James Iredell was born on October 5, 1751 in Lewes, England. The eldest son of Francis and Margaret Iredell, he emigrated to the American Colonies at age 17 when his father’s health and business ventures started to fail. Through family connections, he gained the position of Comptroller of Customs for Port Roanoke, one of the few legal ports of entry in colonial North Carolina, and took up the office in the customs house in Edenton.
While working at the customs house, Iredell read law under Samuel Johnston (later governor of North Carolina), began the practice of law and was admitted to the bar in 1771.
Iredell did not warm to the idea of revolution easily. Yet, once convinced, he became the leading advocate for American Independence and focused a great deal on the inequities of the court systems imposed by the Crown. Even though he worked for King George, Iredell became a leading essayist advocating independence. Iredell is credited with establishing many key themes and ideas of the Declaration of Independence in a treatise he wrote, Principles of an American Whig.
After the 1787 convention at Philadelphia proposed a new federal Constitution, Iredell launched a public movement in North Carolina in favor of its adoption. When George Mason of Virginia published eleven objections to the document, Iredell responded in 1788 with his “Answers,” that complemented the Federalist Papers. His “Answers” were widely circulated, not only in North Carolina but in the rest of the emerging nation, as well.
In 1790, President George Washington was searching for ideal candidates to be nominated to the first U. S. Supreme Court. Among others, he chose a 38-year-old Edentonian by the name of James Iredell, Sr. Two days later, February 12th, the Senate confirmed Iredell who became the youngest member of the original Supreme Court.
Iredell is said to have worked closely with President George Washington and John Adams in establishing early standards of U.S. law. For example, in the recent (1999) Supreme Court case Alden v. Maine, the majority opinion referred to Iredell’s Chisholm opinion. Iredell contributed to the Supreme Court’s early body of thought and helped establish many points of law we continue to cherish. For example:
“The power of impeachment is given by this Constitution, to bring great offenders to punishment. It is calculated to bring them to punishment for crimes which it is not easy to describe, but which every one must be convinced is a high crime and misdemeanor against the government.”
“If they were punishable for exercising their own judgment, and not that of their constituents, no man who regarded his reputation would accept the office either of a Senator or President. Whatever mistake a man may make, he ought not to be punished for it, nor his posterity rendered infamous. But if a man be a villain, and wilfully abuses his trust, he is to be held up as a public offender, and ignominiously punished.”
“A public officer ought not to act from a principle of fear. Were he punishable for want of judgment, he would be continually in dread. But when he knows that nothing but real guilt can disgrace him, he may do his duty firmly if he be an honest man, and if he be not, a just fear of disgrace, may perhaps, as to the public, have nearly the effect of an intrinsic principle of virtue.”
“According to these principles, I suppose the only instances in which the President would be liable to impeachment, would be where he had received a bribe, or had acted from some corrupt motive or other.”
The grandson of a clergyman, James Iredell was a devout Anglican throughout his life and his writings display an interest in spirituality and metaphysics beyond a simple attachment to organized religion. In 1773, Iredell married Samuel Johnston’s sister Hannah and they had four children; only 3 survived. One of his sons, James Iredell, Jr. served a short period as the Democratic-Republican Governor of North Carolina and then as a U. S. Senator where he was a Jacksonian, the early Democrats of the Congress.
The home of James Iredell, Sr., is in Edenton and operated as a North Carolina Historic Site.
According to the National Park Service’s website about the Iredell House: