Marshall, John

views updated May 17 2018

Marshall, John

Born September 24, 1755 (Germantown, Virginia)
Died July 6, 1835 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

John Marshall grew up as a Virginia gentleman who was accepted into the most famous group of national leaders this nation ever produced. His fellow Virginian revolutionaries included George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; see entry in volume 1), James Madison (1751–1836; see entry in volume 2), and Edmund Randolph (1753–1813; see entry in volume 2). In January 1801, the U.S. Senate approved Marshall as chief justice of the Supreme Court. At the time, it was a weak federal position. Over the next thirty-four years, however, Marshall made it into one of the most powerful positions in the national government.

"An act of the legislature, repugnant to the Constitution, is void. This theory is essentially attached to a written constitution, and is consequently to be considered, by this Court, as one of the fundamental principles of our society."

In his court position, Marshall assumed the role of chief defender of the U.S. Constitution. He also resolved numerous conflicts between state and federal governments. Marshall took part in over one thousand court decisions, writing the court's opinion on approximately half of them. His defense and interpretation of the Constitution laid the foundation for a strong nation. His decisions also created the legal field of constitutional law as it would be practiced for the next two centuries.

Marshall treated the Constitution as a law made by the people through their representatives at the Constitutional Convention. Marshall did not consider it an agreement among states as others at the time did. Therefore, the Constitution assumed a supreme role in American law. Marshall also supported a broad interpretation of the Constitution that claimed the existence of implied (unwritten) powers possessed by the Supreme Court to carry out the responsibilities specifically assigned to the government. In the early 1790s, Federalist Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1) believed these implied powers existed when Hamilton supported the establishment of the National Bank of the United States over James Madison's objections that it was unconstitutional. By protecting contracts, including corporate charters, from state law restrictions, Marshall's Supreme Court decisions also played a major role in stabilizing U.S. finances.

Through his force of personality, Marshall made the federal judiciary a major branch of government as anticipated in the Constitution. The Supreme Court became equal in power, influence, and prestige to the president and Congress of the United States. He shaped what many still considered a federation of states into a more unified nation.

Youth on the frontier

The oldest of fifteen children, John Marshall was born to Thomas and Mary Marshall in September 1755 on a plantation near Germantown, Virginia. His father rose up in society from a common background while his mother was from the wealthy Randolph family of Virginia. Marshall grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Virginia frontier, which in 1759 became Fauquier County. His father was successful in land speculation, making him one of the wealthiest Virginians in Fauquier County. John would later become a successful land speculator himself. Land speculation is the buying of undeveloped frontier land cheaply with the intent of later reselling it to settlers at a higher price, making a profit. It was a common means of gaining wealth in the early American period.

Marshall received a limited formal education as a youth, but his family paid close attention to world affairs and valued education. His father served in Virginia's House of Burgesses (the colonial legislature) and brought John books on politics. Marshall was also tutored in the literary classics and Latin. However, young Marshall's formal schooling was cut short after only two years when the American Revolutionary War (1775–83) broke out. Nonetheless, throughout his life, Marshall drew on the intellectual influences of his childhood and combined them with the skills of a frontiersman in creating a rugged, self-reliant person.

Revolutionary War

With the outbreak of the war in 1775, Marshall became an officer in the Virginia militia with his father. He then became an officer in the regular Continental Army in 1776 and served under General Washington for the next three years. He fought in many important battles, including engagements at Brandywine, Germantown, Stony Point, and Monmouth. He also wintered with General Washington and his troops at Valley Forge in 1777-78.

Marshall also served as a judge in the military justice system for the Continental Army. It was his first experience in the administration of justice. While still in the army, in 1780, Marshall had the opportunity to attend a series of lectures on law by the prominent legal scholar George Wythe (1726–1806) at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. Wythe also instructed Jefferson and later Henry Clay (1777–1852; see entry in volume 1) in law. Deciding on a law career, Marshall gained his license to practice law in August 1780, and he left military service the following year in 1781.

While attending Wythe's classes in Williamsburg, Marshall met Mary Ambler, known as "Polly." Her father was the state treasurer of Virginia. After three years of courtship, they married in January 1783 and settled in Richmond, Virginia, where Marshall's law practice grew rapidly. They had ten children, but Polly suffered a mental breakdown when she had a miscarriage. Though she was left partly an invalid, Marshall cared for her, and their special strong relationship persisted throughout their marriage.

Virginia's top lawyer

In his law practice, Marshall showed a strong gift for oratory, a charismatic personality, and the ability to think quickly. These qualities led to his fast rise in Virginia's legal profession and in politics. Marshall was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates from 1782 to 1784, 1787 to 1791, and 1795 to 1797. In June 1788, Marshall was a delegate to the Virginia convention for ratifying the new U.S. Constitution and supported the constitution's adoption. Not surprisingly, the section of the constitution that he most strongly supported concerned the creation of the new federal judiciary.

In the process of forming the new government in 1789, the newly elected President Washington offered Marshall the position of U.S. attorney in Virginia. However, Marshall chose to remain in the Virginia legislature. As political parties formed through the 1790s, Marshall became a leading Federalist in Virginia. Federalists supported the need for a strong central government.

Marshall continued to rise in national prominence through the 1790s. Aligning himself with President Washington and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, the recognized national leader of the Federalist Party, Marshall actively supported the unpopular Jay Treaty (a settlement with Britain) in 1795. Marshall even presented one case concerning a land dispute before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1796. In his courtroom pleas, he argued for a strong national government. The Federalist Party encouraged him to run for Congress, but he refused that as well. His law practice was doing too well. He remained a strong supporter of President Washington as controversies over foreign and economic policy grew through the mid-1790s, and he rallied Virginia leaders behind the Jay Treaty with Britain in 1795.

