Significance: During his long tenure as chief justice, Marshall elevated the Supreme Court to a coequal branch of government through landmark decisions supporting judicial review and federal supremacy over the states. Legal scholars consistently rank him the United States’ greatest justice.
Born on the frontier and the oldest of fifteen children, Marshall's father instilled in him a love of English literature. Through his mother, a member of the prominent Randolph family, he was distantly related to Thomas Jefferson. Marshall fought in several battles during the Revolutionary War, served as the deputy judge advocate, and endured Valley Forge. Marshall's dislike of provincialism and weak national government grew out of his military experience. His lifelong admiration of George Washington, his father's boyhood friend, led to Marshall's eventual publication of the first biography of Washington. After military service, Marshall briefly studied law with professor George Wythe at the College of William and Mary. He was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa and entered the practice of law in 1780. Married in 1783, Marshall relied on his legal work to support his wife, Mary Willis “Polly” Ambler, and their ten children. From 1785 to 1788, Marshall served as the recorder of the Richmond hustings court, his only judicial position before the Supreme Court.
Expanding family financial responsibilities kept Marshall busy practicing law, but like his father, he found time to engage in state and local politics. Marshall served episodically in the Virginia House of Delegates between 1782 and 1795 and as a member of the governor's Council of State from 1782 to 1784. His legislative experience reinforced his disdain for parochial state government. He was a delegate to the Virginia convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788. Marshall rejected several offers of positions in the administrations of George Washington and John Adams, finally accepting Adams's request that he become part of a three-man diplomatic team sent to France in 1797-1798 to negotiate a treaty. The team refused France's demand that the United States pay a financial tribute before the negotiations, making Marshall a national hero. The subsequent publication of the correspondence between the American diplomats and the French agents (designated Messrs. X, Y, and Z) provoked partisan debate between the Jeffersonians and anti-Jeffersonians. At the urging of Washington, Marshall ran for the congressional seat from Richmond to the U.S. House of Representatives. As the only Federalist congressman from Virginia (1798-1800), he became the spokesperson for the moderate Federalists, as exemplified by Adams. In May, 1800, he was nominated and confirmed as secretary of state. During the waning months of the Adams administration, Marshall also served as a de facto president because of Adams's frequent out-of-town trips.
Appointment to the Court
Marshall was Adams's second choice for chief justice after the resignation of Oliver Ellsworth. John Jay declined the offer, and on January 20, 1801, the president appointed his loyal secretary of state to become the fourth chief justice. The U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination on January 27 and Marshall was sworn in on February 4. Marshall served as chief justice for thirty-four years, through the administrations of five presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson. He remained active on the Court until his death on July 6, 1835, from a liver ailment. As his funeral cortege made its way through Philadelphia two days later, the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall tolled on the same day as it had first rung in 1776 to celebrate U.S. independence, developing a crack that silenced it forever. As chief justice, Marshall is credited with making the Court a coequal branch of U.S. government. He persuaded his colleagues to stop issuing seriatim opinions and adopt a single opinion format to give the Court a collective, authoritative voice. Marshall delivered 519 of the 1,215 opinions of the Court during his long tenure. In addition to his unusual energy, Marshall possessed political skills developed from his legislative and executive experience, and he combined this political astuteness with social skills and a sense of humor. His essential moderation in ideological and personal terms allowed him to educate others. Marshall maintained friendships even with those who opposed his nationalist policies with the single exception of his distant relative Thomas Jefferson. Still, Marshall followed in the footsteps of his political hero George Washington by demonstrating a classical magnanimity toward Jefferson. Marshall pledged financial support for Jefferson during his final years.
