Born in Lewes, England (October 5, 1751), Iredell spent his childhood in Bristol. The eldest of five sons born to Francis and Margaret McCulloh Iredell, he was forced to leave school after his father suffered a debilitating stroke in 1766. With the assistance of relatives, Iredell came to America in 1768 to accept an appointment as Comptroller of the Customs in Port Roanoke in Edenton, N.C. The young man’s salary was sent directly to his parents. As a gregarious person, Iredell quickly made friends, including many of the most talented citizens of Edenton. He began legal studies under the tutelage of Samuel Johnston (1733-1816), who would later serve as governor of North Carolina. Iredell also married Johnston’s sister, Hannah, in 1773.
In 1770 Iredell was licensed to practice law in the lower courts of the colony, and in 1774 he was allowed to practice law in the superior courts. In 1774 he was also promoted to Collector of the Port at Edenton. During this period Iredell published various tracts urging a healing of relations between England and America, while expressing concern about the violation of the colonists chartered rights as Englishmen. With great precision and restraint Iredell presented a series of thoughtful commentaries that served as a defense of the American position. The central problem of the English system, according to Iredell, was a weak judiciary, unable to defend the constitution against the usurpations of Parliament and the Crown.
Iredell was appointed to serve on a committee to revise the statues of North Carolina in 1776, and elected by the general assembly to serve as a superior court judge, the equivalent of a state supreme court judicial post, in 1777; he served is this capacity for six months. After serving as North Carolina’s attorney general, Iredell returned to his law practice, and continued to defend colonists’ position in his speeches and writings. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, Iredell was a highly respected jurist and legal theorist.
Iredell proceeded to serve as President of the Council of State, and was elected as a delegate to the North Carolina’s first ratifying convention. Under the pseudonym “Marcus” Iredell had already published an essay entitled “Answers to Mr. Mason’s Objections to the New Constitution,” defending the Constitution as a moderate document that would correct the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. He was one of the most articulate and influential of the Federalist advocates of the Constitution; however, as Iredell had anticipated, the initial attempt at ratification failed. A second convention was held in November 1789 and the Constitution was ratified. In defense of the Constitution, Iredell stated that “no power can be exercised but what is expressly given.” For Iredell, the adoption of the Constitution was an improvement because it provided for a separation of powers and affirmed state sovereignty. His thoughtful defense of the need for ratification attracted many admirers, including President George Washington, who appointed Iredell to the Supreme Court on February 10, 1790.
As an associate justice Iredell was an original thinker and representative of Southern Federalism. In his decisions and legal analysis he differed substantially from his colleagues, including Chief Justice John Jay and Justice James Wilson. In the case of Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the judiciary’s first re-evaluation of the federal arrangement after ratification, Iredell provided the lone dissent, arguing that a citizen of one state could not sue another state in federal court. The other justices claimed the plaintiff had a right to be heard. Iredell suggested that “each state in the Union is sovereign as to all powers reserved.” In 1798 the states ratified the Eleventh Amendment, which overturned the Chisholm decision and affirmed Iredell’s criticism of implied power and defense of state authority. As the first justice of the Supreme Court to articulate a strict constructionist view of the Constitution, Iredell was a representative of a school of interpretation that continues to influence judicial decision-making. Iredell died in his beloved Edenton, North Carolina, on October 20, 1799.