Thompson, Smith

Born: 1768-01-17 Dutchess County, New York

Died: 1843-12-18 Poughkeepsie, New York


Thompson was a New York politician, a judge, and an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. After attending common school in the county of his birth, Thompson attended the College of New Jersey (Princeton), graduating in 1788. He taught school in Troy, New York before commencing a three-year law apprenticeship at the law firm of Gilbert Livingston and James Kent. Gilbert eventually replaced Kent as Livingston's partner, and in 1794, he married Livingston's daughter Sarah; the couple would have four children. Capitalizing on his father-in-law's connections with New York Governor George Clinton, Thompson won a term in the New York State Assembly from 1800 to 1801. In 1801, he participated in the "do nothing" state constitutional convention. Thompson received appointment to the New York Supreme Court in 1802. Assigned to the Council of Revision, Thompson consistently endorsed bank charters, leading to a rift between the Livingston and Clinton factions of the Democratic-Republican Party in New York. Thompson would eventually gravitate to Martin Van Buren's Bucktail faction. Thompson remained on the New York State Supreme Court until 1818, serving as chief justice from 1814 to 1818. When the Bucktails gained control over the New York political machine, Thompson became a candidate for federal patronage, and in 1818, President James Monroe appointed him secretary of the navy. Thompson remained in that position until 1823, when Monroe nominated him to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Thompson's acceptance of the nomination caused a permanent rift between him and Van Buren. Thompson's chief contribution to the court was in interpreting the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Unlike John Marshall, who argued that Congress had exclusive power to regulate commerce, Thompson contented that states could regulate commerce and conditions for conducting business as long as state laws did not explicitly nullify congressional legislation. As a spokesman for his former mentor Kent, Thompson was a transitional figure between the John Marshall and Roger B. Taney courts on the issue of state action. A National Republican with a strong affinity for John Quincy Adams and his administration, Thompson developed a strong antipathy for Andrew Jackson, and his anti-Jackson feelings may have influenced his decisions in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Kendall v. United States, ex rel. Stokes (1838), two of his most significant opinions while on the court.

In 1834, Sarah Thompson died, and Smith married her cousin, Eliza Livingston, with whom he would have three additional children. He remained on the Supreme Court until his death.

Gravestone, Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery, Poughkeepsie, NY; Donald M. Roper, "Thompson, Smith," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 21:578-80; Donald M. Roper, "Thompson, Smith," The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, ed. by Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely, Jr., and Joel B. Grossman, 2nd ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1018-19.