John Blair, Jr. (Blair) was one of the best-trained jurists of his day. A legal scholar, he avoided the burly-burly of state politics, preferring to work behind the scenes. But he was devoted to the idea of a permanent union of the newly independent states and loyally supported fellow Virginians James Madison and George Washington at the Constitutional Convention. His greatest contribution as a Founding Father came not in Philadelphia, but later as a judge on the Virginia court of appeals and on the US Supreme Court, where he influenced the interpretation of the Constitution in a number of important decisions. Contemporaries praised Blair for such personal strengths as gentleness and benevolence, and for his ability to penetrate immediately to the heart of a legal question.
Blair, born Friday, January 4, 1732, in Williamsburg, VA was the son of John Blair, Sr and was a member of a prominent Virginia family. Blair Sr. served on the Virginia Council and was for a time acting Royal governor. His grand-uncle, James Blair, was founder and first president of the College of William and Mary. Blair attended William and Mary and in 1775 went to London to study law at the Middle Temple. Returning home to practice law, he was quickly thrust into public life, beginning his public career shortly after the close of the French and Indian War with his election to the seat reserved for the College of William and Mary in the House of Burgesses (1766-70). He went on to become clerk of the Royal Governor’s Council, the upper house of the colonial legislature (1770-75).
Blair originally joined the moderate wing of the Patriot cause. He opposed Patrick Henry’s extremist resolutions in protest of the Stamp Act, but the dissolution of the House of Burgesses by Parliament profoundly altered his views. In response to a series of Parliamentary taxes on the colonies, Blair joined George Washington and others in 1770 and again in 1774 to draft non-importation agreements which pledged their supporters to cease importing British goods until the taxes were repealed. In the latter year he reacted to Parliament’s passage of the Intolerable Acts by joining those calling for a Continental Congress and pledging support for the people of Boston who were suffering economic hardship because of Parliament’s actions.
When the Revolution began, Blair became deeply involved in the government of his state. He served as a member of the convention that drew up Virginia’s constitution (1776) and held a number of important committee positions, including a seat on the Committee of 28 that framed Virginia’s Declaration of Rights and plan of government. He served on the Privy Council, Governor Patrick Henry’s major advisory group (1776-78). The legislature elected him to a judgeship in the general court in 1778 and soon thereafter to the post of chief justice. He was also elected to Virginia’s high court of chancery (1780), where his colleague was George Wythe, later a fellow delegate to the Constitutional Convention. These judicial appointments automatically made Blair a member of Virginia’s first court of appeals. In 1786, the legislature, recognizing Blair’s prestige as a jurist, appointed him Thomas Jefferson’s successor on a committee revising Virginia’s laws.
Although a faithful attendee, Blair never addressed the Convention nor sat on any of its committees. When the question of how the President should be elected arose, he joined George Mason and Edmund Randolph in advocating election by the Congress, thus splitting the Virginia delegation. Coming to realize that his stand was weakening his delegation in the voting process and impeding the progress of the Convention, he abandoned his position and voted with Washington and Madison, whom, as a stalwart nationalist, he supported for the remainder of the Convention.
Blair returned to Williamsburg, where he supported the new Constitution in a heated ratification struggle that pitted him and his colleagues against opponents who included some of the greatest orators of the day. He continued to sit on the Virginia Court of Appeals, where he made a number of decisions important in the formation of Virginia jurisprudence. In Commonwealth vs. Posey, he based his decision on a 200-year-old precedent in English Common Law, thus establishing as a principle in American law that the accepted judicial understanding of a statute forms a part of the law itself and must be adhered to. More importantly, he and his colleagues on the court drafted a Remonstrance of the Judges that was successful in defending judges from the jurisdiction of the state legislature, thus preserving the principle of separation of powers in the state.
President George Washington, Blair’s longtime friend, chose him to be an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1789-96), where he was involved in several important constitutional cases. Commissioned on Wednesday, September 30, 1789, he was well known as a strict constructionist and could find no solution in the clauses of the Constitution to the question posed by Chisolm vs. Georgia concerning the right of an individual to sue a state. The Chisolm case led directly to the passage of the Eleventh Amendment, which declared that the states were immune from citizens’ suits. Blair considered the separation of powers the basis of political liberty. When Congress passed an act in 1792 subjecting certain judicial decisions to legislative review, Blair was among the justices who, using arguments from the Remonstrance, attacked the act as an infringement upon the independence of the courts. From the bench he also pressed his view that the central government had precedence over the governments of the states. In Penhallow et al. vs. Doane’s Administrators, Blair asserted this primacy by defending the power of the federal circuit courts to overturn the decisions of the state maritime courts. He served on that court for 5 years, 8 months and 23 days. Resigning that post on 25 October 1795, he spent his remaining years in Williamsburg. A widower, his wife (born Jean Balfour) having died in 1792, he lived quietly until he succumbed on 31 August 1800. He was 68 years old. His tomb is in the graveyard of Bruton Parish Church, Williamsburg, VA.