William Johnson Jr. (December 27, 1771 – August 4, 1834) was an American attorney, state legislator, and judge from South Carolina. He served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1804 to 1834 after previously serving in the South Carolina House of Representatives. Johnson was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Thomas Jefferson. He was the first Jeffersonian Republican member of the Supreme Court and the second Justice from the state of South Carolina.
Johnson was born in Charleston, South Carolina. His father, William Johnson, was a blacksmith and supporter of the American Revolution who represented Charleston in the general assembly. During the Revolution, Johnson's father was among the patriots deported to St. Augustine, Florida by British commander Sir Henry Clinton. His mother, Sarah Johnson, née Nightingale, was also a revolutionary. She was known to quilt "her petticoats with cartridges" and convey them "to her husband in the trenches" during the Siege of Charleston.
In 1790, William Johnson graduated from Princeton University. He passed the bar in 1793 after tutelage under Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Johnson was an adherent of the Democratic-Republican Party, and represented Charleston in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1794 to 1800. In his last term, from 1798 to 1800, he served as Speaker of the House. In 1799, Johnson was appointed an associate justice of the state Court of General Sessions and Common Pleas.
In 1794, he married Sarah Bennett, the sister of Thomas Bennett, Jr., who later served as Governor of South Carolina. Johnson and Bennett were close friends. Johnson and his wife named their son Thomas Bennett in honor of him. They also had at least one daughter, Anna Hayes Johnson, who was the second wife of Romulus Mitchell Saunders. Anna Johnson and Romulus Saunders were the parents of Jane Claudia Saunders, the wife of Bradley Tyler Johnson, who served as a general in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. In 1808, Johnson constructed a 2½ story Charleston single house home on Rutledge Avenue.
Supreme Court career
On March 22, 1804 President Thomas Jefferson nominated Johnson to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, as the successor of Alfred Moore. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on May 7, 1804, and received his commission the same day. He was the first of Jefferson's three appointments to the court, and was selected for sharing Jefferson's political philosophy. Johnson was the first member of the Court who was not a Federalist.
In his years on the Court, Johnson developed a reputation as a frequent and articulate dissenter from the Federalist majority. While Chief Justice John Marshall was frequently able to steer the opinions of most of the justices, Johnson demonstrated an independent streak. From 1805 through 1833, Johnson wrote nearly half of the Supreme Court's dissenting opinions.
Relationship with South Carolina
In one notable instance, in 1808 he defied the orders of the federal Collector of the Port of Charleston, Attorney General Caesar A. Rodney, and President Jefferson, because he felt that the executive branch's control of maritime trade was an impermissible extension of its constitutional powers. (Johnson was nominated for Collector of the Port of Charleston on January 23, 1819, but chose to remain on the Court.)
During the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina from 1831 to 1833, Johnson again displayed his independent streak by moving away from Charleston so as not to be swayed by the intensity of local public opinion.
Denmark Vesey rebellion
Following the closed trial of Denmark Vesey and his co-conspirators, Johnson wrote a letter to the Charleston Courier in June 1822 detailing an account of another previously purported slave rebellion along the border of Georgia and South Carolina. The rebellion Johnson cited had turned out to be only hearsay and resulted in the murder of an innocent man. Johnson claimed he believed the story "contained an useful moral, and might check the causes of agitation which were then operating upon the public mind" in Charleston.
Governor Thomas Bennett was in agreeance with Johnson and also criticized the proceedings for being unfair. The trials were held privately and the accused were likely not present when witnesses testified against them. The criticism from both Governor Bennett and Justice Johnson outraged members of the court whom published a rebuttal in the Charleston Courier the following month. The arrests and executions more than doubled in July 1822. Some scholars have argued that this was because the court was attempting to legitimize the proceedings after being criticized.
Career as author and later life
In 1822 Johnson authored the two-volume Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene, a comprehensive work about the major general in the Continental Army who played a vital role in the defeat of the British during the American Revolution. Johnson died in New York City August 4, 1834, following surgery on his jaw.