A Coequal Branch
Relying on knowledge gained in writing The Federalist (1788) and colonial and confederal experience, Marshall used the poorly written “case of the midnight justices,” Marbury v. Madison(1803), to uphold the benchmark principle of judicial review of legislative and executive acts. For a unanimous Court, he ruled that section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional. In the process of making William Marbury, a fellow Federalist, the most famous loser in Supreme Court history and his rival Thomas Jefferson a shallow winner, Marshall figuratively rang a radical independence bell that reverberated through the late nineteenth century. Recognizing the activist potential of their decision, the Marshall Court did not strike down another act of Congress. In fact, the Court would not do that again until Scott v. Sandford (1857). Marshall's even-handed handling of the 1805 impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase contributed to his acquittal and promoted a spirit of moderation. In his longest judicial decision–the one that he considered the most disagreeable of his career, United States v. Burr (1807)–Marshall used a narrow definition of treason to acquit Aaron Burr, Jefferson's first-term vice president.
Marshall's identification with the national values of his political hero Washington are reflected in his greatest decisions. In the so-called Yazoo land case, Fletcher v. Peck (1810), not only did the Court hold a state law contrary to the U.S. Constitution but also used the contracts clause (Article 1, section 10) to restrict state authority. The opinion was unpopular with states’ righters, but it asserted judicial nationalization and encouraged the nation's economic development. Those twin values reflected those of Washington and his favorite nephew, Bushrod Washington, who served for twenty-nine years with Marshall on the Court and was his closest associate. In Marshall's touchstone case, McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), he resolved the meaning of the necessary and proper clause (Article 1, section 8, clause 18) and determined the distribution of powers between the federal government and the states. Using a broad interpretation, federal supremacy was proclaimed in this pivotal case involving whether Maryland had the right to tax a branch of the U.S. Bank. The doctrine of implied national powers provided the constitutional basis for the federal government's broad involvement in public policy. Marshall understood “the power to tax involves the power to destroy” and in the heart of the opinion stated, “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional.” Marshall's final classic statement of nationalism came in the so-called “steamboat case,” Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) in which he emancipated national commerce through a broad view of the commerce clause (Article 1, section 8, clause 3), removing the obstructions to free trade that the states had created.
In his classic decisions, Marshall's jurisprudence was neither consistently activist nor restraintist. Although he established judicial review, Marshall upheld the Jeffersonian Congress's judiciary legislation. In one of his last decisions, Barron v. Baltimore (1833), he limited application of the Bill of Rights to the federal government, exempting state governments. He aimed for the middle path, consistent with his moderate Federalist views that promoted the broader cosmopolitan views of a developing nation over unenlightened and proprietary state and local interests. In short, he adapted George Washington's classical prudence and moderation to the judicial setting. Marshall's outgoing personality, industriousness, and balanced approach, when applied to a developing republic, shaped his leadership of his fellow justices during his tenure as chief justice of the United States. Though he was not the first chief justice, he set precedents for the Court that echoed those that his political hero, the first chief executive, set for the presidency, standards that still resonate throughout American jurisprudence.
- As the most outstanding figure in the early history ofthe Supreme Court, John Marshall is well served by biographers.
- In A Chief Justice's Progress: John Marshall from Revolutionary Virginia to the Supreme Court (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000) David Scott Robarge covers Marshall's life up to the moment he joined the Supreme Court. R. Kent Newmyer's John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001) continues the story through Marshall's years on the Court. Among other biographies, among the best is Jean E. Smith's John Marshall. Definer of a Nation (New York: Henry Holt, 1996). His work on the Court is treated exceptionally well in Charles F. Hobson's The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), which contains an outstanding biographical essay. A similarly exceptional volume employing comparative quantitative analysis is Herbert A. Johnson's The Chief Justiceship of John Marshall, 1801-1835 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997). A classic work putting the judicial process within a political context is Henry J. Abraham's Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), and Robert J. Steamer's Chief Justice: Leadership and the Supreme Court (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986) offers a thoughtful comparative analysis of chief justices. The first ranking of justices by means of a poll of experts is Albert P. Blaustein and Roy M. Mersky's The First Hundred Justices (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1978). The political context of rankings may be found in William D. Pederson and Ann McLaurin, editors, The Rating Game in American Politics: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Rev. ed. New York: Irvington, 1987). The first volume with an updated poll and case studies is William D. Pederson and Norman W. Provizer, editors, Great Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court (New York: Lang, 1994).