Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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JOHNSON, William, jurist, born in Charleston, South Carolina, 27 December, 1771; died in Brooklyn, New York, 11 August, 1834. His father, William Johnson, was of an English family which settled in Holland after the revolution in 1660, assumed the name of Jansen, and emigrated to New Amsterdam. By resuming its English name, on the cession of the colony to the Duke of York, the family lost the benefit of the grant to Jansen, within the limits of which a part of the city of New York is now built. William removed to Charleston, and General Christopher Gadsden said he first set the ball of revolution rolling in South Carolina. He represented the city in the general assembly of the state until age obliged him to retire. The son was graduated at Princeton in 1790 with the highest honors of his class, studied law in the office of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and was admitted to the bar in 1793. He was elected to represent Charleston in the legislatures of 1794-'6 and 1796-'8, and after his last election was chosen speaker of the house of representatives. At this session the court of common pleas was organized, and William Johnson, Louis Trezevant, and Ephraim Ramsey were made judges. On 6 March, 1804, he was appointed an associate justice of the United States supreme court, he was an ardent supporter of the constitutional principles advocated by Thomas Jefferson. In May, 1808, the collector of the port of Charleston, acting under the authority of the embargo act and the instructions of the president of the United States through the secretary of the treasury, which prohibited vessels from carrying goods from American ports, refused clearances to five ships. The question of the right of the president to give such an order was submitted by consent to Justice Johnson, on a motion for a mandamus to the collector, directing him to issue such clearances. Justice Johnson decided that the order was without warrant in law and ordered the mandamus to issue, and the vessels named were cleared. Mr. Jefferson referred all the proceedings of the circuit court of South Carolina in the mandamus proceedings to Cesar A. Rodney, United States attorney-general, who prepared an elaborate discussion, attacking the conduct of Justice Johnson, and insisting that the executive department must of necessity be. independent of the judicial, and that the decision of the South Carolina court if submitted to would make the latter department subordinate to the former. Justice Johnson replied by a vigorous discussion in the public press. During his judicial career he constantly resisted the extension of the admiralty jurisdiction, then being pressed by Mr. Justice Story and some of his associates upon the bench of the supreme court. When the nullification agitation arose in South Carolina in 1831-'3, Justice Johnson found himself arrayed against the great body of his fellow-citizens. Believing that his judicial position required complete neutrality, he absented himself from the state, and during the summer of 1833 resided in western Pennsylvania. Princeton gave him the degree of LL. D. in 1818. He edited "The Life and Correspondence of Major-General Nathanael Greene," with annotations (2 vols., Charleston, 1822).--His brother, Joseph, physician, born in Charleston, South Carolina, 15 June, 1776; died there, 6 October, 1862, was graduated at the Charleston college in 1793, and received his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1797. He began to practise medicine in Charleston, and in 1807 was made president of the Medical society of South Carolina. He was president of the United States branch bank from 1818 till 1825, and ranger of Charleston in 1826. He was an active leader in the nullification controversy, and an efficient worker in the literary and philosophical societies. For many years he was commissioner of the public schools, was president of the Apprentices' library association from its establishment in 1826, for more than sixty years a member of the South Carolina society, and for twenty years its presiding officer, he published, besides many treatises, essays, and orations, "Traditions and Reminiscences of the Revolution" (Charleston, 1851).
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