William Cushing Keeps His Wig On
William Cushing was a leading Massachusetts Justices before and during the Revolutionary War.
Afterward, he became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Unites States of America.
Although it was then still considered Massachusetts, William Cushing was the first practicing lawyer in today's State of Maine.
He excelled in this position and, by the time he was 40, was asked to take over his father’s job.
The thing is, his father didn’t just run a small family business. Cushing’s father sat on the Superior Court of Massachusetts. William, just 40 years old, found himself as one of the most important judges in the whole colony.
Chief Justice of Massachusetts
Soon after his appointment, Great Britain began passing the Intolerable Acts. One of these Acts stated that colonial judges would no longer be paid by the people, but instead by the Crown.
This change made many of the people extremely angry. Cushing, for his part, did not make any public statements regarding these decisions, but he did decide to turn down any payment until the decision was put back in the hands of the colonists.
Although this was done quietly, it did not go unnoticed by the people of Massachusetts. After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Provincial Assembly reorganized the court system. When this was done, William Cushing was the only justice who was asked to maintain his position.
The following year, John Adams was chosen as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court. Busy with the Continental Congress (overseeing a war and starting a government and such), Adams never attended to his duties on the Court. He resigned soon thereafter and Cushing was asked to replace him.
William Cushing would spend the next twelve years a Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court.
His most important cases involved the elimination of slavery in the State. His opinion written for the case of Commonwealth v. Jennison states, in part, “…our Constitution…sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal…and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution.”
And with these word, William Cushing outlawed slavery in Massachusetts.
During the tensions surrounding Shay’s Rebellion, Cushing demanded that county courts stay in session. This despite the fact that they were a major target of the rebel’s outrage.
Afterwards, during the Constitutional Ratifying Conventions (the Constitution having been written, in part, as a response to Shay’s Rebellion), Cushing sat as vice president during the debates.
The Supreme Court
Cushing resigned is position as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court in 1789. This was only because he received a promotion…he was appointed by George Washington as one of the original Associate Justices of the United States Supreme Court.
William would go on to be the longest serving member of that first team. He was asked by Washington to be the Third Chief Justice but declined due to ill health and remained as an Associate Justice. (Which is strange because he stayed on the Supreme Court for 15 more years.)
William Cushing spent the entire Founding Period as an important Judge. Although he was surrounded by change throughout his career, he held out on one very peculiar tradition.
Cushing continued (and was the last American judge) to wear a fake wig while presiding over court cases. As he was the old man in the room, everyone else just let it slide.
To learn more on Cushing's effect on the Founding of America, check out 'The Supreme Court in the Early Republic.' Grab it at the library or through the affiliate link below if you'd like to support this site (at no additional cost to you!).
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