Public service

Despite his rise in politics, Marshall carefully selected the public posts he assumed. President Washington offered him the attorney general position and a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, but he declined both. In 1797, President John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801; see entry in volume 1) sent Marshall with other U.S. diplomats to France to negotiate a treaty. They were to resolve growing disputes between the two nations; causes for the disputes included France's raid of many U.S. merchant ships engaged in war against Britain. When French officials tried to bribe the U.S. delegation before they allowed a meeting with the French foreign minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838), Marshall and the others protested and left. They returned to America in June 1798 as heroes for refusing to give in to the French corruption.

Upon Marshall's return from France, President Adams offered him an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, but again he declined. Encouraged by former President Washington to run for Congress, in 1798 Marshall was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. There, he became a leading Federalist and supporter of Adams. After again declining an appointment as secretary of war, Marshall finally accepted the appointment by Adams as secretary of state in May 1800. In this position, Marshall became a strong supporter and chief personal advisor to Adams during the final year of his administration. Later in 1800, when Adams took leave from Washington, D.C., to return to his Massachusetts home for several months, Marshall essentially ran the country.

When Supreme Court chief justice Oliver Ellsworth (1745–1807) resigned due to ill health in late 1800, Adams's first choice to succeed him was Federalist John Jay (1745–1829; see entry in volume 1), who had served as the first chief justice in the early 1790s. However, Jay declined, in part because the position lacked power and any real authority. Adams then turned to Marshall, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on January 27, 1801. Marshall also continued to serve as secretary of state until March 4 when the Adams administration came to an end.

Having lost the presidential election to Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson and with Congress also strongly favoring Democratic-Republican candidates, Adams hoped to keep the federal courts as a Federalist stronghold through last-minute maneuvers before leaving office. The Federalist-controlled Congress passed the 1801 Judiciary Act, which created new federal courts, and Adams, with Marshall as close advisor, proceeded to make many federal court appointments during his last days.

Chief justice

Marshall took his seat on the Court in March 1801 and served in that position through the remainder of his life, for some thirty-four years. He was exceptionally knowledgeable in law and government operations. He was also very bright and could quickly understand and analyze complex legal issues. Marshall, through his personal abilities of charm and intellect, brought the Court above politics and brought about a major transformation in the judiciary. Party affiliation of the justices became less of a factor, and for a time the Court was strongly unified.

As in England, the U.S. Supreme Court through the 1790s made rulings on cases with each justice delivering a separate opinion on the case. However, in a young nation with its legal system barely formed, this approach only added confusion to this early period. Marshall established a rule that the Court issue a single opinion in cases. The unified rulings offered considerable legal certainty to the nation and greatly increased the Court's influence. During this time, the justices were housed together while in Washington, D.C., for the annual Court session that lasted several weeks. As a result, they constantly interacted on the issues before them. In this atmosphere, Marshall, who was open to different views and willing to change his own opinion, was often able to reach consensus (full agreement) among the Court justices.

The first years of Marshall's time on the Court were turbulent as the Democratic-Republicans led by President Jefferson, now in power, challenged Federalist judges. In 1803, fellow Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase (1741–1811) was impeached (charged by Congress) for injecting his strong Federalist views in the courtroom. Vice President Aaron Burr (1756–1836; see entry in volume 1) presided over the trial in the Senate, and Chase was found not guilty. Before long, political battles decreased, and a greater calm surrounded the Court.

The trial of Aaron Burr

Burr, himself, became a defendant when he was charged with treason in the summer of 1807. After leaving office a couple of years earlier, Burr became involved in mysterious plots that possibly involved invading Mexico or transforming the region of the United States west of the Appalachians into a separate nation. The trial was held in the U.S. Circuit Court in Richmond. Marshall was the presiding judge. During this time, the Supreme Court justices still sat on U.S. Circuit Courts around the country when the Supreme Court was not in session. The Supreme Court met in the winter, and the circuit courts met in spring and fall.

Burr was found not guilty. Many, including President Jefferson, who was pressing hard for a conviction, blamed the unsuccessful prosecution directly on Marshall, who gave the jury such a narrow definition of treason that a finding of guilty was almost impossible. The Democratic-Republican Jefferson felt the Federalist Marshall had taken the action to politically frustrate him.

Judicial power

In addition to reforming the Court's operating procedures, Marshall brought even more change through individual case rulings. After a delay while the new Congress repealed the recently passed Judiciary Act, Marshall convened court in February 1803. Changes came quickly. Most important was the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803 (see box). In this ruling, Marshall established the principle of judicial review. This principle meant that the Court could exercise considerable legal power in deciding whether federal laws are constitutional or not.

In an 1810 decision, Marshall extended the power of judicial review to determine the constitutionality of state laws in Fletcher v. Peck. Later, in rulings made in 1816 and 1821, the Court further extended judicial review to the review of state court decisions where federal issues were involved.

Through these series of decisions defining judicial review, Marshall established that the Constitution was the highest law of the land and that the courts were responsible for enforcing it. The independence of the judiciary was established and could be preserved through judicial review. Judicial review would later be used to keep states from encroaching on federal responsibilities and for protecting individual rights of citizens from government actions.

