William Cushing, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Is your surname Cushing?

Research the Cushing family

William Cushing, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court's Geni Profile

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!


William Cushing, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Birthdate: (78)
Birthplace: Scituate, Plymouth, MA
Death: September 13, 1810 (78)
Scituate, Plymouth, MA, USA
Place of Burial: Scituate, MA
Immediate Family:

Son of Hon. John Cushing, III and Mary Cushing (Cotton)
Husband of Hannah Phillips
Brother of Mary Gay; Charles Cushing; Roland Cushing; Edward Cushing; Hannah Cushing and 3 others
Half brother of Sarah Humphry Pierpont; John Cushing, IV; Deborah Stockbridge; Nathaniel Cushing and William Cushing

Occupation: Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1789-1810), Judje
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About William Cushing, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court


William Cushing (March 1, 1732 – September 13, 1810) was an early Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, from its inception to his death. He was the longest-serving of the Court's original members, sitting on the bench for 21 years. Had he accepted George Washington's appointment, he would have become the third Chief Justice of the United States.

Youth and early career Born in Scituate Massachusetts to a family which had settled in adjacent Hingham in 1638, Cushing graduated from Harvard College in 1751 and became a member of the bar in Boston in 1755. Cushing's family was among the earliest settlers of Hingham. Although his family had a history of attorneyship, he seemed to have had a hard time at the beginning of his career. During that time, as well, his father, John Cushing, served on the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature for about 24 years. When his father resigned in 1771, Cushing took his position on the Court. However, when the American Revolution started, he had to choose between the rebels and Great Britain; unlike the rest of the court, he chose the rebels.

His work with state and federal constitutions In 1783, Cushing presided over a criminal action that virtually abolished slavery in Massachusetts, citing the 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts's statement that "all men are born free and equal". During Shays' Rebellion, he made sure that court sessions continued, despite the aggressive protests of the armed rebels. He later presided over the trial against the rebels. A year later, in 1788, he was vice president of the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which narrowly ratified the Constitution.[1]

Supreme Court appointment When George Washington became President of the United States, Cushing was among Washington's first choices for Supreme Court justices. He was nominated on September 24, 1789, and confirmed by the Senate two days later. Although Cushing became Washington's longest serving Supreme Court appointment, only 19 of his decisions appear in the case reporters, mainly due to frequent travels and failing health, as well as the incompleteness of the case reports of the era. He generally held a nationalist view typically in line with the views of the Federalist Party, and often disagreed with Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. His two most important decisions were probably Chisholm v. Georgia and Ware v. Hylton, which regarded intrastate suits and the supremacy of treaties.

Cushing administered the oath of office at Washington's second inauguration as president.

The third Chief Justice? When John Jay resigned from the Court in 1795, Washington faced the task of appointing a new Chief Justice. Washington appointed John Rutledge on July 1, 1795 during a Senate recess, during which time Rutledge served by recess appointment. On December 15, 1795, during the Senate's next session, it rejected Rutledge's nomination.

Washington subsequently nominated Cushing on January 26, 1796; the Senate unanimously confirmed the nomination. An unverified story tells of a diplomatic dinner party the night of the Senate's confirmation vote, where Washington gave Cushing accolades as the Chief Justice of the United States, asking Cushing to sit in the seat to Washington's right, much to Cushing's surprise.[2] The following day, Washington signed and dispatched Cushing's commission.

Cushing received his commission on January 27, but returned it to Washington on February 2, declining appointment.[3] An error in the rough minutes of the Court on February 3 and 4, 1796 lists Cushing as Chief Justice, although this entry was later crossed out. This error can be explained by the text of the Judiciary Act of 1789,[4] which allowed for the Court to hear cases with a quorum of only four justices; that is, the Chief Justice need not always be present for the Court to conduct business. As Cushing was the most senior Associate Justice present on those dates, he would have been expected to preside over the proceedings.

Washington then nominated Oliver Ellsworth to be Chief Justice, transmitting the nomination to the Senate in a March 3 message stating that Ellsworth would replace "William Cushing, resigned."[5] Subsequent histories of the Court have not counted Cushing as Chief Justice, but instead report that he declined the appointment. Had Cushing accepted promotion to Chief Justice and then resigned, he would have had to leave the court entirely; accepting the appointment would have implicitly required Cushing to resign his place as Associate Justice. That he continued on the Court as an Associate Justice for years afterward lends weight to the assertion that Cushing declined promotion. Additionally, Cushing's February 2 letter explicitly stated his return of the commission for Chief Justice, and his desire to retain his seat as Associate Justice.[3]

Death and legacy In 1810, Cushing died in his hometown of Scituate, Massachusetts. He is buried in a small cemetery there which is also a small state park. His wife would have preferred that he be buried at the Norwell Congregational Church but he insisted on being buried in Scituate.

WILLIAM CUSHING was born on March 1, 1732, in Scituate, Massachusetts. After graduation from Harvard College in 1751, Cushing taught school for one year in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and then read law in Boston. He was admitted to practice in 1755. In 1760, Cushing moved to Lincoln County, Massachusetts (Now Dresden, Maine), to become a Probate Judge and Justice of the Peace. In 1772, he was appointed to the Superior Court of Massachusetts Bay Province. Under the new State Government, Cushing was retained as a Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, and in 1777 he was elevated to Chief Justice. From 1780 to 1789, he served as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Cushing strongly supported ratification of the United States Constitution and served as Vice Chairman of the Massachusetts Ratification Convention. On September 24, 1789, President George Washington nominated Cushing one of the original Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Senate confirmed the appointment two days later. Cushing served on the Supreme Court for twenty years and died on September 13, 1810, at the age of seventy-eight.

view all

William Cushing, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court's Timeline

March 1, 1732
Scituate, Plymouth, MA
September 13, 1810
Age 78
Scituate, Plymouth, MA, USA
Scituate, MA