Supreme Court Judges of the Founding Period
Here’s an interesting twist of history…. February 1, 1790 is often cited as the date of the first meeting of the United States Supreme Court. It is true that a meeting was scheduled on the first day of February. However, two of the original members, William Cushing and John Blair, were hampered by “transportation problems.” Try as I might, I was unable to find out what those problems were, but I suspect they were weather related. The Court did have a quorum, and actually met for the first time, on February 2, 1790. The meeting was held in the Merchants’ Exchange Building located at 55 Wall Street, New York City. At that time, New York was the nation’s capital. When Philadelphia became the capital, the Court met in Independence Hall.
The Supreme Court was much different, and more colorful, during its early years. People were not pounding on the door to be a member of the fab six. Yes, there were only 6 justices on the original Court. Robert Harrison, one of George Washington’s original selections declined the appointment. In his place, James Iredell took the bench, but not until after the February term had concluded. No, the Court did not have lengthy terms at that time. Originally the Court had terms in February and August. Another one of Washington’s original appointments, John Rutledge, missed both the February and August Terms of 1790. He was sworn in on February 16, 1790, but never served actively on the Court. He was sitting as a judge in the South Carolina Court at the time as he sat on the Supreme Court. Yes, the original justices were very much active in public at that time, and they conducted themselves in a manner far different from the present members of the Court. John Jay negotiated the Treaty with Great Britain, as well as twice campaigning for governor of New York while he sat as the Chief Justice. He ultimately left the Court when he was elected to the position he sought. Rutledge later returned to the Court as a recess appointment for the position of Chief Justice in July, 1795. However, he was not confirmed by the Senate after he publicly denounced the Jay Treaty with the purported statement, “that he had rather the President should die than sign that puerile instrument.” After the Senate’s rejection of Rutledge, John Adams wrote to his wife that it “”gave me pain for an old friend, though I could not but think he deserved it. Chief Justices must not go to illegal Meetings and become popular orators in favor of Sedition, nor inflame the popular discontents which are ill founded, nor propagate Disunion, Division, Contention and delusion among the people.” Rutledge attempted suicide after he learned of the Senate’s rejection.
I will discuss the members of the first Court more extensively in the future. But, before I conclude this post, you might want to know who was in attendance at that first meeting of our Supreme Court? The answer: Chief Justice John Jay, and Associate Justices William Cushing, John Blair and James Wilson.
If the Justice’s name has an attached link, please click on it to view more information, documents, or writings of that particular Justice.
John Blair Jr