James Iredell . . . was a prolific letter writer.
His scrawled communications to family, friends and 18th-century colleagues offer a rich and textured glimpse of the infancy of this country and state. The words of the political essayist and ardent Federalist once were transported by horseback over a land he would help shape.
The “collection . . . contains many of Iredell’s writings and a letter from King George V. [Litigant Harvey Wilson] Johnson and other Iredell heirs say the manuscripts and papers were lent, not given, to the state a century ago.”
“They’re extraordinarily valuable,” said Willis Whichard, a former state Supreme Court justice who has written a book about Iredell. “The collection offers quite a window into the formation of the national government and its courts.
Iredell, who hailed from Lewes, England, immigrated to North Carolina in 1767 when he was 17. His father, a merchant, had fallen ill and his business had failed. . . .
Once there, he studied law under Samuel Johnston, who would become North Carolina’s sixth governor.
Though he was employed by the British government, Iredell became a strong supporter of independence from parliamentary rule for the colonies. . . .
At 23, he authored “To The Inhabitants of Great Britain,” becoming one of the most influential political essayists at the time.
He also was influential in North Carolina. In the late 1770s, he helped organize the court system that allows his heirs to wrangle over ownership of his letters and manuscripts.
. . . On Feb. 10, 1790, when Iredell was 38, George Washington nominated him to the Supreme Court, putting him in line for a post that would keep him on the road and away from family.
“He wanted to hear from people,” Whichard said. “He would fuss at his family and friends if he wasn’t getting mail from them.”
His nine years on the court circuit took a toll on his health. He died in October 1799, weeks after his 48th birthday. He left behind a widow and three children, including a 10-year-old son, his namesake, who would become a U.S. senator and the state’s 23rd governor.
History of the bench
In recent years, scholars have realized the dearth of materials about the Supreme Court before John Marshall, the fourth justice who is credited with helping to shape American constitutional law. Because of that, the papers of justices are becoming more valuable in academic circles.
Many of the papers and manuscripts of Iredell and his politically successful son were passed from family member to family member until they ended up with Col. Charles E. Johnson, brother of James Iredell Johnson, who served 12 years as Raleigh’s mayor in the early part of the 20th century.
Other descendants of Justice Iredell and relatives of Col. Johnson have contributed to the collection. Former Raleigh Mayor James Iredell Johnson donated a letter from King George V on Sept. 1, 1918. Cousins donated an oil portrait of former Gov. Iredell.
A letter signed by Iredell is for sale on the Live Auctioneers Web site, and though the asking price is $3,000 the starting bid is $1,000.
Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection have Iredell manuscripts, as does an Eastern North Carolina society dedicated to the statesmen. But most known materials are housed in the state archives.
“It would be tragic for those papers to get into private hands where they might not be properly preserved or available for scholarly research,” Whichard said.