Thomas Johnson (jurist)

Thomas Johnson
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
August 6, 1792[1]  January 16, 1793
Nominated by George Washington
Preceded by John Rutledge
Succeeded by William Paterson
1st Governor of Maryland
In office
March 21, 1777  November 12, 1779
Preceded by Robert Eden (Royal)
Succeeded by Thomas Lee
Personal details
Born (1732-11-04)November 4, 1732
St. Leonard, Maryland, British America
Died October 26, 1819(1819-10-26) (aged 86)
Frederick, Maryland, U.S.
Political party Federalist

Thomas Johnson (November 4, 1732 – October 26, 1819) was an 18th century American judge and politician. He participated in several ventures to support the Revolutionary War. He was the first Governor of Maryland, a delegate to the Continental Congress, and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Johnson was the first person appointed to the Court after its original organization and staffing with six justices. His tenure on the Supreme Court was the shortest in U.S. history. Johnson suffered from a myriad of health issues.

Early life and revolution

Judge Johnson was born in Calvert County, Maryland, on November 4, 1732, to Thomas and Dorcas Sedgwick Johnson. His grandfather, also named Thomas, was a lawyer in London who had emigrated to Maryland sometime before 1700. He was the fourth of ten children, some of whom also had large families. His niece (daughter of his brother Joshua), Louisa Johnson, married John Quincy Adams. The family, including Thomas, were educated at home. As a young man he was attracted to the law, studied it, and was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1753. By 1760, he had moved his practice to Frederick County, Maryland, and in 1761 he was elected to the provincial assembly for the first time. Johnson married Ann Jennings, the daughter of a judge from Annapolis on February 16, 1766.[2]

In 1774 and 1775 the Maryland assembly sent him as a delegate to the Continental Congress. In the Congress he was firmly in the camp of those who favored separation from Great Britain. In November 1775, Congress created a Committee of [Secret] Correspondence that was to seek foreign support for the war. Thomas Johnson, along with Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Harrison V were initially named to the committee.[3] He then returned to Maryland and continued his work in the state's Assembly when the United States Declaration of Independence was signed. In 1775 he drafted the declaration of rights adopted by the Maryland assembly and later included as the first part of the state's first constitution, which was adopted for Maryland by the state's constitutional convention at Annapolis in 1776. He also served as brigadier general in the Maryland militia. Thomas Johnson and his brothers supported the revolution by manufacturing ammunition and possibly cannon.[4] Their former factory, Catoctin Furnace, is now part of a state park near Camp David, just north of Frederick, Maryland.

The state legislature elected Johnson as the new state's first Governor in 1777. He served in that capacity until 1779. In the 1780s he held a number of judicial posts in Maryland, as well as served in the assembly in 1780, 1786, and 1787. He pushed a bill through the Maryland Assembly naming commissioners to meet with Virginia's commissioners to "…frame such liberal and equitable regulations concerning [the Potomac] river as may be mutually advantageous to the two states and that they make report thereon to the General assembly." While not a commissioner himself,[5] the resulting conference agreed to regulate and settle the jurisdiction and navigation on their mutual border, and served as a predecessor to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.[6] Johnson attended the Maryland Convention in 1788, where he successfully urged the state's ratification of the United States Constitution.

Federal years

In September 1789, President George Washington nominated Johnson to be the first federal judge for the District of Maryland, but he declined the appointment. In 1790 and 1791, Johnson was the senior justice in the Maryland General Court system. In January 1791, President Washington appointed Johnson, with David Stuart and Daniel Carroll, to the commission that would lay out the federal capital in accordance with the Residence Act of 1790. In September 1791 the commissioners named the federal city "The City of Washington" and the federal district "The Territory of Columbia".[7]

On August 5, 1791, Johnson received a recess appointment from Washington to the seat on the U.S. Supreme Court that became available after John Rutledge resigned. Formally nominated on October 31, 1791, Johnson was confirmed by the United States Senate on November 7, 1791. Though he received his commission that day, he was not sworn in until August 6, 1792.[8] Johnson was the author of the Court's first written opinion, Georgia v. Brailsford, in 1792. He served on the court until January 16, 1793, when he resigned, citing his poor health and the difficulties of circuit-riding. His tenure of 163 days is the shortest, to date, of any Justice.[9]

Johnson suffered very poor health for many years, and cited it in declining Washington's 1795 offer to nominate him for Secretary of State, as Thomas Jefferson had recommended. He managed to deliver a eulogy for his friend George Washington at a birthday memorial service on February 22, 1800. On February 28, 1801, President John Adams named Johnson chief judge for the District of Columbia when first constituting that body.

