David Brearley (often spelled Brearly) - future signer of the United States Constitution -was born on June 11, 1745, at Spring Grove near Trenton, New Jersey, and was reared in the same area. He descended from a Yorkshire,England, family, and his ancestor migrated to New Jersey around 1680. He attended the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) but did not graduate. He received an honorary Master of Arts from the College of New Jersey in 1781. He studied law and began his law practice at Allentown, New Jersey. He married Elizabeth Mullen about 1767.
Brearley was an avid backer of the patriot cause of liberty. He was arrested by the British for high treason but was freed by a group of patriots. He was in the convention that drew up the New Jersey constitution in 1776. He served as a captain in the Monmouth County militia at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He moved up through the ranks until he made colonel in Nathaniel Heard’s New Jersey militia brigade. He served in the New Jersey Line of the Continental Army from 1776 until 1779 and saw action at Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth.
Brearley resigned from his army duties in 1779 to become the New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice. He succeeded Robert Morris in the position and then held the seat until 1789. In the famous Holmes v. Walton case, “he ruled that the judiciary had the authority to declare whether laws were unconstitutional or not.”
While attending the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Brearley chaired the Committee on Postponed Parts; this committee “played a substantial role in shaping the final document. The committee addressed questions related to the taxes, war making, patents and copyrights, relations with Indian tribes, and Franklin’s compromise to require money bills to originate in the house. The biggest issue they addressed was the presidency, and the final compromise was written by Madison with the committee’s input. They adopted the earlier plan for choosing the president by electoral college, and settled on the method of choosing the president if no candidate had an electoral college majority, which many such as Madison thought would be `nineteen times out of twenty.’ The committee also shorted the president’s term from seven years to four years, freed him to seek reelection, and moved impeachment trials from the courts to the Senate. They also created the vice president, whose only role was to succeed the president and preside over the Senate. This also transferred important powers from the Senate to the president, who was given the power (which had been given to the Senate by Rutledge’s committee) to make treaties and appoint ambassadors.” He signed the Constitution in 1787 and continued to actively advocate for it, chairing the New Jersey committee that approved the Constitution. In his spare time he was the first Grand Master of the New Jersey Masonic Lodge.
Brearley became a Presidential elector in1789 and was nominated by President George Washington on September 25, 1789, to fill the newly created seat as the first federal district judge for the United States district Court for the District of New Jersey. He was confirmed by the Senate on September 25, 1789, and received his commission on the following day. He died in that office a few months later on August 16, 1790, at age 45 and was buried in the churchyard of Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church in Trenton, New Jersey.
David Brearley’s legacy includes having David Brearley High School in Kenilworth (New Jersey), Brearley Street in Madison (Wisconsin), and Brearley Crescent in Waldwick (New Jersey) named in his honor.