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William Pinkney was a lawyer, statesman, and diplomat before serving as attorney general of the United States under President James Madison.
Pinkney was born in Annapolis, Maryland, on March 17, 1764. Though his early education was sporadic during the Revolutionary war years, Pinkney was a diligent student. He originally studied medicine, but in 1783 he met Judge Samuel Chase. Chase thought the young medical student would make a good lawyer and offered to tutor him. For the next three years, Pinkney read law in Chase's Baltimore office. He was admitted to the bar in 1786.
In 1787 Pinkney established a law practice in rural Harford County, Maryland. With encouragement from Chase, he also became active in local politics. In 1788 he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, the lower house of the legislative assembly. In the legislature, Pinkney established a reputation as an eloquent speaker and a skillful lawmaker.
By 1792 Pinkney had left his seat in the house of delegates to serve on Maryland's executive council, a body appointed to advise or assist the governor in the execution of official duties. Pinkney lived and practiced law in Annapolis during his term of council service, from 1792 to 1795.
In 1796 President George Washington appointed Pinkney to the tribunal responsible for enforcing the British Treaty of 1794 (or Jay's Treaty). This treaty, negotiated by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, established an international commission to arbitrate boundary disputes between the United States and Great Britain, and to settle charges of interference with merchant shipping and trade between the two countries.
Pinkney served on the commission for the next eight years. The experience made him an expert in the fields of admiralty and International Law, but his long stay in England took a toll on his personal finances. Unlike other diplomats of his day, Pinkney was not a wealthy man. By 1804 he had decided it was time to capitalize on his acquired expertise. He returned to Maryland and established a legal practice in Baltimore. Before long, he was a familiar and respected figure in Maryland's seaports and courtrooms. In 1805 he served as attorney general of Maryland while continuing to build his private practice.
In 1806 Great Britain renewed its aggression against U.S. ships in international waters. President Thomas Jefferson asked Pinkney to accompany Envoy (and future president) James Monroe to England to negotiate an agreement on the shipping rights of neutrals. Though Pinkney was reluctant to leave a law practice that was just beginning to prosper, he agreed to go. It was not one of his better decisions. Monroe departed England in 1807, leaving Pinkney to serve as resident minister. Pinkney pleaded for a replacement, but Jefferson ignored him. It was four years before Pinkney was relieved of his duties by Jefferson's successor, President Madison.
When Pinkney returned to Baltimore in 1811, he found that his practice had once again been devastated by his absence. In need of income while rebuilding his client base, he ran for, and was elected to, the Maryland state senate. By December of 1811, Pinkney had resigned his seat to accept President Madison's appointment as attorney general of the United States.
In 1811, the attorney general's post was still a part-time position that allowed the officeholder to continue in private practice—and to pursue other interests and commitments. Shortly after taking office, Pinkney chose to demonstrate his support for the War of 1812 by enlisting and serving with a rifle company. This absence, and others required by Pinkney's law practice, contributed to growing sentiment that the country needed a full-time attorney general who resided in Washington, D.C. When Congress instituted a residency requirement in 1814, Pinkney chose to resign rather than put his law practice in jeopardy for a third time. Madison, who had supported the residency requirement, was disappointed with Pinkney's decision.
Even though the residency debate became the defining issue of his term, Pinkney made other contributions while in office. He advised on international trade matters, and worked with Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story to improve the federal criminal code.
Friends and neighbors in Pinkney's home district apparently failed to consider his stand on the residency issue when they drafted him as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1815. Members of Congress were not required to live in Washington, D.C., but most of them did while Congress was in session. Pinkney was elected but refused to serve.
It was almost two years before Pinkney reentered the public arena. In 1817 he accepted a diplomatic post as minister to Russia and special envoy to Naples. This time, he served only the designated term abroad.
In 1818 Pinkney returned to Baltimore and the Practice of Law. For the next two years, he was actively involved in many of the cases heard before the U.S. Supreme Court—including two celebrated confrontations in which he bested lawyer and orator Daniel Webster (trustees of dartmouth college v. woodward, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518, 4 L. Ed. 629 ; m'culloch v. state of maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 4 L. Ed. 579 ).
"The free spirit of our constitution and of our people is no assurance against the propension of unbridled power to abuse."
He also made amends for his earlier refusal to serve the people of Maryland in Congress. In 1820 he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He took his seat but did not complete the term. He died in Washington, D.C., on February 25, 1822.
Baade, Hans W. 1991. "'Original Intent' in Historical Perspective: Some Critical Glosses." Texas Law Review 69 (April).
Forte, David F. 1996. "Marbury's Travail: Federalist Politics and William Marbury's Appointment as Justice of the Peace." Catholic University Law Review 45 (winter).
Hickey, Donald R. 1987. "The Monroe-Pinkney Treaty of 1806: A Reappraisal." William and Mary Quarterly 44.
Ireland, Robert M. 1986. The Legal Career of William Pinkney, 1764–1822. New York: Garland.
Jay, Stewart. 1985. "Origins of Federal Common Law: Part One." University of Pennsylvania Law Review 133 (June).
Rowe, Gary D. 1992. "The Sound of Silence: United States v. Hudson & Goodwin, the Jeffersonian Ascendancy, and the Abolition of Federal Common Law Crimes." Yale Law Journal 101 (January).