Family wins ownership of 18th Century documents

ablythe@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2012 

— The state Court of Appeals settled a legal tug-of-war over ownership of 18th-century letters, manuscripts and other documents that once belonged to James Iredell, one of the first U.S. Supreme Court justices, and father of the state's 23rd governor.

The state Court of Appeals settled a legal tug-of-war over ownership of 18th-century letters, manuscripts and other documents that once belonged to James Iredell, one of the first U.S. Supreme Court justices, and father of the state's 23rd governor.

Though the papers have been in the custody of the state for a century — housed in the archives — a three-judge appeals court panel ruled this week that the documents belong to the distant family of the 18th-century statesman.

What happens next, though, is unclear.

The state has the records.

The family is deciding whether to sell them, donate them or collect them, according to Dan Brady, the Raleigh lawyer who represented the family of Iredell.

Harvey Wilson Johnson, a Raleigh octogenarian with direct family ties to Iredell, sued the state Department of Cultural Resources in 2008, staking a claim in a collection that includes Iredell's writings and a letter from a British king.

Johnson and other Iredell heirs argued in the suit that manuscripts and papers were lent, not given, to the state.

The state contended otherwise.

But a judge in Wake County Superior Court sided with the family. The appeals court upheld that decision.

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 allowed 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.

Iredell wrote often to his friends, family and colleagues. 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.

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 2008 lawsuit, 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.

Dan 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.

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.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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