Later years, death and legacy

His daughter Ann had married John Colin Grahame in 1788, and in his later years Johnson lived with them in a home they had built in Frederick, Maryland. The home, called Rose Hill Manor, is now a county park and open to the public. Governor Thomas Johnson High School is on half of the Rose Hill property.

He died at Rose Hill on October 26, 1819, and was originally buried in All Saints churchyard. His remains were removed and re-interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick.[10][11]

Johnson was one of the first investors in the Illinois-Wabash Company, which acquired a vast swath of land in Illinois directly from several Indian tribes. Soon after his death in 1819 his son Joshua Johnson and grandson Thomas Graham sued William M'Intosh in the landmark Supreme Court case Johnson v. M'Intosh. The case, which remains one of the most important property decisions in American history, determined that only the federal government could acquire Indian land, so Johnson's descendants did not have good title to the property.[12]

Other schools named after Thomas Johnson include Governor Thomas Johnson Middle School in Frederick, Maryland, Thomas Johnson Middle School in Lanham, Maryland and Thomas Johnson Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1978, the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge was opened to traffic. The bridge crosses the Patuxent River and connects Calvert County, Maryland with St. Mary's County, Maryland.

See also


  1. "Justices 1789 to Present". Supreme Court of the United States.
  2. Delaplaine, Edward S. (1927). "The Life of Thomas Johnson: Member of the Continental Congress, First Governor of Maryland, and Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court". Westminster, Maryland, US: Willow Bend Books: 492.
  3. "Secret Committee of Correspondence/Committee for Foreign Affairs, 1775–1777". U. S. Department of State. Archived from the original on 2010-02-28. Retrieved 2007-11-21.
  4. "Catoctin Iron Furnace". U. S. National Park Service.
  5. John Clifford, Mount Vernon Conference
  6. Compact of 1785 (1786 Md. Laws c. 1)
  7. Crew, Harvey W., Webb, William Bensing, Wooldridge, John (1892), Centennial History of the City of Washington, D.C., United Brethren Publishing House, Dayton, Ohio, Chapter IV. "Permanent Capital Site Selected", pp. 87–88, 101 in Google Books
  8. "Members of the Supreme Court from the Supreme Court of the United States" (PDF). Official website of the Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved July 21, 2013.
  9. "Oyez: Thomas Johnson". Oyez: U. S. Supreme Court Media.
  10. "Christensen, George A. (1983) Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices, Yearbook". Archived from the original on September 3, 2005. Retrieved 2005-09-03. Supreme Court Historical Society at Internet Archive.
  11. See also, Christensen, George A., Here Lies the Supreme Court: Revisited, Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 33 Issue 1, pp. 17–41 (19 Feb 2008), University of Alabama.
  12. Eric Kades, The Dark Side of Efficiency: Johnson v. M'Intosh and the Expropriation of American Indian Lands, 148 U. Penn. L. Rev. 1065 (2000)

Further reading

  • Abraham, Henry J. (1992). Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506557-3. 
  • Cushman, Clare (2001). The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1995 (2nd ed.). (Supreme Court Historical Society, Congressional Quarterly Books). ISBN 1-56802-126-7. 
  • Delaplaine, Edward (1998). The Life of Thomas Johnson: Member of the Continental Congress, First Governor of Maryland, and Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (paperback ed.). Heritage Books. ISBN 1-58549-687-1. 
  • Flanders, Henry. The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874 at Google Books.
  • Frank, John P. (1995). Friedman, Leon; Israel, Fred L., eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0-7910-1377-4. 
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed. (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505835-6. 
  • Martin, Fenton S.; Goehlert, Robert U. (1990). The U.S. Supreme Court: A Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Books. ISBN 0-87187-554-3. 
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. (1994). The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing. ISBN 0-8153-1176-1. 
Political offices
Preceded by
Robert Eden
as Royal Governor of Maryland
Governor of Maryland
Succeeded by
Thomas Lee
Legal offices
Preceded by
John Rutledge
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
William Paterson
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