James Iredell, Chisholm, and the Eleventh Amendment


This paper is an analysis of the Supreme Court case Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) focusing on the dissent of Associate Justice James Iredell, and how that dissenting opinion helped pave the way for the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution in 1798.

Beginning with a sketch of Iredell’s background, it is clear that he was a Federalist, and philosophically had much in common with Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall. By a comparison of the majority to Iredell’s dissent based on the primary sources—the opinions, the following conclusions were drawn. Iredell viewed Article 3 Section 2 of the Constitution narrowly. In contrast, his colleagues viewed it liberally as not only a grant of jurisdiction to the Court, but also allowing a state to be a defendant. Over the years, Iredell’s dissent has been viewed as the foundation of the States Rights Doctrine, and he has been portrayed as a champion of state sovereignty. This was based on a biography written by Griffith John McRee in 1857, and not on Iredell’s opinion or any of his writings. As the article clearly shows, his opinion was based on his view of Article 3 Section 2 of the Constitution and his understanding of the law.

Iredell’s view of Article 3 Section 2 of the Constitution and his understanding of the law were philosophically equal to those of Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall. In fact, years before Marbury v Madison (1803) Iredell stated a key Federalist principle that would later become known as Judicial Review. Hamilton and Marshall viewed Article 3 Section 2 of the Constitution as narrowly as Iredell did, and no one would call them anti-Federalist. It is clear; McRee had an agenda and twisted Iredell’s opinion to serve his argument. It is additionally reasonable to conclude, that the avoidance of debt on the part of states was the major force behind the call for a constitutional amendment.

The Eleventh Amendment was, in some way based, on Iredell’s opinion, for the amendment did not preclude a state being sued by its own citizens. Iredell stated in his opinion that the citizens of a state convey its sovereignty upon it. Interestingly, the Eleventh Amendment was quickly introduced, but slowly ratified. North Carolina was the last state needed to ratify the amendment for it to become law. It took three years for the federal government to become aware of the adoption of the amendment. Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) was the first major Supreme Court case decided before 1800. Although, it had humble pre-Constitutional beginnings, and was in the end a dispute over a merchant’s bill, it was the first expression of our federalist system of government at work. It is for that reason that the case and Iredell’s dissent are important to the history of the Supreme Court.

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