The first Georgian appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, James Moore Wayne served a historically long tenure, from 1835 to 1867, during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. Although his legal legacy and impact are limited, he played a significant, if understated, role on the Court at a time when its position within the nation’s governmental system was still developing.

Early Life and Education

Wayne was born in Savannah in 1790 to Elizabeth Clifford and Richard Wayne. His father came to the American colonies from Yorkshire, England, as a member of the British army and settled in Charleston, South Carolina. Foreshadowing his son’s own divided loyalties during the Civil War (1861-65), the senior Wayne fought on both sides during the Revolutionary War (1775-83). After the war he moved his family to Savannah.

James Moore Wayne
James Moore Wayne

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Wayne was tutored at home in Savannah before entering the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), from which he graduated in 1808. Returning to Georgia, he studied law with a local Savannah attorney. After his father’s death in 1809, Wayne headed back north to study with Judge Charles Chauncey in New Haven, Connecticut. He returned to Savannah in 1810 and gained admission to the state bar in 1811.

Wayne’s developing professional career was interrupted by service in a volunteer cavalry unit during the War of 1812 (1812-15). In 1813 he married Mary Johnson Campbell, the daughter of a prominent lawyer in Richmond, Virginia. The union, which lasted until Wayne’s death, produced three children.

Political Beginnings

As the young couple became active in the Savannah social scene, Wayne entered the political arena. In 1815 he won the first of two terms in the Georgia state legislature, followed by a stint as mayor of Savannah. After two years he returned to private legal practice. Although his private practice was growing, he found time to complement it with part-time work as a judge on Savannah’s newly created Court of Common Pleas. This post led in 1822 to his election by the state legislature to the Georgia Superior Court. (In 1821 a house in Savannah designed for Moore by prominent architect William Jay was completed; the home later became the birthplace of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low.)

After six years on the Georgia Superior Court, Wayne won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1828. Coming into office with U.S. president Andrew Jackson, Wayne proved an ardent and loyal supporter of the Tennessee Democrat. Wayne supported Jackson’s denial of sovereignty to the Cherokee Indians in Georgia and their subsequent removal to the western territories. He also backed Jackson’s veto of the bank recharter bill and supported the 1833 Force Bill, which helped to end the nullification crisis with South Carolina. Wayne later served as president of the Georgia Historical Society, from 1841 to 1854, and then again from 1856 to 1862.

Appointment to U.S. Supreme Court

The combination of his staunch political support for Jackson and his years of judicial experience made Wayne a strong candidate in 1834 to succeed Justice William Johnson on the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court. Also in his favor was the fact that Georgia had yet to be represented on the nation’s highest court. Jackson’s nomination of Wayne on January 7, 1835, sailed through the Senate and won immediate confirmation.

Wayne joined a court in transition. Chief Justice John Marshall’s death in July 1835, combined with the appointment of six justices by Jackson and an additional two by his successor, Martin Van Buren, left a radically altered judicial landscape. The new court, headed by Jackson stalwart Roger Taney, was a body ready to build upon the Marshall Court’s foundation while contending with the issues confronting the still-young nation.

In contrast to many of the era’s southern statesmen, Wayne was committed to most of the Marshall Court’s fundamental principles. One colleague called him “one of the most high-toned federalists on the bench,” and that approach led to his dissent in arguably the most important commercial case of the Taney era, Cooley v. Board of Port Wardens of Philadelphia (1852). While the Court upheld a Pennsylvania statute requiring a fee from any ship that used the port of Philadelphia without employing a local pilot, Wayne dissented, believing that the power to regulate interstate commerce belonged only to the U.S. Congress.

Stance on Slavery and Civil War

That same belief in exclusive congressional power led Wayne to vote with the Court’s majority in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), a case involving the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Though he kept people as property and vigorously defended the institution of slavery in other cases, Wayne supported the majority decision, which determined that the power to address fugitives from slavery and their return resided solely with Congress, and that states could not pass legislation either helping or hindering that process.

His legal and personal views collided again in the most famous case of his tenure, Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), in which the Court ruled that enslaved persons were not U.S. citizens and therefore did not enjoy the rights and protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The Court also ruled in Dred Scott that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which restricted the expansion of slavery into portions of the western territories, was unconstitutional.

Although Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott carried the greatest weight, Wayne played a significant role in the ultimate outcome. Having long believed that limitations on slavery like those central to the Missouri Compromise were intrusions on the rights of slave owners, Wayne refused to let the Court issue a narrow, technically based ruling. Instead, he advocated forcefully for a broader approach, pushing the Court to use the Dred Scott case to bring about what he hoped would be a final resolution to the slavery question. His own opinion, a concurrence, provided the most complete support of Taney’s effort than did any of the opinions offered by the other members of the Court.

The onset of the Civil War marked the final chapter in Wayne’s long judicial career. While his colleague John Archibald Campbell, a Georgia native and Alabama resident, resigned to serve the Confederacy, and Wayne’s own son left the U.S. Army to fight for the Confederacy, the nationalistic Wayne, believing that there was no legal justification for secession and seeking to represent Southern interests on the nation’s highest court, remained at his post. He was the only justice from the Deep South to do so, and his decision was met with scorn and derision by those in his home state. Throughout the war, Wayne continued to take a national view, supporting U.S. president Abraham Lincoln in a number of cases central to his efforts to preserve the union.

Once the war ended, however, Wayne’s Southern loyalties reasserted themselves. He returned home in an effort to mend fences, and his efforts on the bench were often aimed at preventing the punishment of the South. He also refused to act as a circuit judge in those states placed under military control during Reconstruction. Wayne’s Court service ended abruptly on July 5, 1867, when he died after contracting typhoid fever. His tenure of more than thirty-two years is one of the longest in Court history.

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James Moore Wayne

James Moore Wayne

James Moore Wayne, pictured circa 1850, was a Savannah native and the first Georgian appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He served as a justice from 1835 to 1867, one of the longest tenures in the Court's history.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division