Credible Commitments and the Early American Supreme Court


  • The author owes a special debt of gratitude to Amy Bridges for her insight and improvement of the manuscript. The author also would like to thank the many people whose comments on earlier versions have helped improve this article, particularly Gary Jacobson, Roy B. Flemming, Leslie Goldstein, Harry Hirsch, Victor Magagna, Martin Shapiro, Christopher Shortell, Heather Smith, and Jessica Trounstine. In addition, the anonymous reviewers, editors, and editorial board members of LSR were exceptionally helpful.

Please address correspondence to Charles A. Smith, School of Social Science, Department of Political Science, University of California–Irvine, 3151 Social Science Plaza, Irvine, CA 92697-5100, e-mail:


Conventional wisdom holds that the role of the U.S. federal judiciary was underspecified and undefined until the era of Chief Justice John Marshall. In contrast, I argue that prior to the Marshall era, the Supreme Court had the specific institutional role of providing an administrative remedy to aggrieved nations to deprive potentially hostile nations of any excuse for belligerence. Specifically, concern among the Framers about this nascent country's absence of dispute resolution mechanisms in the areas of trade and admiralty was critical in the institutional design of the judiciary. Original jurisdiction was designed primarily to remedy trade disputes. The independent judiciary made trade commitments more credible and self-help by the aggrieved less likely. By providing this administrative remedy and lowering the uncertainty associated with trading with revolutionaries, the Framers claimed a seat for the new country at the table of nations. Moreover, enhanced commercial credibility that the administrative avenue for redress provided was instrumental in the early economic development of the United States.