James Witherell

James Witherell

Served from 1808 through 1828

Chief Justice: 1824, 1825, 1826

James Witherell was born in Mansfield, Massachusetts, on June 16, 1759. He served through the greater part of the Revolutionary War, entering service as a private and rising to the rank of Adjutant in a Massachusetts regiment. Witherell was severely wounded at the Battle of White Plains. He studied medicine and law, and settled in Vermont where he held many positions of trust, including that of Judge, member of the Governor’s Council, and of the Legislature.

He was elected to Congress in 1807. Prior to his resignation, he participated in the debate and eventually voted for the Act that abolished the slave trade, which was passed in 1808. He resigned his seat to accept an appointment by President Thomas Jefferson as one of the Judges of the Supreme Court for the Territory of Michigan.

In January of 1828, after service of 20 years, Witherell relinquished the judgeship to become Secretary of the Territory, as he was appointed by President John Quincy Adams. Once President Andrew Jackson took office, there was a movement in Michigan to influence Jackson so he would not reappoint Witherell. “A petition against him was addressed to the President on January 29, 1830, protesting his service on account of his age, but the main objection involved his actions in a runaway slave incident shortly after he had taken office in 1828. His refusal to issue a required certificate indirectly contributed to the escape of slaves.” Witherell held the position of Secretary until May of 1830. During the first three months of 1830, he was acting Governor. (Gilpin, Alec. R. The Territory of Michigan: 1805 – 1837. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1970.)

He was married on November 11, 1790 to Amy Hawkins and the couple had six children. His son, B.F. Witherell, later became a Justice on the Michigan Supreme Court and his grandson was Senator Thomas W. Palmer.

James Witherell died in his Detroit home on January 9, 1838.

(Michigan Biographies. Vol. II L – Z. Lansing: Michigan Historical Commission, 1924.)

James Witherell