Fifteen years after Thomas Jefferson nominated him to the Supreme Court, Justice William Johnson seriously considered resigning his position. On January 23, 1819, President Monroe gave Johnson a most remunerative way out, nominating him to be Collector of the Port of his native Charleston:
John Quincy Adams venomously confided to his diary on March 27, 1820 that Johnson was “a restless, turbulent, hot-headed, politician caballing Judge. . . . a place-hunter for himself and his brother, a carpenter in Charleston. He obtained, through [Treasury Secretary William] Crawford’s influence, the appointment of Collector of the port of Charleston, kept it two or three months, in doubt whether he would accept it or not, and then declined, attempting to bargain his brother into it in his place.” Even Donald Morgan, Johnson’s sympathetic biographer, believed the Justice’s friendship with Crawford was “a telling factor” in the nomination, but Johnson denied ever having sought presidential favors for his siblings.
At the time of his port-collector nomination, Johnson was receiving only a $3,500 judicial salary. His resignation vacillation may have influenced Congress’s decision to increase the salaries of Johnson and his colleagues by $1,000. After the pay-raising Act of Feb. 20, 1819, Johnson no longer felt “neglected by the government.” (When I first saw this nomination, I thought the offer to fill a much more lucrative post was a cunning attempt to seduce the Marshall Court’s contrarian into relative political obscurity. But Johnson almost certainly initiated the process himself.)
Johnson wrote to Crawford on March 31, 1819, knowing the letter would soon be made public. He had decided to remain on the Court: “I have finally, and upon the maturest deliberation satisfied myself, that I should not be able to silence my own reproaches, were I to suffer my interests or wishes to prevail. I feel most sensibly . . . that under existing circumstances my duty is to remain where I am.”
It surely didn’t hurt that the Court had delivered three momentous opinions (Dartmouth College v. Woodward, Sturges v. Crowninshield, and McCulloch v. Maryland) in the weeks since his nomination as Collector of the Port of Charleston. Delight in the Court’s enhanced role in national politics, despite talk of duty and public service, pervades the rest of his reply to Crawford: “The interesting aspect also that the business of the Supreme Court has lately exhibited, its acknowledged importance and weight in the Union, and the responsibility which it has been called on to assume, satisfy me that I ought not to appear to steal away from the discharge of those duties or from my share of that responsibility, in order to fill a station of less general and determinate importance to the Union, and susceptible of being discharged, with perhaps more ability, by so many others.”