James Iredell, Sr. (1751-1799)

Written By Willis P. Whichard

A lawyer and political essayist, James Iredell was a leading Federalist in North Carolina and was appointed as one of the original justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Born in England, Iredell sailed to America in 1768, at age seventeen, to be King George III’s comptroller of customs in the northeastern North Carolina village of Edenton.  Family poverty had impelled his voyage, but fortunately, his mother’s family helped him to secure remunerative employment in America.  The customs post also allowed time for him to study law under Samuel Johnston, later North Carolina’s governor and one of its first two U.S. Senators.

Iredell first attained significant public attention when he, as a King’s servant, ironically promoted rebellion against the Crown.  Although a reluctant revolutionary, he became a leading essayist in support of American independence.  A dispute with the Crown over colonial court laws produced what was probably Iredell’s first political article and marked him as the literary leader of the North Carolina Whigs.  His later treatise, “Principles of an American Whig,” predates and bears unmistakable consanguinity with the American Declaration of Independence.  Similar to the Declaration, yet in less detail, “Principles” lists perceived Crown abuses against the colonies, including the Stamp Act, other duties and taxation, and the dispatch of British troops to Massachusetts.

Following independence, Iredell served the newly formed State of North Carolina with distinction.  He was a member of a commission to prepare statutes for its government and draftsman of its initial court bill.  The court bill provided for three superior court judges, and when the first were elected, Iredell was among them.  In his one circuit, he largely studied old lawsuits to determine their viability, thereby preparing courts to try cases during the next term.  He then resigned and returned to his law practice in 1778.

Iredell’s absence from significant public service was brief.  In the following year, he became North Carolina’s second attorney general.  Prosecuting offenders in the superior courts, Iredell performed duties similar to a modern-day state district attorney.  When Earl Charles Cornwallis’s capture at Yorktown in 1781 left Iredell free to resign without his patriotism being questioned, he did so in 1782 to “repair the sufferings [his] poor circumstances had received in the public service.”  He later served the state as an original trustee of its university and the initial revisor of its statutes.

When the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 proposed the federal Constitution, Iredell was its foremost advocate in North Carolina. He inaugurated the first public movement in the state in favor of the document and wrote extensively in hopes of creating a new government.  In particular, he responded to Virginia’s George Mason’s eleven objections to the Constitution and gained national attention in doing so.  A Norfolk printer, for example, shelved other political tracts in 1788 to publish Iredell’s “Answers.”  The essay preceded 49 of the 85 essays that constitute the Federalist Papers and appears to have been widely distributed.

At the first North Carolina ratification convention, Iredell was the floor leader for the Federalist forces.  After the 1788 convention refused to ratify the federal Constitution, he then wielded his influential and skillful pen to fell Anti-federalist arguments and champion the Federalist cause and the benefits of the Constitution.  When North Carolina finally ratified the document at its second convention (1789), Iredell was widely considered the intellectual general of the Federalists’ victory.

For Iredell’s ratification efforts, President George Washington rewarded the North Carolinian with an appointment to the original U.S. Supreme Court, where he served for almost a decade.  (Even before ratification, his acquaintances had speculated that his future included a federal judgeship.)  During his tenure on the Supreme Court, Iredell closely dealt with Presidents Washington and John Adams and offered vigorous and partisan support for their administrations.  He also chronicled important events and personalities.

In his near decade on the Court, Iredell wrote opinions in only a few reported cases.  In Hylton v. United States (1796), the Court, with Iredell’s concurrence, upheld the constitutionality of a federal tax on carriages, thereby implicitly proclaiming the Supreme Court’s equivalent authority to pronounce congressional acts unconstitutional.  In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), Iredell as the lone dissenter supported the result that ultimately prevailed by means of the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment, which precludes suits by citizens of one state against another state.  The case still receives both juristic and scholarly attention.  In Alden v. Maine (1999), a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, frequently cited Iredell’s Chisholm dissent and considered it to be according with the original understanding of the Constitution, thus, as the dissenting opinion observed, rendering the Eleventh Amendment superfluous.

Like other justices of his era, Iredell spent most of his time traveling the federal circuits and doing the work of the circuit courts.  This work, with the related travel and other hardships, took its toll on an already fragile physical constitution.  Worn down by his occupation’s demands, Iredell died on October 20, 1799, at the age of forty-eight.  He is buried in the Johnston family cemetery in Edenton, North Carolina.