U.S. Supreme Court justice. Born in Charleston on December 27, 1771, Johnson was the second son of blacksmith William Johnson and Sarah Nightingale. Graduated first in his class from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1790, Johnson went on to read law under leading Charleston attorney Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, qualifying for the bar in January 1793. The following year, on March 16, Johnson married Sarah C. Bennett, sister of future governor Thomas Bennett. The couple had eight children, only two of whom survived to adulthood, and also adopted a pair of orphaned siblings.
In October 1794 Johnson won election to the state House of Representatives from the city parishes of St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s. He remained a member until December 1799, serving as Speaker during his third and final term. A lowcountry Democratic-Republican, Johnson opposed both the Jay Treaty and reapportionment but supported judicial reform. His legislative career came to an early end as a result of his appointment to the South Carolina Court of General Sessions and Common Pleas.
On March 22, 1804, Johnson became the first Democratic- Republican to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Recommended to President Thomas Jefferson for his loyalty and nerve as much as his ability and character, Johnson proved to be an independent jurist. Frequently at odds with his fellow justices, Johnson wrote nearly half of the dissents filed during his three decades on the high bench and almost two-thirds of the concurrences. His opinions rankled both Federalists, who resented his resistance to an expansive interpretation of federal judicial authority, and Democratic-Republicans, who disliked his approbation of broad construction of congressional powers. Committed to national integrity but sympathetic to states’ rights, Johnson sought to encourage cooperation between the federal and state governments by defining their relationship in terms of concurrent powers rather than exclusive spheres. In the end, he believed, all government must serve the welfare of the individual.
“State rights, or United States’ rights are nothing, except as they contribute to the safety and happiness of the people.”
During the last dozen years of his life, Johnson fell out of step with popular opinion in South Carolina, as controversy over slavery and protective tariffs inspired increasing radicalism on behalf of states’ rights. In 1822 Johnson’s criticism of procedural irregularities in the trial of Denmark Vesey and others accused of conspiring to organize a mass slave rebellion alienated panic-stricken Charlestonians, who valued self-preservation more than strict justice. The following year, when Johnson struck down as unconstitutional the Negro Seaman’s Acts, state laws intended to help prevent slave insurrections, the press pummeled him, and the state ignored his ruling. In 1830 Johnson’s denunciation of nullification made him a laughingstock among nullifiers, who derided his charge of a conspiracy against the Union. It also made him a pariah among Unionists, who disowned his praise for the universally despised “Tariff of Abominations.” Two years later, when Johnson refused to allow the constitutionality of the tariff to be put to a Charleston jury, nullifiers accused him of judicial tyranny.
Respected for his legal expertise, Johnson was vilified for the vehemence of his convictions as well as their substance. He died in Brooklyn, New York, on August 4, 1834.
Morgan, Donald G. Justice William Johnson, the First Dissenter: The Career and Constitutional Philosophy of a Jeffersonian Judge. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1954.