the majority’s result in particular cases, but he was ready to distance himself from the others’ reasoning in a case, even when he agreed with the particular result; thus, he frequently authored concurring opinions. Between 1805 and 1822, Johnson authored roughly half of both dissenting and concurring opinions filed by justices of the Court.
The fierce independence that made William Johnson the first great dissenter also made him willing to frustrate the administration that had appointed him. In the first decade of his service on the Court, Johnson earned the ire of President Jefferson in a decision he rendered while acting as a circuit court judge. Jefferson had successfully obtained legislation imposing a trade embargo against France and England as a means of avoiding American entanglement in the Napoleonic Wars. His administration interpreted the embargo as allowing U.S. authorities to detain any ships at port suspected of attempting to violate the embargo. Adam Gilchrist found his ship detained in Charleston, South Carolina, after port authorities suspected that his stated plan for transporting cotton and rice to Baltimore was nothing more than a ruse to evade the trade embargo. Gilchrist petitioned Johnson, acting as a circuit judge, to free his ship from the grasp of Jeffersonian policy and Johnson, after reportedly boarding the vessel himself and inspecting its cargo, issued orders to the captain of the ship allowing him to depart from Charleston Harbor. In Gilchrist v. Collector of Charleston (1808), Johnson argued that Congress had not meant to interfere with normal trade on the mere suspicion that a vessel was seeking to violate the embargo with England and France. Jefferson’s administration, he concluded, had exceeded its authority in its adoption of the policy by which Gilchrist’s vessel had been detained; and the principle of judicial review established in Marhury v. Madison authorized Johnson to exercise judicial power to overturn Jefferson’s executive action. An irate Jefferson instructed his attorney general, Caesar A. Rodney, to launch a public attack on Johnson’s Gilchrist opinion, about which Rodney had complained that Johnson had contracted a fatal case of “leprosy of the bench.” Johnson himself felt compelled to justify his decision in a published letter.
The independence that Johnson exhibited in the Gilchrist case would feature prominently throughout much of his judicial career. The willingness to tread a solitary course applied not only to disagreements with his brethren on the high court but also to disagreements with other southerners. By the last years of his service on the Court, Johnson had become an exile from his home state of South Carolina, residing permanently in New York City. While riding circuit in Charleston in 1823, Johnson authored the opinion in Elkison v. Deliesseline (1823), which involved a South Carolina law that required black sailors to be jailed until claimed by a captain or else sold into slavery. Johnson, a slave owner himself, nevertheless thought that the South Carolina law intruded on matters of interstate and foreign commerce over which Con-gress had exclusive power.
Johnson arrived at the Supreme Court a young man of 32 years, and his tenure there would occupy the remainder of his life. He managed, though, to pursue several other interests beyond the scope of his judicial responsibilities.
Toward the middle of his service on die Supreme Court, Johnson sought some other political appointment that would allow him to leave the Court, but none was forthcoming, and in 1819 the justices received an increase in salary that apparendy steeled Johnson to anodier decade and a half of work on the Court. At the end of that period Justice Johnson underwent surgery for a jaw infection and died shordy thereafter on August 4,1834, in Brooklyn, New York.
(American general in the American Revolution (1775–83). Af...)
His wife, Sarah Bennett Johnson, gave birth to eight children, but only two of these—Anna Hayes and Margaret Bennett—survived to adulthood. William and Sarah later adopted two children who were refugees from Santo Domingo, John and Madeleine L’Engle.