Open main menu

Alexander Wolcott (1758–1828) was a United States politician, customs inspector, and nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States. Nominated by James Madison in 1811, to replace the late William Cushing, Wolcott became only the second Supreme Court nominee to be rejected by the Senate in US history, by a vote of 9-24.

Alexander Wolcott
Personal details
Born(1758-09-15)September 15, 1758
Windsor, Connecticut, British
DiedJune 26, 1828(1828-06-26) (aged 69)
Middletown, Connecticut, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic-Republican
Spouse(s)Frances Burbank (1785–1800)
Lucy Waldo (1807–1828)
Children2 daughters
2 sons
EducationYale University (BA)


Early and family lifeEdit

Wolcott was born in Windsor, Connecticut, on September 15, 1758 to Mary Richards Wolcott. Her husband (his father), also Alexander Wolcott, was a medical doctor who assisted the Patriot forces during the American Revolutionary War.[1] He had an elder half sister, Lydia Wolcott Austin (1737-1820) as well as two sisters--Esther Wolcott Treat (1749-1841) and Elizabeth Wolcott Wolcott (1763-1817)--and a brother, Guy Wolcott (1763-1823). The younger Alexander Wolcott attended Yale College, where he studied law and graduated in 1778. He went on to practice law in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

After marrying Frances Burbank in 1785, he settled in Middletown, Connecticut.[2] They would have two sons and two daughters. Their son, Alexander Wolcott Jr. (or III)(1790-1830) would also attend Yale, became a surgeon's mate during the War of 1812 and then had a private medical practice in Boston and Vincennes, Indiana before becoming the federal Indian Agent for the Great Lakes region (as well as marry in 1823), but died in Chicago not long after his father's demise in Connecticut.[3]

Political role in ConnecticutEdit

Wolcott served as the Democratic-Republican Party's leader in the Connecticut General Assembly from 1796 to 1801.[4] In 1800, Democratic-Republicans in Connecticut formally organised for the Thomas Jefferson campaign for President. The inaugural meeting took place at the residence of Pierpont Edwards in New Haven, Connecticut, and Wolcott was among the leaders in Connecticut that was a supporter of the campaign.[5] After the 1800 presidential election, Wolcott was one of the Connecticut Republicans that the administration consulted on appointments.[4] In July 1801, Jefferson appointed him as collector of customs as Middletown, a position that was worth $3,000 at the time and he held until his death. Pierpont Edwards had insisted that Wolcott was brought in to replace the previous collector of customs, described as "a violent, irritable, priest-ridden, implacable, ferocious federalist".[5]

In the 1802 Connecticut elections, Wolcott was involved in a controversy where he was accused of profligacy by a close friend of his, Senator Uriah Tracy. In a letter to Senator James Hillhouse, who had also joined Tracy in accusing Wolcott of profligacy, Wolcott said "If I am a profligate man, to prove it will not be difficult, nor to you an unpleasant task."[5] Prior to elections in April 1804, a pamphlet, allegedly written by Federalist David Daggett, accused Wolcott of striving "to destroy the state" and "unworthy of any trust or respect".[5]

In 1806, Wolcott caused a scandal by accusing Federalists of having "priests and deacons, judges and justices, sheriffs and surveyors, with a host of corporations and privileged orders, to aid their elections." He went on to say "Let it be known that plain men, without titles or hope of offices, can do better than the mercenary troops of Federalism."[5] In 1807, Wolcott was the prosecutor in a case where Azel Backus had been accused of libeling Jefferson. With Pierpont Edwards as the judge, there were widespread accusations of bias, as both were fervent supporters of Jefferson.[5]

Supreme Court nominationEdit

Wolcott was nominated by President James Madison to the US Supreme Court in 1811 to fill a vacancy left by the death of William Cushing. He had not been Madison's first choice, as he had nominated former US Attorney General Levi Lincoln already in January 1811. Despite being confirmed by the Senate, Lincoln refused the honor. Madison's decision to nominate Wolcott was taken for primarily political reasons. Although Wolcott was recognized as a leader among Republicans, and Lincoln supported his nomination, many others criticized Madison and his choice.[2] The Columbian Centinel wrote that "Even those most acquainted with modern degeneracy were astounded at his abominable nomination."[6] The New-York Gazette Advertiser decried his nomination by writing "Oh degraded Country! How humiliating to the friends of moral virtue -- of religion and of all that is dear to the lover of his Country!"[7]

