Judge David Howell

Inducted: 2012
Born: 1747 - Died:

Howell, David, 1747-1824

David Howell had a distinguished legal and academic career that extended from the Confederation Era through the Early National Period. He was born in Morristown, New Jersey, on January 1, 1747, the son of Aaron and Sarah Howell. He received his early education at Hopewell Academy in Hopewell, New Jersey, a Baptist school established by clergyman Isaac Eaton. Howell then went to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), from which he graduated in 1766. He was preceded at both schools by James Manning, who was nine years older than Howell. When Manning became the founding president of the College of Rhode Island (now Brown University), he asked the young and promising Howell to join him as a member of the faculty. The newly graduated Howell came to Rhode Island in 1766 and began his 58-year association with Brown.

When instruction was interrupted in 1779 by use of the college’s facilities for quartering the French army, Howell became more active in the field of law, serving as a local justice of the peace in 1779 and as a judge of the state Court of Common Pleas in 1780. Two years later he became a Rhode Island delegate to the Confederation Congress, serving in that capacity until 1785, when he was succeeded by his colleague, the Reverend James Manning. In 1789 Howell became a Federalist supporter of ratification.

In 1786 the General Assembly elected Howell associate justice of Rhode Island’s Superior (i.e., Supreme) Court. In this capacity he was one of the five judges who heard the argument of James Mitchell Varnum urging the high court to declare unconstitutional the force act passed by the agrarian-controlled legislature to compel creditors and merchants to accept the state’s new issue of paper money or face fines and imprisonment. Although the court declined to enforce the law on a technicality, Howell accepted Varnum’s theory regarding the power of judicial review and defiantly stated that his “personal view” was that the act, because of its failure to provide trial by jury, “was indeed unconstitutional, had not the force of law, and could not be executed.”

In February 1789, Howell joined with Moses Brown, Theodore Foster, and other civic leaders to form the Providence Abolition Society, which they formally incorporated in June 1790. Howell was chosen the society’s president and Moses Brown its treasurer.

In 1790, Howell resumed his teaching duties at Brown with the title of professor of jurisprudence. Upon the death of his longtime colleague James Manning in July 1791, Howell became Brown’s interim president until the Reverend Jonathan Maxey filled the post in September 1792.

During the 1790s Howell divided his talents among law, teaching, and college administration, serving as secretary of the Brown corporation from 1780 to 1806. As a practicing attorney he earned a reputation as a skilled litigator.

Howell gravitated towards the emerging Democratic-Republican Party, and in 1801 Jefferson appointed him as U.S. attorney for the District of Rhode Island, a position he held for a year. Then, in 1812, Madison selected him as Rhode Island’s U.S. District Court judge. Howell served with distinction in this capacity until his death in July 1824 at the age of seventy-seven.

– (Dr.) Patrick T. Conley

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