Creating economic stability

Many of Marshall's court decisions also supported the growth of corporations, a major Federalist goal earlier under Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton. The 1810 Peck decision had other major implications besides expanding judicial review. It was the first ruling to establish the strong legal standing of business contracts. This created a strong national economic stability.

Marbury v. Madison

The U.S. Supreme Court's 1803 Marbury v. Madison case launched a new era for the judicial system in America. In November 1800, the Federalists had lost the presidential election and many congressional seats to their rival political party, the Democratic-Republicans, who believed in a weak central government. The Federalists took action in their remaining months of political control before the inauguration date of March 4, 1801. The Federalist-controlled Congress passed the 1801 Judiciary Act creating additional federal courts. Then-President Adams, with assistance from Secretary of State John Marshall, filled the new court positions. Many appointments were made in the last hours of Adams's presidency, and the judges came to be known as the "midnight judges."

Some of the newly appointed judges had not received their formal papers, called commissions. Adams and Marshall signed and sealed the commissions, but some remained undelivered as Adams's time ran out on inauguration day, March 4, 1801. Adams appointed William Marbury, one of several new justices of the peace for the District of Columbia in the capital city. He was one of the justices who did not receive commissions. Upon taking office, President Thomas Jefferson ordered his new secretary of state, James Madison, not to deliver some of the remaining undelivered commissions to the newly appointed federal judges.

Marbury first unsuccessfully appealed to the State Department for his papers. Next, he filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court against Madison. Upon hearing the arguments in the case, Marshall and the Court unanimously found that Marbury deserved his papers. However, Marbury needed to file his lawsuit with a lower federal court. The Court ruled it did not have constitutional authority to accept such cases. It ruled that Section 13 of the 1789 Judiciary Act was unconstitutional by granting such a power to the Court. The section had authorized the Court to issue writs of mandamus (court orders) to government officials forcing them to take some action. The Court claimed such authority was not granted by the Constitution.

Marbury did not receive his judgeship and Marshall gave up some small amount of Court authority. However, on the other hand, he claimed enormous power for the Court in its judicial review role. It was the first occasion for the Supreme Court to rule a federal law unconstitutional. The Court soon showed in another case that judicial review could support a federal government action, such as chartering a national bank. Thus, the Marbury decision defined and expanded the area of responsibility of the judicial system, a major step in shaping the national government.

In McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819, the Court upheld the constitutional power of Congress to charter corporations, in this case the Second National Bank of the United States. The decision determined that Congress needed to stabilize currency and the national financial system. Creating a national bank, the Court determined, was a suitable way to achieve those goals. The decision most importantly supported a flexible, or "loose," interpretation of the Constitution by supporting the implied powers in the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution. Government had certain unwritten powers it could exercise to help it accomplish its explicit, enumerated, responsibilities granted in the Constitution.

Other decisions promoted economic growth. Gibbons Ogden (1824) involved a New York law restricting steamboat navigation in the state. Marshall again supported a broad interpretation of congressional powers over interstate commerce, striking down the state law as unconstitutional. The Court's decision essentially created a national free trade zone within the nation that greatly facilitated interstate commerce.

Through these decisions, the power of the national government was becoming well established, and the Supreme Court had become the final source for interpreting those powers. Many were upset with these newly defined powers of the Court. Despite efforts through Congress to limit the powers that Marshall had established, particularly over state laws and state court decisions, nothing resulted. The will of the public seemed to support Marshall.

New directions

The election of Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37; see entry in volume 1) as president in 1828 was a major blow to Marshall as was the death of his wife. Jackson supported strong state powers in conflict with Marshall's philosophy. When Jackson was in office, Marshall issued two historic Court decisions, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1832) and Worcester v. Georgia (1833). Marshall defined the legal relationship between the federal government and Native American tribes that persisted into the twenty-first century. He labeled tribes as "domestic dependent nations" having a distinction from state governments and established that only the U.S. Congress has the power to regulate tribal activities. However, the idea that states could nullify (ignore) federal laws was gaining strength by the early 1830s, and even Jackson as U.S. president refused to enforce the Worcester decision. It was a dark moment in the history of the Supreme Court.

The Court unity that Marshall had nurtured also began to decrease by the 1830s in his last years as chief justice. More decisions began including separate concurring statements, often supporting the Court's decision but perhaps for different reasons and representing dissenting opinions.

Away from the courtroom

For much of the year, the courts were not in session. During his time away from the bench, Marshall enjoyed novels and poetry and relaxing on his farm near Richmond. Between 1804 and 1807, he also wrote a five-volume biography of George Washington and, at the age of seventy-four, served in a Virginia constitutional convention in 1829. He also enjoyed entertaining, often hosting dinners for lawyers at his home. He lived the life of a Virginia gentleman, but he typically wore plain clothing and could be seen doing his own shopping at Richmond markets. He was very personable, charming, and informal.

By 1830, when Marshall was seventy-five, his own health began declining, but he remained mentally sharp. In 1831, he had surgery to remove kidney stones, but he recovered sufficiently to continue serving in the Court until his death on July 6, 1835.

For More Information


Beveridge, Albert J. The Life of John Marshall. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1916–19. Reprint, Holmes Beach, FL: Gaunt, 1997.

Hobson, Charles F. The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Newmyer, R. Kent. John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Stites, Francis N. John Marshall: Defender of the Constitution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

Web Sites

Supreme Court of the United States. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

John Marshall

views updated May 18 2018

John Marshall

As the fourth chief justice of the United States, John Marshall (1755-1835) was the principal architect in consolidating and defining the powers of the Supreme Court. Perhaps more than any other man he set the prevailing tone of American constitutional law.

