Today in history, on Oct. 5, 1751, James Iredell was born. A brilliant figure of the founding era, he was a legal prodigy at an extremely young age, and played an integral role in North Carolina’s transition from colonialism to republicanism.
Just prior to the American War for Independence, he penned the pamphlet called “To the Inhabitants of Great Britain,” which espoused his constitutional arguments against the British concept of Parliamentary sovereignty.
This principle, which was incorporated into the British unwritten constitution following the Glorious Revolution, held that parliamentary policies superseded any sectional power balances held by Britain’s colonies and its king.
In support of the finalized United States Constitution, his most significant contribution to North Carolina’s ratification campaign was his insistence that the state governments would retain their present judicial authority under the new model. He did this by describing the Constitution as an instrument that prevented the federal government from encroaching upon issues outside of its own defined jurisdiction:
“When Congress passes a law consistent with the Constitution, it is to be binding on the people. If Congress, under pretense of executing one power, should, in fact, usurp another, they will violate the Constitution.”
Unlike some of his more famous, ambitious Federalist peers, Iredell’s greatest distinction was that he remained firmly consistent with the constitutional principles he espoused during the ratification campaign in North Carolina. Holding to this mantra, he was appointed as one of George Washington’s original six Supreme Court justices, and he remained on the court until he died in 1799.
Iredell’s most heroic post-ratification stance came through his dissent in the 1793 case of Chisholm v. Georgia, an early federal attempt to expand the power of the federal judiciary. His sentiments spurred Congress and states to draft and ratify the 11th Amendment, which essentially overturned the court’s opinion and reiterated the state power of sovereign immunity.