The early years of the federal judicial system were years of experimentation and trial. Volume III of The Documentary History of The Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800 details the workings of one experiment in particular - the practice of sending Supreme Court justices around the country to serve as judges at sessions of the various federal circuit courts. By law, Supreme Court justices were required to attend circuit courts held twice a year in each state. This volume chronicles the justices' circuit riding between the spring of 1795 and the fall of 1800.
After the assignment of each circuit the justices would travel great distances by horseback, boat, or carriage toward their appointed destinations, lodging in crowded public taverns and noisy stage houses along the way. Once at a circuit court, the justices had the duty of conducting the court's session, including charging the grand jury and presiding over sometimes intricate and lengthy trials. Among the important issues that faced the judges during the years 1795-1800 were upholding the supremacy of treaties over state law, the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the definition of federal crimes.
Volume iii of The Documentary History of Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800 includes court documents, newspaper accounts and correspondence of justices such as James Iredell, William Paterson, and Samuel Chase. In addition to letters written by the justices to their colleagues, relatives, and friends, there are also numerous letters from other government officials, including letters from President Adams and then Vice-President Jefferson to the justices, and others discussing the justices' work on the circuit. Together with many illustrations from the period, these documents provide a little known and unique view of the day-to-day life and work of the first justices of the Supreme Court. They should prove invaluable to legal scholars, constitutional historians, and others interested in the history of the American judicial system.