The eldest of Thomas and Mary Marshall's 15 children, John Marshall was born on Sept. 24, 1755, near Germantown, Va. Frontier and family were the shaping forces of his youth. His mother came from the aristocratic Randolphs of "Turkey Island." His father—"the foundation of all my own success in life," recalled John Marshall—was a man of humble origin who, through native ability and strength of character, rose to relative prominence. Marshall's spare formal education consisted mainly of tutored lessons in the classics and Latin. His father saw to it, however, that John was solidly grounded in English literature and history; he also brought home practical lessons in politics from his service in the Virginia House of Burgesses during the years preceding the American Revolution.

Family unity, a tradition of learning, and a concern for affairs of the world shielded young Marshall from the barbarity of the frontier. But the West also left its mark—in a gaiety of heart, an open democratic demeanor, and a manliness of character that were no small part of Marshall's gift of leadership.

American Revolution

A dedicated patriot from the outset, Marshall saw action with the Culpepper Minutemen in 1775. As an officer in the Continental Line, he took part in several important battles and endured the hardships of Valley Forge. His experience, fortified by his association with George Washington and other nationalist leaders, left him with the passionate love of union and chronic distrust of state particularism that later became the twin pillars of his constitutional law.

Before Capt. Marshall was mustered out of the Army in 1781, he had decided on law as a profession. He heardGeorge Wythe's law lectures at the College of William and Mary in 1780, and during that summer he was licensed to practice and that August was admitted to the county bar. During this same period Marshall fell in love with Mary Ambler. They were married in January 1783 and took up residence in Richmond, Va.

Early Political Career

Marshall's natural eloquence, charismatic personality, and rare gift for logical analysis overcame the deficiencies in his legal education. He rose quickly to the head of the Richmond bar. He also distinguished himself in state politics. He sat in the House of Burgesses (1782-1784, 1787-1791, and 1795-1797), where he consistently supported nationalist measures. He served on the important Committee on the Courts of Justice and when only 27 was elected by the legislature to the governor's Council of State.

Marshall's legislative experience confirmed his belief that the Articles of Confederation needed to be strengthened against the irresponsible and selfish forces of state power. As a delegate to the Virginia convention for the ratification of the Federal Constitution (1788), he put his nationalist ideas to use. Though somewhat overshadowed by established statesmen, he spoke influentially for ratification. And on the hotly debated subject of the Federal judiciary, he led the nationalist offensive.

Federalist orthodoxy and demonstrated ability soon won Marshall national prominence. During the crisis over the Jay Treaty in 1795, when party lines began to crystallize, Marshall supported Washington and Alexander Hamilton against the Jeffersonian Republicans. As a lawyer in the Supreme Court case of Ware v. Hylton (1796), he adhered to Federalist principles by arguing the supremacy of national law.

Marshall had turned down offers from President Washington to be attorney general and minister to France. In 1797 he agreed to serve on the "XYZ mission" to France. Shortly after his return, President John Adams offered him an appointment to the Supreme Court, but he declined. Elected to Congress in 1798, he soon became a leader of the Federalists in the House. Declining to serve as secretary of war, he accepted appointment in 1800 as secretary of state. Eight months later Adams appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court, hoping to hold back the forces of states'-rights democracy, which in the form of the Jeffersonian Republicans had gained control of the Federal government.

Chief Justice

Marshall took his seat on the Court on March 5, 1801, and from that time until his death was absorbed in judicial duties. He did find time, however, to write a five-volume biography of George Washington (1804-1807) and to serve in the Virginia constitutional convention (1829-1830). But it was as chief justice that Marshall made his mark on American history. The pressing problem in 1801 was to unify and strengthen the Court. Accordingly he persuaded his colleagues to abandon the practice of delivering separate opinions and to permit him to write the opinion of the Court, which he did in the great majority of cases from 1801 to 1811. In addition, Marshall gave the Court a needed victory. His opinion in Marbury v. Madison (1803) for the first time declared an act of Congress unconstitutional, thus consolidating the Court's power of judicial review and providing future Courts with an elaborate defense of judicial power.

In United States v. Peters (1809) Marshall struck another blow for judicial power, this time against the claims of a state, by establishing the Court's right to be the final interpreter of Federal law. His opinion in Fletcher v. Peck held that the contract clause of the Constitution prevented state legislatures from repealing grants of land to private-interest groups. This was the first in a series of contract decisions that encouraged the growth of corporate capitalism. Few of Marshall's opinions touched civil rights; but in the Aaron Burr treason case, he struck a powerful blow for political freedom by defining treason narrowly and requiring strict proof for conviction.

Precedent-setting Cases

From the end of the War of 1812 through 1824 the Marshall Court was most creative. Marshall's position on the Court was less dominant than it had been before because able, new justices appeared. But he was unquestionably the guiding spirit and personally wrote opinions in the most important constitutional cases. Two such were McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824). In the first case, Marshall upheld the congressional act chartering the Second Bank of the United States, thereby securing a national currency and credit structure for interstate capitalism. Also, by authorizing Congress to go beyond enumerated powers through a broad interpretation of the "necessary and proper" clause, he created a body of implied national powers.

Marshall's Gibbons opinion gave Congress supreme and comprehensive authority within the enumerated powers of Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. The definition of commerce in the Gibbons case was sufficiently broad to bring the revolutionary developments in transportation and communication of the 20th century within the scope of congressional authority. These two cases created a reservoir of national power and guaranteed a flexible Constitution that could meet the nation's changing needs. That the Court should be the final interpreter of that flexible Constitution was the message of Marshall's compelling opinion in Cohens v. Virginia (1821).

