President James Madison's appointment of Alexander Wolcott to the U.S. Supreme Court was a tribute to Wolcott's political loyalty, not his legal acumen. Nominated by Madison on February 4, 1811, Wolcott was a well-connected Republican whom Federalists and most historians regarded as unqualified for the High Court. Unable to win support even among fellow Republicans, Wolcott saw his confirmation rejected by the U.S. Senate, 24–9.
Wolcott was born in Windsor, Connecticut, on September 15, 1758, to Dr. Alexander Wolcott and Mary Richards Wolcott. After attending Yale College, he studied law and eventually practiced in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Wolcott married Frances Burbank in 1785 and settled in Middletown, Connecticut, where he became a port customs collector and an influential Republican.
Wolcott was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1811 to fill a vacancy left by the death of Associate Justice William Cushing. He was not Madison's first choice. Before Wolcott, Madison had nominated former U.S. attorney general Levi Lincoln. Lincoln refused the honor, even after winning confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Madison then turned to Wolcott, primarily for political reasons. Although Wolcott was a recognized leader among Republicans, few people believed he had the professional ability to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Lincoln supported Wolcott, but Federalists condemned his appointment, calling Wolcott depraved and his nomination abominable.
Opposition to the Connecticut customs official was unusually strong because of his public support of the Embargo Act of 1807. The act, signed by President Thomas Jefferson, prevented goods from England, France, and other countries from entering U.S. ports. The law was extremely unpopular with U.S. merchants and farmers, whose profits were diminished by the reduced trade. Wolcott's endorsement of the embargo, as well as his undeniable lack of judicial talent, doomed his nomination.
After Wolcott's rejection by the U.S. Senate, Madison appointed John Quincy Adams to serve on the Court. Adams, later the nation's sixth president, also turned down the seat, despite a unanimous Senate confirmation. The position eventually went to Joseph Story, of Massachusetts, who at age 32 became the youngest person in U.S. history to sit on the high court.
After the confirmation defeat, Wolcott continued his political career, participating in the Connecticut state constitutional convention of 1818. At the convention, Wolcott sparked debate by supporting the expulsion of any judge who declared a legislative act unconstitutional. He also favored limitations on Judicial Review, the U.S. Supreme Court's power to interpret laws.
Wolcott died in Middletown, Connecticut, on June 26, 1828.
Brant, Irving. 1970. The Fourth President: A Life of James Madison. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co.
Witt, Elder, ed. 1990. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.