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William Tilghman

William Tilghman (August 12, 1756 – April 29, 1827) was an American lawyer, politician, jurist and statesman from Maryland. He served one term each as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and as a state senator, before moving in 1793 to Philadelphia, where he had gone to college. He continued to hold his property of plantation and slaves in Maryland.

After some years of private practice, he was appointed as a justice to the Philadelphia and state courts. In 1805, he was named as Chief Justice on the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, where he served from 1806 to his death in 1827. In 1811, when Tilghman ran for Governor of Pennsylvania, which had abolished slavery in 1780, he began to emancipate his slaves. He was not elected.

Early life and education

Born in Talbot County, Maryland, Tilghman was the nephew of Matthew Tilghman and brother of Tench Tilghman. Tilghman received an A.B. from the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania in 1772, and read law to enter the bar in 1783.


Tilghman returned to Maryland, where he was in private practice in Talbot County, Maryland from 1783 to 1788. He also had a plantation worked by slaves. He was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates from 1788 to 1790, attending the Maryland Constitutional Convention in 1788, and serving as a presidential elector for the state in 1789. He was elected to the Maryland State Senate, serving from 1791 to 1793.

Following that service, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1793, where he practiced law privately from 1794 to 1801.

On February 26, 1801, Tilghman was nominated by President John Adams to a new seat as a federal judge on the United States circuit court for the Third Circuit, created by 2 Stat. 89. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 2, 1801, and received his commission the next day. He served as chief judge of the circuit throughout his tenure, but his service was terminated on March 8, 1802, due to abolition of the court.

Tilghman returned to private practice in Philadelphia from 1802 to 1805. He was appointed as President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia in 1805, and a judge of the Pennsylvania High Court of Errors and Appeals until 1806.

Appointed as Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1805, he served from 1806 until his death, in 1827, in Philadelphia.

In 1780 Pennsylvania had passed a law for gradual abolition of slavery, and Tilghman as a justice ruled in several freedom suits. The law required the registration of existing slaves at the time, who were considered "servants for life," and of children born in future years to former slave women now considered servants for life. While legally free at birth, such children were required to provide 28 years of what was effectively indentured service to their mother's master before attaining full freedom as adults. Questions related to registration and its influence on freedom of individuals came to be settled by judicial interpretation. Tilghman eventually dominated the court.[1]

Before him, justices had argued that the registration requirements of gradual emancipation law should be strictly construed, and resolved in favor of liberty for plaintiffs. Tilghman disagreed and as early as 1810, began to move the court to a more neutral stance that gave more weight to property rights.[1] After about a decade, he appeared to consider the act to be in aid of "adjustment of interests." In two freedom suits, he demonstrated his agreement with the "legislative recognition of masters' qualified property rights."[1] When John B. Gibson succeeded Tilghman as Chief Justice, he argued more in favor of liberty in such cases.[1]

In 1811, perhaps because of his campaign for election as governor, Tilghman began emancipating slaves he still held on plantations in Maryland, but he was overall a weak anti-slavery figure.[1]

That year, Tilghman ran for Governor of Pennsylvania as a Federalist candidate, but he lost to Simon Snyder, a Jeffersonian Democrat.

A member of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Tilghman served as its president from 1824 to his death in 1827.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Robert M. Cover, Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975, pp. 62-64

External links

Legal offices
Preceded by
Edward Shippen (III)
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Succeeded by
John B. Gibson

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