Marshall's Concept of the Nation

Nationalist though he was, Marshall did not intend to destroy the states or establish the nation as an end in itself. He envisaged the national good as the sum of the productive individuals who constituted it, each pursuing his self-interest. Accordingly Marshall's opinions worked to release the creative energies of private enterprise and create a national arena for their operation. In Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) Marshall ruled that a corporation charter was a contract within the meaning of the Constitution which the states could not impair. As a result, private educational institutions, along with hundreds of business corporations chartered by the states, were secured against state interference. The unleashed forces of commerce, Marshall believed, would transcend selfish provincialism and create a powerful, self-sufficient nation.

Aroused states'-rights pressures in the 1820s forced the Marshall Court to curtail its nationalism. In addition, new appointments to the Court allowed division and dissent to burst into the open. The chief justice did not surrender national principles—as evidenced in Brown v. Maryland (1827) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832)—and he continued to lead the Court, but the age of judicial creativity was temporarily over. With the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828, Marshall became increasingly pessimistic.

Meanwhile the death of Marshall's wife left him disconsolate. And his own health began to fail, though he remained intellectually alert and continued performing his duties until his death on July 6, 1835.

Marshall died believing that the Constitution and the republic for which he had labored were gone, but history proved him wrong. The nation continued along the course of nationalism and capitalism that he had done so much to establish; the Court and the law continued to follow the lines he projected. His reputation as the "great chief justice" seems secure.

Further Reading

Albert J. Beveridge, The Life of John Marshall (4 vols., 1916-1919; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1947), despite its nationalist bias, remains the standard biography. Edward S. Corwin, John Marshall and the Constitution: A Chronicle of the Supreme Court (1919), concentrates on his judicial career.

James Bradley Thayer and others, John Marshall (1967), is a collection of classic essays. William M. Jones, ed., Chief Justice John Marshall: A Reappraisal (1956), is another collection of distinguished essays. The most exhaustive analysis of Marshall's judicial philosophy is Robert K. Faulkner, The Jurisprudence of John Marshall (1968). The relationship between the two giants of American constitutional development is examined in Samuel J. Konefsky, John Marshall and Alexander Hamilton: Architects of the American Constitution (1964). Standard constitutional histories, such as Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History (3 vols., 1923; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1926), and Charles G. Haines, The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government and Politics, 1789-1835 (1944), also contain material on Marshall's career. For further material the reader should consult James A. Servies, A Bibliography of John Marshall (1956), and numerous essays on him in historical and legal periodicals. □

Marshall, John (1755-1835)

views updated May 21 2018

John Marshall (1755-1835)


Chief justice of the supreme court

Second Choice. John Marshall was President John Adamss second choice for appointment to the Supreme Court when Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth resigned in 1800. The selection of a chief justice took on heightened importance since the election of Thomas Jefferson, and a Republican Congress meant that the Federalists would no longer control the government. John Adams knew that the courts alone could impose a lasting Federalist balance to an otherwise politically lopsided government. He turned first to John Jay, former chief justice, the governor of New York, and an esteemed Federalist. Jay, however, had few fond memories of his service on the Supreme Court, with its punishing requirement of riding the circuit and the lack of a clearly defined constitutional role. He politely declined the honor, but his letter did not reach Adams until the middle of January 1801. With barely two months left in office, Adams had little time to deliberate on a substitute; he had to choose quickly. When Secretary of State John Marshall presented Jays letter to the president, Adams looked up and asked, Who shall I nominate now? Answering his own question, the president told Marshall: I believe I must nominate you.

Early Years. John Marshall was born in the frontier county of Fauquier, Virginia, on 24 September 1755, the first child of Thomas and Mary Keith Marshall. He was descended from the great Randolph family, a distinction he shared with his rival, Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Marshall made his life as a surveyor and land agent and somehow found the means to borrow or purchase a substantial library. He encouraged his young son to read history and poetry. Marshall recalled in later years great happiness in transcribing the works of Alexander Pope at the age of twelve. Marshalls youth was steeped in the revolutionary spirit, and as a captain in the Continental Army he saw action in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. Marshall returned to Virginia in late 1779 and began to study law under George Wythe at William and Mary College. Marshall was still in the Continental Army when he was studying law, and this part-time education was his only formal legal training. He was admitted to the Virginia bar on 28 August 1780. In 1783 he married Mary Ambler, known as Polly.

Lawyer. Marshall became one of Virginias foremost lawyers, noted for his skill in thinking quickly on his feet. The 1783 Treaty of Paris had provided for repayment of prewar debts owed to British creditors, but states tried to protect their citizens from having to repay. Marshall made his fame and early fortune as a lawyer representing Virginians who sought to use state laws to stave off the claims of British creditors. In one case, Ware v. Hylton (1796), Marshall appeared before the Supreme Court to argue that a Virginia statute that allowed citizens to discharge their debts by making payments to the state treasury should be upheld. Judge James Iredell wrote that the oral argument before the Court reflected a degree of ability equal to any occasion an ingenuity, a depth of investigation, and a power of reasoning fully equal to anything I have ever witnessed. Marshalls talents were large, but he lost his case, the only one he ever argued before the Supreme Court. The Treaty of Paris had to be upheld, in Justice William Cushings words, as being sanctioned as the supreme law, by the Constitution of the United States, which nobody pretends to deny to be paramount and controlling to all state laws, and even state constitutions, wheresoever they interfere or disagree. Marshall would embrace these sentiments of the primacy of the federal laws and Constitution during his tenure on the Court.

