October 30 is the 285th anniversary of the birth of John Adams. Most historians believe that it was fortuitous that Adams, serving in London as U.S. minister to Great Britain, did not attend the Constitutional Convention because he would have been a disruptive force who would have opposed compromise. Although physically not present in the Convention, Adams was there in spirit, and he had a profound impact on the shape of the new Constitution proposed in September 1787.
Increasingly, federal judicial appointments have become enmeshed in partisan politics. The first significant partisanship over judicial appointments occurred during the waning days of the administration of John Adams as the lame duck Federalist Congress and President tried to stifle the anticipated radicalism of the incoming Jefferson administration. Within his last three weeks in office, President Adams made many judicial appointments that were confirmed by the Senate. Denounced as Adams’s “midnight appointments,” they set the stage for a persistent conflict between the judiciary and the other branches of the federal government as well as a growing conflict between the jurisdiction of the federal and state judiciaries.
Judicial appointments are critically important, especially appointments to the Supreme Court. In implementing the Constitution, President George Washington nominated all of the Supreme Court justices and all of the federal district judges. He developed criteria that helped him to select “the fittest characters to expound the laws, and dispense justice” because “the happiness of our country and the stability of its’ political system” depended on it.
After declaring their independence from a despotic British monarchy, Americans strongly supported the creation of democratic republics with most authority given to state assemblies. Within a decade, however, most Americans believed that the Articles of Confederation, the country’s first constitution proposed by the Continental Congress in November 1777, needed to be revised. A Constitutional Convention met for four months and proposed a new Constitution that contained many anti-democratic provisions that inspired an intense public debate over the nature of government and how best to preserve liberty.
On 6 October 1787, James Wilson, a prominent Philadelphia attorney and a former delegate to the Constitutional Convention, delivered perhaps the single most important speech in the public debate over the ratification of the Constitution. Wilson asserted that a bill of rights was unnecessary because Congress possessed only delegated powers, none of which could violate long-cherished personal rights and the authority of state governments. Furthermore, Wilson suggested that republics did not need bills of rights to protect the people from their own representatives. Reprinted throughout the country, Wilson’s position became the standard Federalist argument.