James Iredell, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

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James Iredell

Birthdate: (48)
Birthplace: East Sussex, England, United Kingdom
Death: October 20, 1799 (48)
North Carolina, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Francis Iredell and Helen McCullough
Husband of Hannah Iredell
Father of James Iredell, Jr., Governor, U.S. Senator

Occupation: US Supreme Court Justice
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About James Iredell, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court


James Iredell (October 5, 1751 – October 20, 1799) was one of the first Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was appointed by President George Washington and served from 1790 until his death in 1799. His son, James Iredell, Jr., became governor of North Carolina.

Early life

James Iredell was born in Lewes, England, the oldest of five children of a Bristol merchant. The failure of his father's business (and health) impelled James to immigrate to the Colonies in 1767 at the age of 17. Relatives assisted him in obtaining a position in the customs service as deputy collector, or comptroller, of the port of Edenton, North Carolina.

While working at the customs house, Iredell read law under Samuel Johnston (later governor of North Carolina), began the practice of law and was admitted to the bar in 1771. The grandson of a clergyman, he was a devout Anglican throughout his life and his writings display an interest in spirituality and metaphysics beyond a simple attachment to organized religion.

In 1773, Iredell married Johnston's sister Hannah and the two had four children, yet only 3 survived. The following year (1774) he was made collector for the port.

Roles in the Revolution

Although employed by the British government, Iredell was a strong supporter of independence and the revolution. In 1774 he wrote To the Inhabitants of Great Britain in which he laid out arguments opposing the concept of Parliamentary supremacy over America. This essay established Iredell, at the age of 23, as the most influential political essayist in North Carolina at that time. His treatise Principles of an American Whig predates and echoes themes and ideas of the Declaration of Independence.

After the revolution began, Iredell helped organize the court system of North Carolina, and was elected a judge of the superior court in 1778. His career advanced through a number of political and judicial posts in the state, including that of attorney general from 1779-1781. In 1787 the state assembly appointed him commissioner and charged him with compiling and revising the laws of North Carolina. His work was published in 1791 as Iredell's Revisal.

Iredell was a leader of the Federalists in North Carolina, and a strong supporter of the proposed Constitution. In the 1788 convention at Hillsborough, he argued unsuccessfully in favor of its adoption. (North Carolina later ratified the Constitution after Congress amended it through the addition of the Bill of Rights.)

Supreme Court Justice

On February 10, 1790, George Washington nominated James Iredell to the post of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and two days later he was confirmed by the United States Senate, and received his commission. At the age of 38, Iredell was the youngest of the early Supreme Court Justices.

The case load of the first Supreme Court was light. In fact, the court did not hear its first case until 1791 when it decided West v. Barnes. The decision was unanimous, but Iredell requested that Congress change the harsh statute governing the West decision. The Justices gathered to hear arguments only twice a year, and we have only a handful of opinions written by Justice Iredell in his years on the court. Of those, two of the most significant are:

Chisholm v. Georgia (1793): At issue was whether the citizens of one state (South Carolina) could sue another state (Georgia) for repayment of Revolutionary War bills. Iredell was the lone dissent from the majority opinion that held that a state may be sued in federal court without its consent to the suit. Calder v. Bull (1798): At issue was whether an act of the Connecticut legislature violated the Constitution because it was an ex post facto law, forbidden pursuant to Article I, Section 9, Clause 3. In the Chisholm case, public and political opinion agreed with Iredell against the other Justices. The outcry and strong reaction of people against the Chisholm decision would lead to its reversal by the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment in 1798.

In the unanimous decision in Calder, the Court held that the Clause applied to criminal cases only, deciding that the legislature's act was not unconstitutional. More importantly, Calder raised the question of whether "principles of natural justice" constituted law. Iredell's opinion indicated that only those actions of a state that explicitly violated a textual provision of the Constitution could be declared void. He stated: "The principles of natural justice are regulated by no fixed standard; the ablest and the purest men have differed upon the subject; and all the court could properly say, in such an event, would be, that the legislature (possessed of an equal right of opinion) had passed an act which, in the opinion of the judges, was inconsistent with the abstract principles of natural justice."

Justice Iredell's opinion in Calder helped establish the principle of judicial review five years before it was tested in Marbury v. Madison (1803). The Supreme Court has followed Iredell's approach throughout its subsequent history.

His charge to the federal grand jury in Fries Case is commonly cited as evidence that the Framers' Intent was to limit the scope of the First Amendment to freedom from prior restraint. He praised Sir William Blackstone's narrow interpretation of freedom of the press, noted that the Framers were very familiar with Blackstone's work, and observed that "unless his explanation had been satisfactory, I presume the amendment would have been more particularly worded, to guard against any possible mistake."

Later years

The Judiciary Act of 1789 divided the United States into 13 districts, each district having a court in one of 13 major cities. It also established three circuits, or appeals courts—one each in the eastern, central and southern United States. The Supreme Court Justices were required to "ride circuit," or travel to the various circuits and hear cases, twice each year. Partially as a result of the heavy travel burden, Justice Iredell's health failed and he died suddenly on October 20, 1799, in Edenton, North Carolina. He was 48. Iredell County, North Carolina, was established in 1788 and was named for him.


SS James Iredell in World War II

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James Iredell, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court's Timeline

October 5, 1751
East Sussex, England, United Kingdom
November 2, 1788
Age 37
Edenton, Chowan County, North Carolina, United States
October 20, 1799
Age 48
North Carolina, United States