X, Y, Z. Marshalls commitment to the new nation led him to public service, and he was elected to the Virginia Assembly in 1782. He was an ardent nationalist and one of Virginias foremost supporters of ratification of the Constitution. At the 1788 Virginia Constitutional Convention Marshall offered a strong defense of Article III, the judiciary article. Marshall confronted the Anti-Federalist opposition by explaining the importance of an independent judiciary to the balance of federal power. Embracing the concept of judicial review, Marshall declared that if Congress were to enact a law not warranted by the Constitution, the Court would declare it void. In 1797 President Adams appointed Marshall, Virginias leading Federalist after Washington, to join Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry as a special envoy to Paris. Marshall was appalled when he and his colleagues were approached by French ministers soliciting bribes. In dispatches sent back to America he gave the ministers the code names X, Y, and Z and found himself something of a hero when he returned home. Marshall was elected to Congress as a Virginia Federalist, and President Adams appointed him secretary of war on 9 May 1800. Marshall requested that Adams withdraw his nomination. Adams was so determined to have Marshall in his cabinet that he dismissed Secretary of State Timothy Pickering in order to open up the post for Marshall. He did not decline this honor for which I had vanity enough to think myself fitted. After the sweeping Federalist losses in the election of 1800 Marshall expected to retire from public service with John Adams. However, when John Jay declined a second appointment as chief justice, John Marshall found himself at the head of the third branch of government, politically isolated and lacking any practical experience. He was just forty-five years old.

On the Bench. Marshalls first act as chief justice was to administer the presidential oath to Thomas Jefferson on 4 March 1801. This was the first occasion when leadership in America passed from one party to another, a peaceful transfer of power. Resulting from a popular election, the event was a stunning demonstration of the great American experiment. As chief justice, Marshall developed the primacy of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution and laws. Marshall established an overwhelming series of precedents: the doctrine of judicial review (Marbury v. Madison in 1803), a limited meaning of treason (the Aaron Burr trial of 1807), the federal governments constitutional supremacy over the states (United States v. Peters in 1809), limits on the governments power to interfere with contracts {Fletcher v. Peck in 1810), and broad powers for Congress (McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819). He also established the Supreme Court as the final voice when the states and the federal government disagreed. Marshall enhanced the Court by making it speak with one voice. He frowned on allowing each justice to write a separate opinion, and by the power of his social skills and legal reasoning he dominated the Court. Marshalls Court decided the vast majority of cases unanimously, and he wrote the opinions in about half of the decisions handed down between 1801 and 1835.

Final Years. Marshalls work on the Court was supplemented by his deep devotion to Polly, who was a sickly woman in need of regular care and attention, and to writing history. He wrote the first biography of George Washington in 18051807. After Polly died on Christmas Day 1831, Marshalls health began to fail; he died on 6 July 1835. At his funeral in Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell cracked while paying tribute to the great chief justice.


Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (New York: Holt, 1996).

Marshall, John

views updated Jun 27 2018


John Marshall presided over the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. Appointed by President john adams, Marshall assumed leadership during a pivotal era. The early nineteenth century saw tremendous political battles over the future of the United States and its Constitution, often with the Court at the center of controversy. By the force of personality, argument, and shrewdness, Marshall steered it through this rocky yet formative period. He weathered harsh criticism as the Court set important precedents that increased its power and defined its role in government. Historians credit him with establishing what has been called the American judicial tradition, in which the Supreme Court acts as an independent branch of government endowed with final authority over constitutional interpretation.

Marshall was born September 24, 1755, near Germantown (now Midland), Virginia. He was the son of Thomas Marshall, a wealthy landowner, justice of the peace, and sheriff. Like his father he fought in the Revolutionary War and married into a prominent family. His father's tutoring significantly enhanced his mere two years of formal education, which were augmented in 1780 by a brief attendance at lectures in law at the College of William and Mary.

Marshall was also influenced by george washington. Because of his service to General Washington in the war, Marshall became a strong Federalist. He later wrote about his mentor in his book Life of George Washington (1805–7).

Marriage ties made Marshall a relative of a leading Virginia political family. This helped secure his place in society, paving the way for an early legal and political career in the 1780s. He specialized in appellate cases and quickly distinguished himself in the Virginia state bar. He also served in Virginia's council of state from 1782 to 1784, and in its house of delegates four times between 1782 and 1795. But it was as a partisan of the Federalists—the opponents of the states' rights–minded Republicans—that he came to wide acclaim. The struggle between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans was the most important political contest of the day. Marshall served as a devoted publicist and organizer for the Federalist cause in Virginia, and this work earned him various offers to serve as U.S. attorney general and as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. It also earned him the animosity of his distant cousin, Republican thomas jefferson, who soon became U.S. president and was his lifelong political adversary.

"It is, emphatically, the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."
John Marshall

In 1798 Marshall agreed to serve Federalist president John Adams as one of three U.S. ministers to France during one of the Napoleonic Wars between France and Great Britain. In a scandal known as the xyz affair, the French foreign ministry attempted to solicit a bribe from the U.S. emissaries, and Marshall became a national hero for refusing. He quickly emerged

as the leading spokesman for federalism in Washington, D.C., as a member of Congress from 1799 to 1800 and briefly as secretary of state under Adams in 1800. Then Adams lost the 1800 presidential election to Jefferson, and the Republicans won control of Congress. In a desperate attempt to preserve the Federalists' power, Adams spent the remaining days of his administration making judicial appointments. Sixteen new positions for judges on federal circuit courts and dozens for justices of the peace in the District of Columbia were handed out during the final days of Adams's administration. These last-minute appointees came to be known as midnight judges. One of these seats went to Marshall, who was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court.