Opposition to Wolcott's nomination centered on two main reasons: his lack of judicial experience and his role as a customs inspector. Wolcott was widely believed to be unqualified and incapable of serving in such an important judicial position. On the second point, Wolcott was criticized for his strict enforcement and support of the Embargo Act of 1807. The law, passed under Jefferson, prevented goods from England, France, and other countries, from entering the US. It was extremely unpopular among merchants and farmers whose profits were significantly harmed by the law.[2]

Wolcott's nomination was received by the Senate on February 4, 1811. It was referred to a select committee of three members, making him the only nominee referred to a committee prior to the creation of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1816. The committee voted on his nomination on February 13, and later that day he was referred to the Senate floor, where he was rejected by a vote of 9-24.[8] This was despite the Democratic-Republican Party having a 28 to 6 majority in the Senate.[9]

Wolcott's nomination was only the second to have been rejected in US history, the one prior to it being John Rutledge's rejection in 1795 as George Washington's nominee for Chief Justice.[8] It had been rejected nine days after its receipt by the Senate. Prior to 1816, this was the longest period of deliberation by the Senate over a Supreme Court nominee, and the only one longer than seven days.[8] After his rejection, Madison nominated John Quincy Adams, who also passed in the Senate but turned down the appointment. The seat eventually went to Joseph Story, who became the youngest person to have sat on the Supreme Court.

Role in the 1815–18 depression and later politicsEdit

After peace was made, following the War of 1812, the British made a policy of selling their goods at a loss in order to harm budding American manufacturers who might attempt to sell to the European markets. This caused a commercial depression in the United States from 1815 to 1818. In 1816, a tariff was brought in, which aided manufacturers, although some New England cotton and wool manufacturers remained discontented. The Connecticut Society for the Encouragement of Manufactures was formed during this depression. Wolcott took a leadership position, and was known as the "boss". Among its other leaders were Thomas Macdonough, Titus Hosmer, and Asher Miller, a close associate of the Governor. Its purpose was to advance manufacturers "in every legitimate way".[5]

Wolcott led the delegation of Republicans to the convention on the Constitution of Connecticut in 1818.[10] He sparked controversy at the convention by supporting the expulsion of any judge who declared a legislative act unconstitutional, effectively taking a position in opposition to judicial review.[2] John Milton Niles, a colleague of Wolcott, described him after his death as someone who "more than any other individual, deserves to be considered as the father and founder of the Jeffersonian school of politics [in Connecticut]."[10]

Death and legacyEdit

Wolcott died in 1828, survived by one of his sisters as well as his son. He is buried in Middltown's Mortimer cemetery.[11]


  1. ^ Sons of the American Revolution of William H Higby of Streator, Illinois dated November 4, 1897 and citing Wolcott geneaology, available on
  2. ^ a b c d "Alexander Wolcott". Free Legal Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b "To Thomas Jefferson from Alexander Wolcott, 18 March 1803". Founders Online. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Purcell, Richard J. (1918). Connecticut in Transition, 1775-1818. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 135, 232, 241, 247, 268–269, 273, 277.
  6. ^ "Battlefield: Supreme Court". New York Times. July 3, 2005. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  7. ^ Holzel, David (July 14, 2009). "8 nominees who didn't go to the Supreme Court". CNN. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  8. ^ a b c Rutkus, Denis Steven; Bearden, Maureen (2006). Supreme Court Nomination, 1789-2006: Actions by the Senate, the Judiciary, and the President. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. pp. 5, 10, 14, 19.
  9. ^ Lawrence, Mark (September 15, 1987). "Supreme Court Nominees Rejected by the Senate". Washington Post. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  10. ^ a b Trumbull, J. Hammond (1901). Historical notes on the constitutions of Connecticut, 1639-1818. Hartford Press. p. 54.
  11. ^