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.
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.
Relying on knowledge gained in writing The Federalist
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
In Marshall’s touchstone case, McCulloch v. Maryland
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
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).
Barron v. Baltimore
Fletcher v. Peck
Gibbons v. Ogden
Judiciary Act of 1789
McCulloch v. Maryland
Marbury v. Madison
States’ rights and state sovereignty