James Madison Papers

To James Madison from William Johnson Jr., 16 June 1814

From William Johnson Jr.

Charleston June 16th —14

My dear Sir

I have taken the Liberty to address this directly to your self under Cover to Mr Monroe because the Subject is one which for many Reasons cannot be confined to the knowledge of too few—and because I would not have it appear as if I had attempted to make an Interest in your Cabinet to obtain what I would wish to owe yourself alone.

The wonderful Events which have recently occurred in Europe, will I apprehend impose on you the necessity of sending another Minister to Paris. If it comports with the Views of the Administration, I beg leave to make you a tender of my Services in that Capacity.

It is my Wish to retire from the Bench, and I only await a decent Apology to my Friends for doing so. Crawford would no Doubt be gratified with an Appointment to my Place, as I suspect it would comport both with his Wishes and Convenience. No Man could be more agreeable to the Circuit over which he will preside if appointed.1

I know there is no Subject on which we are so apt to deceive ourselves as with Regard to the peculiar Cast or Character of our own Talents, but I have thought myself into the Opinion that I can be at least as servicable in the Capacity to which I aspire as in that which I fill.

May I request the Favour of you to make my humble Respects to Mrs Madison. With the greatest Respect & personal Esteem—Your very hle Set
Willm. Johnson Jr2

RC (DLC: Rives Collection, Madison Papers). Docketed by JM.

1In accord with the 1789 Judiciary Act’s requirement that Supreme Court justices hold circuit courts, Johnson rode the southern circuit, which encompassed South Carolina and Georgia (U.S. Statutes at Large, description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America … (17 vols.; Boston, 1848–73). description ends 1:73–75; Donald G. Morgan, Justice William Johnson, the First Dissenter: The Career and Constitutional Philosophy of a Jeffersonian Judge [Columbia, S.C., 1954], 98).

2William Johnson Jr. (1771–1834), a Princeton-educated South Carolina attorney and legislator, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1804. Selected by Thomas Jefferson for his impeccable Republican credentials in order to combat the Federalist ascendancy on the Court, Johnson displeased the President with an 1808 circuit court decision granting mandamus and clearance to Charleston shippers detained by the collector, Simeon Theus, who was acting under Jefferson’s instructions for strengthening the embargo. The federal executive, Johnson argued, had no authority to enforce orders not mandated by law, a position tacitly validated by Jefferson’s subsequent application to Congress for legislation providing the necessary powers. In 1812, however, Johnson rendered a decision more congenial to Republican views in the case of Hudson and Goodwin, editors of the Connecticut Courant, who were accused of libeling JM. Jefferson and his followers had discouraged the prosecution of such common-law crimes in federal courts, and in his majority opinion Johnson articulated their argument that without legislation empowering the courts to try such crimes, they had no authority to do so. Thereafter Johnson sparred repeatedly with Justice Joseph Story of Massachusetts, an 1812 JM appointee who nevertheless often sided with Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall. Initially a supporter of the War of 1812, Johnson eventually lost confidence in JM’s handling of it. Nothing came of the request contained in this letter, and he served on the Supreme Court until his death (Morgan, Justice William Johnson, xiv–xv, 8, 18, 23, 26, 41–42, 49–51, 53–54, 57–62, 66–67, 74–78, 93–94, 97–98, 280).

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