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William Johnson served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1794 to 1798 and as speaker of the house in 1798. He was then elected judge of the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas. In 1804 he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He served on the U.S. Supreme Court until his death in 1834, earning a reputation as a critic of Chief Justice John Marshall, a writer of dissenting opinions, and a nationalist with regard to federal-state relations.
Johnson was born December 27, 1771, in Charleston, South Carolina. He was the son of Sarah Nightingale Johnson and of William Johnson, a blacksmith, legislator, and well-known Revolutionary patriot. During the Revolutionary War, when the British captured Charleston, Johnson's father was sent to detention in Florida, and the family was exiled from its home. The Johnsons returned to South Carolina after being reunited months later.
Johnson graduated first in his class from Princeton in 1790. He then returned to Charleston to study law under Charles C. Pinckney, a prominent adviser to President George Washington. Johnson was admitted to the bar in 1793.
In 1794 Johnson married Sarah Bennett, sister of Thomas Bennett, a future governor of South Carolina. The couple had eight children, six of whom died in childhood. They also later adopted two refugee children from Santo Domingo.
From 1794 to 1798, Johnson served in South Carolina's house of representatives as a member of Thomas Jefferson's new Republican Party. Johnson was speaker of the house in 1798. He was then elected judge of the court of common pleas, the state's highest court.
In 1804 President Jefferson appointed Johnson to the U.S. Supreme Court. During his thirty years of service on the Court, Johnson became known as a critic of Chief Justice John Marshall. Johnson has been called the first great Court dissenter because he established a tradition of dissenting opinions. Among his most noteworthy opinions was his dissent in Craig v. Missouri, 29 U.S. (4 Pet.) 410, 7 L. Ed. 903 (1830). In Craig v. Missouri, Johnson argued in his dissent that states should be able to issue temporary bills of credit or loans.
"In a country where laws govern, courts of justice necessarily are the medium of action and reaction between the government and the governed."
In general, Johnson leaned toward the nationalist position in judicial issues involving federal-state relations, as illustrated by his concurring opinion in gibbons v. ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 6 L. Ed. 23 (1824). Gibbons was a landmark decision that held that the Commerce Clause gave to Congress, to the exclusion of the states, the power to regulate interstate commerce, which included navigation between the states. In his circuit court duties as well, Johnson stead-fastly held that the federal government had the right to control interstate commerce, including the commerce of slaves. This position proved so unpopular in his native state that he was forced to move to Pennsylvania in 1833.
In the first part of his career as a Supreme Court justice, Johnson sought a different appointment. He wrote to President Jefferson that he found the Court to be no "bed of roses." Nevertheless, he remained on the Court until his death.
Johnson's other accomplishments included the publication of Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathaniel Greene, in 1822, and Eulogy of Thomas Jefferson, in 1826. Johnson also was a founder of the University of South Carolina. He died following surgery in 1834.
Kolsky, Meredith. 1995. "Justice William Johnson and the History of the Supreme Court Dissent." Georgetown Law Journal 83 (June): 2069–98.
Witt, Elder, ed. 1990. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.