James Iredell was one of the most active and important members of the United States Supreme Court during the 1790s. Although he was a strong nationalist and vigorous advocate of judicial power, he also was a political realist who understood, in a way that his contemporaries on the High Court did not, the widespread distrust of centralized government and an independent judiciary that existed in America following the AMERICAN REVOLUTION.
Iredell was the eldest son of a well-connected but financially troubled merchant from Bristol, England. When his father suffered a paralytic stroke, his mother's family, in 1768, arranged for him to become comptroller of the customs in Edenton, North Carolina. While performing his duties, Iredell studied law with Samuel Johnston, a leading member of the North Carolina bar, whose sister he married in 1773. Although he remained in the service of the king until the spring of 1776, his real sympathies were with the colonists, and after independence he became a firm supporter of the patriot cause. Following the break with England he served on a committee to revise old laws and draft new legislation to make government in North Carolina compatible with republicanism. He also helped create a judiciary system for the state, and reluctantly accepted an appointment as a Superior Court judge, a position from which he resigned after six months because he disliked riding circuit. In 1779 he was appointed attorney general of North Carolina.
In the sharp struggle that took place over the writing of a state constitution, Iredell sided with the more moderate and conservative Whigs who favored as few changes as possible from the old colonial form of government and wanted to see an independent judiciary, a strong executive, and property qualifications for voting. And in the political struggle of the 1780s, Iredell aligned himself with those who favored the enforcement of contracts, opposed debtor relief legislation, and defended the rights of Tories as protected by the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783. He denounced a number of laws adopted in the mid-1780s to confiscate Loyalist property, and in "An Address to the Public" in 1786 expressed his belief in the need for limitations upon the authority of the legislature: "I have no doubt but that the power of the Assembly is limited, and defined by the Constitution. It is the creature of the Constitution." Iredell further elaborated on how unbridled...