William Cranch

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William Cranch
William Cranch.jpg
Chief Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia
In office
February 24, 1806 – September 1, 1855
Appointed by Thomas Jefferson
Preceded by William Kilty
Succeeded by James Dunlop
Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia
In office
March 3, 1801 – February 24, 1806
Appointed by John Adams
Preceded by Seat established
Succeeded by Allen Duckett
Reporter of Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
Preceded by Alexander Dallas
Succeeded by Henry Wheaton
Personal details
Born (1769-07-17)July 17, 1769
Weymouth, Massachusetts Bay, British America
Died September 1, 1855(1855-09-01) (aged 86)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting place Congressional Cemetery
Political party Federalist
Education Harvard University (BA)

William Cranch (July 17, 1769 – September 1, 1855) was an American attorney and judge. He was notable for his role as the second reporter of decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States and his long tenure as a judge on the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia.

Born in Weymouth, Massachusetts to clockmaker and legislator Richard Cranch and Mary (Smith) Cranch, William Cranch's mother was the sister of Abigail Adams. Cranch was educated in Weymouth, and graduated from Harvard College in 1787. He studied law, attained admission to the bar in 1790, and then relocated to Washington, DC, where he was the legal agent for a real estate company.

In 1800, Cranch was named federal Inspector of Public Buildings, an appointment he received from his uncle, President John Adams. In 1801, Adams appointed Cranch as an associate justice of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. He served until 1806, when he was appointed as the court's chief justice; Cranch served in this position until his death.

Cranch served as Reporter of Decisions for the United States Supreme Court from 1801 to 1815. The second individual to hold this post, Cranch served voluntarily, and produced his reports at his own expense. In addition to his work as a jurist, Cranch was also an author; he wrote a biography of John Adams, and also published reports on his court's decisions. Cranch died in Washington in 1855, and was buried at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington.

Early life[edit]

Born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, he was a nephew of Abigail Adams. His father was Richard Cranch, an English-born clockmaker and Massachusetts legislator and judge, and his mother was Mary Smith, the elder sister of Abigail Smith Adams. His uncle by marriage was John Adams, the second President of the United States. His first cousin was John Quincy Adams, the sixth President. William Cranch was educated in Weymouth, and prepared for college by studying with the Reverend John Shaw of Haverhill. He graduated from Harvard College with honors in 1787, studied law with Boston attorney Thomas Dawes, and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1790. From 1791 to 1800, Cranch worked as a legal agent for a real estate firm in Washington.


When land speculation bankrupted him, his uncle John Adams rescued him by appointing him to be Inspector of Public Buildings in 1800. Then, in 1801, Cranch was selected as one of the two associate justices for the District of Columbia Circuit Court. The nomination was put forth on February 28, 1801, and Cranch was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 3, 1801, receiving his commission the same day.

In 1805, Cranch became a member of the first board of Trustees for Public Schools and served on that board for 7 years.[1]

On February 21, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson elevated Cranch to Chief Judge of the Circuit Court, that seat having been vacated by William Kilty. Cranch's elevation was confirmed by the United States Senate on February 24, 1806. In this role he swore in two Presidents of the United States, John Tyler (in 1841) and Millard Fillmore (in 1850), each of whom assumed the presidency upon the death of his predecessor. Cranch would hold the position of Chief Judge in the District until his death in 1855.

While serving as a Circuit judge, Cranch also served as the second reporter of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1815. At the time, the reporter was an unofficial post and he used his own funds to produce the reports.[citation needed] Cranch took on the responsibility because of his respect for precedent.[citation needed] He was slow in producing his reports of cases and their accuracy was questioned.[citation needed]

During his tenure on the court, Cranch published a biography about Adams and edited his own volume of reports on civil and criminal cases from the District.[2] On February 3, 1826, the Columbian College board of trustees elected Cranch and William Thomas Carroll, Esq., as the first law professors. On June 13 of the same year, with President John Quincy Adams in attendance, Professor Cranch delivered the first law lecture in the court room of the City Hall. [3]

Cranch died in Washington, DC on September 1, 1855. He was buried at Congressional Cemetery.[4]

In 1871, the Cranch Public School Building, named in his honor, opened at the southwest corner of 12th and G, SE in Washington, DC. It was demolished in 1949.[1][5]


Cranch was elected an Associated Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1809[6] and a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1813.[7] During the 1820s, Cranch was a member of the prestigious society, Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, who counted among their members presidents Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams and many prominent men of the day, including well-known representatives of the military, government service, medical and other professions.[8]

Notable decisions[edit]

Cranch is also known for several decisions that set a precedent for jury nullification (allowing a jury to nullify an "unjust" law and refuse to convict), including:

Cranch also handed down important precedent in a variety of topics, for example in a criminal law case regarding the mens rea of intoxication, Cranch wrote:

Cranch died in Washington, D.C., aged 86.


William Cranch's daughter Abigail Adams Cranch married William Greenleaf Eliot. William Eliot and Abigail Cranch were the parents of Henry Ware Eliot and the grandparents of T. S. Eliot. Cranch had four sons; of these three, Christopher, Edward, and John, all became painters.[10]


  1. ^ a b Twenty-fifth Report of the Board of Trustees of Public Schools of the City of Washington, 1871-'72. M'Gill & Witherow,. 1872. p. 136. 
  2. ^ William Cranch, (United States. Circuit Court (District of Columbia) Reports of Cases Civil and Criminal in the United States Circuit
  3. ^ "Probing the Law School's Past: 1821-1962". gwu.edu. Archived from the original on 17 June 2010. Retrieved 4 May 2015. 
  4. ^ William Cranch at Find a Grave
  5. ^ "12th and G Street SE". The Ruined Capitol. Retrieved 21 June 2016. 
  6. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter C" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved September 8, 2016. 
  7. ^ "MemberListC". American Antiquarian Society. Retrieved 4 May 2015. 
  8. ^ Rathbun, Richard. The Columbian institute for the promotion of arts and sciences: A Washington Society of 1816-1838. Bulletin of the United States National Museum, October 18, 1917. Retrieved 2010-06-20. 
  9. ^ William Cranch, White, Edward G. 1988. The Marshall Court and Cultural Change, 1815–1835. Vols. 3 and 4, History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1815–1835. New York: Macmillan
  10. ^ David Bernard Dearinger; National Academy of Design (U.S.) (2004). Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design: 1826-1925. Hudson Hills. ISBN 978-1-55595-029-3. 


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Alexander Dallas
Reporter of Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
Henry Wheaton
New seat Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia
Succeeded by
Allen Duckett
Preceded by
William Kilty
Chief Judge of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia
Succeeded by
James Dunlop