Judiciary Act of 1801: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:00 Federalists & Anti-Federalists
  • 1:35 Adams Administration &…
  • 3:09 Federal Judiciary Act of 1801
  • 4:29 Impact & Legacy
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Judiciary Act of 1801 was a partisan political attempt by Federalists in Congress and the John Adams administration to pack the Federal courts with Federalists. It was soon overturned by Jeffersonian Republicans.

Federalists and Anti-Federalists

In the early years of the United States, the nation had significant growing pains when it came to politics. The Constitution of 1787 established a Federal government with a legislative, judicial, and executive branch. However, the relations between these branches, which were divided under the idea of separation of powers, were not always smooth. The Judiciary Act of 1801, which was a partisan political attempt by Federalists in Congress and the John Adams administration to pack the federal courts with Federalists, is one excellent example.

When the Constitution was signed and later ratified, it had both its supporters and its critics. Those who supported the Constitution were known as Federalists, while those who opposed the Constitution were Anti-Federalists. Federalists were in favor of a stronger Federal government while the Anti-Federalists believed that the powers granted to the new Federal government under the Constitution were too much and threatened the liberties of the people. Ultimately, the Federalists won in the short-term. The nation's first president, George Washington, was a Federalist, and under his administration Federalists were able to pass numerous pieces of key legislation and place justices in the nation's court system, especially the U.S. Supreme Court which was initially created with six members.

During these years, however, the opposition to strong Federal government did not die. While many came to embrace the Constitution, those such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison still wanted to see safeguards placed on the actions of the Federal government.

Adams Administration and 1800 Election

In 1796, John Adams was elected the second President of the United States. His administration, which was also Federalist, continued many of Washington's policies. However, Adams went much further than Washington in several areas, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which criminalized criticisms of the president and his administration. Specifically, Federal courts were used to prosecute those who criticized Federalists, in effect, politicizing the courts. In response, a strong political opposition emerged with Thomas Jefferson as its leader. This was the beginning of the Democratic Republican Party, which was more appropriately known at the time as the Republicans or Jeffersonian Republicans.

In 1800, the nation had one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the two leading candidates, along with Aaron Burr, who many had assumed would be Jefferson's Vice President. Adams came in third in the electoral college vote, and a tie between Burr and Jefferson went to the House of Representatives. Ultimately, Jefferson won in a very messy and contested affair, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many on both sides of the political spectrum.

After the election, there was a short time before Jefferson and many of his political adherents were sworn in to their new offices. Thus, numerous Federalists, including President Adams, were lame ducks. In this spirit, they passed the Federal Judiciary Act of 1801, one of the most drastic pieces of political legislation in American history.

The Judiciary Act of 1801

The Federal Judiciary Act was meant to transform the Federal judiciary branch into a Federalist stronghold, the likes of which the Jeffersonian Republicans would not be able to circumvent to implement their agenda. The Act specifically did several things. First, the Act reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from the original six to five. More importantly, the Justices no longer had the responsibility of 'riding the circuit,' or overseeing various Federal courts by traveling and hearing cases. Before, the Justices had the responsibility of not only sitting on the Supreme Court, but working on various Federal courts set in in regions of the country. The 1801 Act ended this by creating six new Federal circuit courts in various regions of the country. These courts were run by sixteen new Federal judges, all of whom were to be appointed by President Adams.

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