On March 4, 1801, Marshall assumed his duties as the head of the Court. Jefferson and the Republicans were furious over Adams's court stacking, and they swiftly quashed the appointments—except that, inexplicably, they did not challenge Marshall's. Marshall kept the Court out of the fray. He feared that in a conflict between the judiciary and the executive branch, the Court would lose.

Marshall again faced political conflict when in 1803 the Court ruled on a case brought by William Marbury, whose appointment as a D.C. justice of the peace had been one of those barred by the Republicans. Marshall's opinion for the unanimous Court in marbury v. madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60, dismissed Marbury's suit on the ground that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to rule on it. But at the same time, the Court restated the position that it had the power to rule on questions of constitutionality. By striking down a section of the judiciary act of 1789 (1 Stat. 73), Marshall's opinion marked the first time that the Court overturned an act of Congress. Not for more than fifty years would it exercise this power again. Marshall asserted the right of the Supreme Court to engage in judicial review of the law, writing, "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." Marbury was the crucial first step in the evolution of the Supreme Court's authority as it exists today.

Marshall emphasized the need to limit state power by asserting the primacy of the federal government over the states. In 1819, as Marshall reached the height of his influence, he cited the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution (art.

1, § 10) as a basis for protecting corporate charters from state interference (trustees of dartmouth college v. woodward, 17 U.S. [4 Wheat.] 518, 4 L. Ed. 629). That year he also struck a blow to states' rights in mcculloch v. maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 4 L. Ed. 579, where he noted that the Constitution is not a "splendid bauble" that states can abridge as they see fit. In 1821 he advanced the theory of judicial review, rejecting a challenge by the state of Virginia to the appellate authority of the Supreme Court (Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. [6 Wheat.] 264, 5 L. Ed. 257).

In his written opinions, Marshall typically relied on the power of logic and his own forceful eloquence, rather than citing law. This approach was noted by Associate Justice joseph story: "When I examine a question, I go from headland to headland, from case to case. Marshall has a compass, puts out to sea, and goes directly to the result."

Marshall was not without opponents. Foremost among them was Jefferson. In 1810 Jefferson wrote to President james madison that "[t]he Chief Justice's leadership was marked by "cunning and sophistry" and displayed "rancourous hatred" of the democratic principles of the Republicans. Jefferson led the Republican attack on Marshall with the accusation that he twisted the law to suit his own biases.

Although Marshall weathered the attacks, his authority, and the Court's, was ultimately affected. Not all his decisions were enforced; some were openly resisted by the president. New appointments to the Court brought states' rights advocates onto the bench, and Marshall began to compromise as a leader and to make concessions to ideological opponents.

Marshall died in office on July 6, 1835.

further readings

Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. 1969. The Justices of the Supreme Court, 1789–1969: Their Lives and Major Opinions. New York: Chelsea House.

Klarman, Michael J. 2001. "How Great Were the 'Great' Marshall Court Decisions?" Virginia Law Review 87 (October): 1111–84.

Marion, David E. 2001. "The State of the Canon in Constitutional Law: Lessons from the Jurisprudence of John Marshall." The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 9 (February): 385–417.

Newmyer, R. Kent. 2001. John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press.

Olken, Samuel R. 2000. "Chief Justice John Marshall and the Course of American Constitutional History." John Marshall Law Review 33 (summer): 743–79.

Simon, James F. 2002. What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Constitution of the United States; Fletcher v. Peck; Gibbons v. Ogden; Supreme Court of the United States.

Marshall, John

views updated May 17 2018


John Marshall, the greatest chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was born on 24 September 1755 in Fauquier County, Virginia, and was the oldest of fifteen children. He married Mary Ambler in 1783 and they had ten children.

Prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court by President John Adams early in 1801, he had distinguished himself in numerous areas of public service. Marshall was a successful lawyer, practicing in the area of Richmond, Virginia, and specializing in debt cases. He argued, unsuccessfully, one case before the Supreme Court—Ware v. Hylton (1796). He was a soldier in the American Revolution, served several terms in the Virginia legislature, and was a diplomat to France. He refused several offers to serve in government, most notably as U.S. attorney general and as an assistant Supreme Court justice. He served in Congress from 1799 to 1800 and then briefly as President John Adams's secretary of state.

When Adams sent Marshall's nomination to the U.S. Senate in January 1801, the Federalists were still in control, but most were not enthusiastic about the nomination; this caused some delay in confirmation. Nevertheless, Marshall assumed his duties on 5 March 1801, becoming the highest-ranking Federalist in the new Democratic Republican era that began after 1800. For the first time in the nation's history, the Democratic Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Federalists thought the country would never survive Republican governance. The Republicans, on the other hand looked unfavorably upon the federal judiciary as the last stronghold of Federalist influence. The feelings of the Republicans were only strengthened by the last-minute passage of the Judiciary Act of 1801, which was an attempt by Federalists to put their party in firm control of the judiciary after having lost control of the other two branches of the government. This put Marshall, just as he arrived on the Court, right at the center of President Thomas Jefferson's assault on the federal judiciary.

