One of the greatest legal minds of the founding generation was also one of the most reserved and unobtrusive.
On many levels, James Iredell differed from his peers. Outspoken Federalist from New York, John Jay, became the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Prominent Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph was selected by George Washington to be the first Attorney General. Patrick Henry, who was an incredibly effective lawyer, became known as one of the greatest orators of his time.
James Iredell did none of this – he was plainly overshadowed and eclipsed by his haughtier peers. Still, his life is worth studying for his unshakable consistency to the constitutional principles he espoused.
After a modest upbringing in Lewes, England, Iredell immigrated to Edenton, North Carolina, at the age of 17. For a time, he collected custom duties from Port Roanoke in Edenton. He began to study law under the tutelage of one of the most prominent lawyer in North Carolina, Samuel Johnston. At an extremely young age, he completed the training necessary to practice before North Carolina and passed the bar in 1771.
Unquestionably, Iredell was a legal prodigy. He immersed himself in most important legal literature of his time, and devoted his life to the pursuit of legal knowledge. He was well acquainted with the British constitutional system, especially the work of William Blackstone. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England was the most important English legal treatise, and Iredell grasped its maxims like few others in America.
Ironically, it was a disagreement with Blackstone’s treatise that propelled redell’s rise to fame. Just prior to the American War for Independence, he penned a pamphlet, To the Inhabitants of Great Britain, which espoused his constitutional arguments against the British concept of Parliamentary sovereignty. This principle, which was incorporated into the British unwritten constitution following the Glorious Revolution, held that parliamentary policies superseded any sectional power balances held by Britain’s colonies and its king.
Iredell gave several reasons to refute this principle. First, he noted that the colonial charters were bestowed upon the colonies long before the principle of parliamentary sovereignty was instituted and accepted in England. He wrote that American colonies had been safeguarded “by the severe labor and virtue of their ancestors.” Iredell wrote that colonial forefathers had come abroad “with the utmost difficulty, expense, and hazard, and for many years almost entirely at their own risk….by their own and their children’s labor.”
This argument was echoed the same year by Thomas Jefferson in his famous pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Both men insisted that the toils, struggles, and risks their ancestors took to establish and preserve the colonies superseded the original act of parliamentary sanction. As such, the colonies were built on the backs of previous generations of inhabitants, not the crown.
Since the colonies developed separate identities, with local legislatures and autonomous governments, they were considered by Iredell to be federalized units of the whole. The common attachment the colonies shared with other parts of British Empire was to the king, not to a singular legislature.
Iredell also insisted that it is a government’s responsibility to provide happiness for its people. Ignoring this precept, Iredell reasoned, would invalidate the legitimacy of such a government. “A free government can only subsist by the general confidence of the people,” he wrote. When policy is formulated, all parts should play a role in its foundation:
“Where an empire is divided into several different and distinct states, the aggregated good of all these ought to be consulted. For where would be the justice to regard only one or two of these as worthy of the care and tender provision of laws, and expose the rest to chance, or the very uncertain, whimsical caprice, or mean rapacity of the others?”
Iredell wrote that the natural condition of mankind was happiness, and that the denial of this value is an unnatural displacement of this temperament. Government transgression in this area would be “totally destructive of this universal right.” Associating this principle with the lack of colonial representation in British Parliament, Iredell considered Britain negligent of American happiness.
On the question of whether acts of British Parliament should be binding on American colonies, Iredell made his opinion unmistakable. “This is not the condition of freemen