John McNairy, Andrew Jackson’s early friend and mentor, was one of Tennessee’s first federal judges. Variously reported to have been born in Pennsylvania or North Carolina, McNairy was the son of Francis and Mary Boyd McNairy. The young McNairy read law under Spruce Macay (as did Jackson) and was admitted to practice law in Rowan County, North Carolina, in 1784.
In December 1787 the twenty-five-year-old McNairy was elected by the North Carolina General Assembly as the judge for the new district Superior Court of Davidson County in the state’s westernmost territory. He immigrated to Nashville in the autumn of 1788. En route to his new home, McNairy was admitted to the bar in the Washington County court in Jonesborough. He presided at his initial term of court in early November 1788, and one of his first acts was to appoint his young friend, Andrew Jackson, as prosecuting attorney for the district.
In June 1790 President George Washington appointed McNairy, a protégé of territorial Governor William Blount, as one of three judges for the federal Territory South of the River Ohio. In 1796 Judge McNairy was one of five delegates from Davidson County to the state constitutional convention that met in Knoxville, where he served on the convention’s drafting committee. When Tennessee acquired statehood later that year, McNairy was elected as one of three judges to serve on the Superior Court of Tennessee, the state’s court of last resort and forerunner of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
In February 1797 President Washington appointed McNairy as judge of the United States District Court for the District of Tennessee, a position he held through various congressionally mandated jurisdictional changes. Beginning in 1807 and continuing for the remainder of his tenure on the bench, Judge McNairy also sat as a member of the Circuit Court of the United States for the Seventh Circuit in cases arising in Tennessee. He shared his circuit court duties with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices Thomas Todd (1807-26), Robert Trimble (1826-28), and John McLean (1830-33). McNairy retired from the bench in 1834 after a judicial career of more than forty-six years. He was known for decisions that upheld the spirit rather than the letter of the law.
McNairy’s substantial landholdings (nearly 11,000 acres in Davidson and Sumner counties in 1794) included the 477-acre farm Bellview, where he and his wife, Mary Bell Robertson, lived. In addition to his judicial duties, McNairy served as a trustee of the Davidson Academy, the consolidated Davidson Academy-Federal Seminary, and Cumberland College. He was chairman of the host committee for President James Monroe’s visit to Nashville in 1819 and served on a similar committee for the Marquis de Lafayette’s 1825 visit to the city. McNairy briefly served as president of the Bank of Tennessee that was created in the aftermath of Panic of 1819. Although he occasionally–and strenuously–quarreled with Jackson, McNairy endorsed his initial, unsuccessful presidential bid in 1824 and served on a committee of Nashvillians who supported Jackson’s second, successful race for the presidency in 1828.
McNairy died scarcely three years into his retirement. He is buried in Nashville’s City Cemetery.
James W. Ely Jr. and Theodore Brown Jr., eds., Legal Papers of Andrew Jackson (1987); Stephen S. Lawrence, “The Life and Times of John McNairy” (M.A. thesis, Middle Tennessee State University, 1971)