Perhaps more than any other figure in the early history of the American Republic, John Marshall shaped the Supreme Court as well as attitudes toward and understandings of the U.S. Constitution.
John Marshall (September 24, 1755–July 6, 1835) was the fourth man to serve as the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, following John Jay, John Rutledge, and Oliver Ellsworth, though he is usually regarded as the third Chief Justice. Of the first three, only Jay made any real difference in the Supreme Court as an institution. Significantly more than the other three, though, Marshall firmly established the Supreme Court as an independent and strong third branch of the U.S. federal government.
Born near the post-frontier region of Germantown, Virginia, Marshall spent much of his youth watching over his fourteen younger siblings. Though his mother was related to the aristocratic Randolphs, the Marshalls lived in a plain and simple middle-class fashion. Marshall received little formal education, his parents taught him when time permitted, as did a minister who lived with the family. As a pre-teen, Marshall already revealed signs of brilliance, having memorized much of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man as well as translating several famous Latin works into English. One might readily ascribe to the young Marshall a pietistic intelligence and curiosity.
During the American Revolution, Marshall served for a year in the Virginia militia and, later, significantly, in the Continental Army with George Washington as an aide, stationed mostly in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. His service profoundly affected him, as, he wrote, it “confirmed in the habit of considering America as my country, and congress as my government.”
Prior to the war’s end, Marshall spent several months listening to lectures by famed legal scholar George Wythe at William and Mary College.
Formally establishing a law practice in 1780, Marshall spent the next two decades in Virginia politics. He helped lead the U.S. Constitution to ratification in Virginia, serving as one of that state’s leading Federalists. At the time of the ratification debates, interestingly enough, Marshall had espoused a strict constructionist view of the Constitution, a point his opponents would use against him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Despite his strict constructionism, though, Marshall believed firmly in the U.S. Constitution of 1787.
Marshall declined several positions offered by the Washington Administration but finally accepted his first federal post as one of President John Adam’s delegates to meet with representatives of the volatile French Republic in 1797. In what was later known as the “XYZ Affair,” the three American delegates refused to pay bribes to the French government. His patriotic and morally-outraged statement of refusal propelled John Marshall into the national spotlight.
Following the “XYZ Affair,” the citizens of Richmond elected Marshall as a Federalist to the U.S. Congress in 1799. Some historians have regarded Marshall ineffective as a legislator, but President Adams appointed him as Secretary of State in mid-1800, and Marshall essentially served as the sole executive officer in the very last days of the failing and broken Adams Administration.
On January 27, 1801, the Senate confirmed Marshall as Supreme Court Chief Justice, and he took his post on February 4, 1801, remaining in that position until his death on July 6, 1835.
Perhaps more than any other figure in the early history of the American Republic, Marshall shaped the Supreme Court as well as attitudes toward and understandings of the U.S. Constitution. While many of the cases over which Marshall presided are important to a constitutional understanding of America, five in particular stand out. The first, Marbury v. Madison, 1803, established the power of the Supreme Court to Judicial Review, which served as a defense of the judiciary against the other two branches of government. In the twentieth century, the Supreme Court reinterpreted Marshall’s advocacy of Judicial Review to mean judicial supremacy, but such an interpretation was never Marshall’s intent. Marshall only desired for the third branch of the federal government to be equal to the first two.
The second, Fletcher v. Peck, 1810, ruled that state power could not supersede the sanctity of a private contract, mutually agreed to by consenting parties.
The third case, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 1819, argued along the same lines. In essence, no state could interfere with a charter of incorporation, unless fraud had been previously discovered.
That same year, 1819, Marshall decided in McCulloch v. Maryland that a state could in no way tax a federal entity because of the “great principle that the constitution and the laws thereof are supreme; that they control the constitution and laws of the respective states and cannot be controlled by them.”
The fifth major decision came in 1824 with Gibbons v. Ogden. In it, Marshall denied the power of any state to infringe on interstate commerce or travel.
In each of these cases, it should be noted, Marshall defended the right of private association—what Alexis de Tocqueville would argue as America’s greatest strengths and what Robert Nisbet would describe as a “plurality of private sovereignties”—against the claims of the political sphere.
In doing so, Marshall, not surprisingly, echoed the proclamation of the second article of the Old Northwest Ordinance of July 13, 1787:
And, in the just preservation of rights and property, it is understood and declared, that no law ought ever to be made, or have force in the said territory, that shall, in any manner whatever, interfere with or affect private contracts or engagements, bona fide, and without fraud, previously formed.
Probably no figure of the early American republic did more to defend the right of association than did Marshall.
Marshall’s character proved as important as his intellect to be an effective chief justice. During his thirty-four year tenure, Marshall presided over 1,100 cases, being on the majority 1,092 times. He also wrote the majority opinion in 519 cases. His mastery came from his ability to form a consensus among his fellow members of the bench.
Author’s Note: This article is dedicated to the brilliant Paul Moreno, who has, over twenty-one years of good and meaningful conversation, convinced me of Marshall’s signal importance to the foundation of the American republic.
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The featured image is a portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall (1755–1835) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.