The Richmond History Podcast

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gingrich's comments on Jefferson on the Courts

In the Fox Republican debate tonight Newt Gingrich, a historian by profession made a statement that Jefferson abolished courts in 1802 and that no one in 1802 disagreed with him.
What he was talking about was what became know as the "repeal act" also known as the "Judiciary Act of 1802".  His statement was historically true technically, but the idea of what he said was misleading.  The implication was, Jefferson redefined a long standing formulation of the Court, when in actuality it was only repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801 past 14 months earlier.
The 1801 Act created 16 judge ships to cover six judicial districts because the Supreme Court Justices were required to "ride circuit", or travel the country sitting on the lower courts, staying in what they called "public houses" (dorm style inns), and all on their own dime.  This also means they not only had to know the US Constitution but they also had to know all of the states laws because the cases could pertain to interstate problems.  The Supreme Court Justices were complaining and no one wanted these jobs.  The 1801 Act was highly controversial because it allowed John Adams the exiting President to appoint all of the new judges.  The incoming Republican Jefferson was obviously against the Federalist "Midnight Appointments" by the Federalist Adams.  Jefferson also didn't abolish courts.  There were 6 districts under the 1801 and 1802 acts. What he did do was to get rid of the appointments and go back to the original configuration of a mixture of state judges and federal judges.  In reaction to the complaints from the federal judges that got the 1801 act passed, Jefferson eliminated the summer session.  Jefferson also tried the only impeachment of a Justice in a few years latter when he didn't like what happened in Marbry v Madison.

As far as, no one disagreed, Jefferson's cousin, John "The Great Chief Justice" Marshall thought it was unconstitutional but let it go.  Oh, yea, most of the judges that didn't want to ride circuit, the judges appointed, and all of the Federalists disagreed with the 1802 act.  The only ones that did agree were really the republicans

This dismissal of the judges did also lay the ground work for Marbry v. Madison.

This site is all about learning and ideas, so if you disagree or think I am off base comment below but have sources.  I also don't want to say that Prof. Gingrich isn't smart or doesn't know his history, I am just clarifying what he said, it seems slightly misleading.  It also doesn't mean I disagree with his over arching point.

This is only addresses the part of these acts that were addressed by Mr. Gingrich for some more reading on the topic:


  1. I concur... what he said does appear to be misleading.

  2. I am related to John "The Fisrt Chief Justice" Marshall!

  3. That is great, have you ever been to his house in Richmond, VA? A very unique 18th century house because it was in the Marshall Family (your family) until it became a museum so everything in the house belonged to Marshall or at least to his descendants. Well worth your time.
    By the way, he was the "Great" not the "First". The distinction of first goes to John Jay.