Marshall worked quite hard and, for the most part, was successful in persuading the Court to produce single "opinions of the court"—except for dissents—so the Court's decision would be clear, strengthening the Court. To further this goal he convinced the rest of the Court to cease the practice of seriatim opinions by which each justice had written his own opinion for each case. To have one Court opinion and usually to have unanimity in support of that opinion was one of the many things Marshall did to help the Court achieve equal footing with the other two branches of government. In most of the unanimous opinions, at least in the significant cases, it was Marshall who wrote the opinion of the Court.

Most, if not all, of Marshall's noteworthy opinions increased the power of the federal government at the expense of the states. One case that does not fit this description but the one for which, perhaps, Marshall is best known, is Marbury v. Madison (1803). His opinion gave the first clear articulation of the principle of judicial review by the Supreme Court. This opinion was carefully crafted, keeping in mind Jefferson's battle with the courts and attempting not to give him more ammunition in his effort to check the influence of the judiciary.

Marshall used a case-by-case approach in attempting to strengthen the federal government. In Fletcher v. Peck (1810) his opinion furthered the goal of judicial nationalization, using the contract clause of the Constitution as the instrument.

His opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) used federal supremacy as its dominant theme. This opinion restrained the actions of state legislatures, but it also freed Congress by giving judicial approval to the loose construction of the Constitution, particularly Article I, section 8, clause 18, the necessary and proper or elastic clause.

Marshall and the Court issued a strong justification and defense for judicial review in upholding the right of the Supreme Court to review decisions of state courts in Cohens v. Virginia (1821). In Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) Marshall's opinion held that Congress had the power to regulate interstate commerce. His opinion was written broadly so that his opinion and its findings would not become antiquated.

Marshall's greatest period of influence was the first ten years of his tenure. From 1811 to 1823 his importance declined, in part due to the personnel on the Court with him—Justices Joseph Story and William Johnson, for instance—being great justices in their own right. After Gibbons, Marshall's influence on the Court, particularly in conference (meetings of the justices alone), began declining further, reaching a low point in the early 1830s. Marshall died 6 July 1835.

See alsoFletcher v. Peck; Gibbons v. Ogden; Judiciary Acts of 1801 and 1802; Marbury v. Madison; McCulloch v. Maryland; Presidency, The: John Adams; Presidency, The: Thomas Jefferson; Supreme Court; Supreme Court Justices .


Newmyer, R. Kent. John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. New York: Holt, 1996.

J. Mark Alcorn

Marshall, John

views updated May 11 2018

Marshall, John

MARSHALL, JOHN. (1755–1835). Continental army officer, fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Virginia. Marshall first saw action as an officer in the Culpeper minutemen in the operations that drove Lord Dunmore, the royal governor, from Virginia at Great Bridge on 9 December 1775 and at Norfolk on 1 January 1776. On 30 July 1776 he became a first lieutenant in the Third Virginia Continental Regiment. He was promoted to captain lieutenant in the Fifteenth Virginia in December, with rank retroactive to 31 July 1776. On 20 November 1777 Marshall was appointed deputy judge advocate, and on 1 July 1778 he was promoted to captain. On 14 September 1778 he transferred to the Seventh Virginia, and on 12 February 1781 he retired from the army. He fought at Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and Stony Point and also survived the winter at Valley Forge, where he said he served "with brave men from different states who were risking life and everything valuable in a common cause."

In the spring and summer of 1780 he attended a course of law lectures given at the College of William and Mary by Professor George Wythe, Jefferson's mentor, and on 28 August 1780 he was admitted to the Virginia bar. In 1783 he moved to Richmond from the frontier region where he had been reared and quickly became a successful lawyer. He was a member of the Virginia assembly (1782–1791 and 1795–1997), a delegate to the state convention that ratified the federal Constitution, and a member of the XYZ mission to France (1797–1798). He was a Federalist congressman from 1799 to 1800 and succeeded Timothy Pickering as secretary of state in May 1800. President John Adams nominated him to succeed Chief Justice Ellsworth of the U.S. Supreme Court, a position he accepted on 4 February 1801. During the next thirty-four years, the Court under his leadership became "the preeminent guardian and interpreter of the Constitution … and arbiter of conflicts arising from the clash of federal and state sovereignties" (Charles F. Hobson in ANB). His five-volume Life of Washington was published between 1804 and 1807.


Faulkner, Robert K. The Jurisprudence of John Marshall. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Hobson, Charles F. The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Marshall, John. An Autobiographical Sketch by John Marshall. Edited by John Stokes Adams. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1937.

Stites, Francis N. John Marshall: Defender of the Constitution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

                               revised by Harold E. Selesky

Marshall, John

views updated May 21 2018


MARSHALL, John. British, b. 1922. Genres: Transportation. Career: Lecturer in Railway History, Extra-Mural Dept., University of Manchester, 1970-80. Publications: The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, 3 vols., 1969-72; Guinness Book of Rail Facts and Feats, 1971, 3rd ed. 1979; Metre Gauge Railways in South and East Switzerland, 1974; Biographical Dictionary of Railway Engineers, 1978; Forgotten Railways: North West England, 1981; second ed., 1992; The Cromford and High Peak Railway, 1982; 2nd ed. 1996; Guinness Factbook: Rail, 1985; Guinness Rail: The Records, 1985; The Guinness Railway Book, 1989; The Severn Valley Railway, 1989; Guinness Book of Railway Facts & Feats, 1993; Guinness Railway Fact Book, 1994. Address: 24 Maypole Close, Bewdley, Worcestershire DY12 1BZ, England.