Long-dead judge sparks a lively tug of war

staff writerDecember 20, 2010 

— James Iredell, one of the first U.S. Supreme Court justices, and father of the state's 23rd governor, was a prolific letter writer.

His scrawled communications to family, friends and 18th-century colleagues offer a rich and textured glimpse of the infancy of this country and state. The words of the political essayist and ardent Federalist once were transported by horseback over a land he would help shape. They are at the root of a legal battle in Wake County Superior Court.

Harvey Wilson Johnson, a Raleigh octogenarian with direct family ties to the 18th-century statesman, has sued the state Department of Cultural Resources and state archives, staking a claim on a collection that contains many of Iredell's writings and a letter from King George V. Johnson and other Iredell heirs say the manuscripts and papers were lent, not given, to the state a century ago.

The state disputes that.

Johnson and his attorney, Dan Brady of Raleigh, declined to comment on the case while it is in litigation.

Representatives of the state also declined to comment.

Judge Ripley Rand is reviewing legal issues surrounding the case. The state argued this month for dismissal of the matter, saying many deadlines had come and gone for Johnson and other Iredell heirs to claim or challenge ownership of the collection.

Johnson and seven other family members from around the country who joined the suit argued against that.

Though the documents filed in Wake County focus mostly on the legal debate, the letters and manuscripts at the center of the controversy give researchers details about the early days of the country's highest court.

"They're extraordinarily valuable," said Willis Whichard, a former state Supreme Court justice who has written a book about Iredell. "The collection offers quite a window into the formation of the national government and its courts."

Long way from home

Iredell, who hailed from Lewes, England, immigrated to North Carolina in 1767 when he was 17. His father, a merchant, had fallen ill and his business had failed. The teen relied on relatives to get work with the British government as a comptroller at the Albemarle Sound port in Edenton.

Once there, he studied law under Samuel Johnston, who would become North Carolina's sixth governor.

Iredell gained admittance to the bar and married his mentor's sister as revolution stirred the colonies. Though he was employed by the British government, Iredell became a strong supporter of independence from parliamentary rule for the colonies. By sharing his opinions in a well-distributed essay "To The Inhabitants of Great Britain," he became one of the most influential political essayists of his time in North Carolina - at just 23 years old.

In an earlier treatise, his thoughts predated, but echoed, many of the themes in the Declaration of Independence, putting the young lawyer in good standing with many of the country's founders.

He also was influential in North Carolina. In the late 1770s, he helped organize the court system that allows his heirs to wrangle over ownership of his letters and manuscripts.

As a leading Federalist in North Carolina and a strong supporter of the U.S. Constitution, Iredell reaped national rewards from his political allies. On Feb. 10, 1790, when Iredell was 38, George Washington nominated him to the Supreme Court, putting him in line for a post that would keep him on the road and away from family.

Not only were there no smart phones, the Pony Express was still decades away. Nevertheless, Iredell wrote often to his friends, family and colleagues. He even penned copies of the letters, Whichard said.

"He wanted to hear from people," Whichard said. "He would fuss at his family and friends if he wasn't getting mail from them."

His nine years on the court circuit took a toll on his health. He died in October 1799, weeks after his 48th birthday. He left behind a widow and three children, including a 10-year-old son, his namesake, who would become a U.S. senator and the state's 23rd governor.

History of the bench

In recent years, scholars have realized the dearth of materials about the Supreme Court before John Marshall, the fourth justice who is credited with helping to shape American constitutional law. Because of that, the papers of justices are becoming more valuable in academic circles.

Many of the papers and manuscripts of Iredell and his politically successful son were passed from family member to family member until they ended up with Col. Charles E. Johnson, brother of James Iredell Johnson, who served 12 years as Raleigh's mayor in the early part of the 20th century.

In December 1910, according to the lawsuit in the Wake County courts, Col. Johnson handed over documents to the N.C. Historical Commission, now the state Department of Cultural Resources. R.D.W. Connor, secretary of the commission, acknowledged the transfer in a letter dated Dec. 14, 1910.

On Dec. 21, 1910, Col. Johnson reminded Connor that he reserved "the right of recall and repossession at any time if I see fit." But according to documents submitted by the state in support of its argument, Johnson "indicated that he did not intend to take any other actions" at that time.

Other descendants of Justice Iredell and relatives of Col. Johnson have contributed to the collection. Former Raleigh Mayor James Iredell Johnson donated a letter from King George V on Sept. 1, 1918. Cousins donated an oil portrait of former Gov. Iredell.

Brady, the attorney representing Harvey Wilson Johnson, suggested in a letter to the cultural resources department that his client be given $3 million in compensation, court documents show.

A letter signed by Iredell is for sale on the Live Auctioneers Web site, and though the asking price is $3,000 the starting bid is $1,000.

Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill's Southern Historical Collection have Iredell manuscripts, as does an Eastern North Carolina society dedicated to the statesmen. But most known materials are housed in the state archives.

"It would be tragic for those papers to get into private hands where they might not be properly preserved or available for scholarly research," Whichard said.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4948

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