This Week in History: Controversy in the Court


John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  Appointed by George Washington, Jay held the office from October 19, 1789 to June 29, 1795.  The Chief Justice was succeeded by John Rutledge when he traded his robes to become Governor of New York.

John Rutledge
John Rutledge

Less than one month after his appointment, Rutledge began to lose many of his supporters.  On July 16, 1795, he delivered an address criticizing John Jay’s own eponymous treaty, the Jay Treaty.  Also known as the “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and The United States of America,” the Jay Treaty helped resolve the tension lingering after the American Revolution and reinstate an amicable trading relationship between America and Great Britain.

The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789 to 1800 writes that Boston’s Independent Chronicle featured a report on Rutledge’s speech in August of 1795.  Documentary elucidates “that he had rather the President should die than sign that puerile instrument and that he preferred war to an adoption of it” (780).

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The Jay Treaty

This public denouncement angered the many Federalists who fervently supported the Jay Treaty.  Unfortunately for Rutledge, he was still in the appointment phase of his position as Chief Justice – the Senate had yet to finalize and legitimize his nomination. Soon, people questioned Rutledge’s mental stability, and by December, the Senate voted against Washington’s nomination of Rutledge in the first Senatorial rejection of a presidential appointment.  Oliver Ellsworth became the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court a few months later (Senate.Gov).

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