John Marshall

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John Marshall
John Marshall by Henry Inman, 1832.jpg
Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
From: January 31, 1801 – July 6, 1835
Nominator John Adams
Predecessor Oliver Ellsworth
Successor Roger B. Taney
4th United States Secretary of State
From: June 13, 1800 – March 13, 1801
President John Adams
Predecessor Timothy Pickering
Successor James Madison
Party Federalist
Spouse(s) Mary Willis Ambler
Religion Episcopalian

John Marshall (1755-1835) was the United States Supreme Court's most influential Chief Justice. Homeschooled for his education, Marshall became a leading Federalist and was appointed by President John Adams as Secretary of State and then Chief Justice. Today Chief Justice John Roberts holds this position.

John Marshall is a liberal icon who has received preferential treatment by biographers and law school professors for more than a century, until historian Paul Finkelman uncovered that John Marshall actually owned hundreds of slaves as a merchant (not a farmer) and even bought and sold them throughout his life.[1] John Marshall repeatedly held in favor of slave owners and even overturned a precedent in favor of slaves in international waters, and on Marshall's death he granted freedom to his slaves only if they migrated to Africa, which none or almost none of his slaves wanted to do, so they remained enslaved.[1] In contrast, Marshall let the murderer Aaron Burr walk free by presiding over his trial for treason and giving the jury restrictive instructions.

Marshall founded the Virginia chapter of the American Colonization Society, a racist organization that sought to send free blacks, sometimes through coercion, to Africa where many died. Marshall helped slave-owners by his opposition to allowing free blacks to remain, as was their right, in the United States, because that undermined slavery. Marshall's Will did not allow any of his slaves to be emancipated on his death unless they migrated to Africa.

Marshall's judicial activism reshaped American government, making the Supreme Court the final arbiter of the U.S. Constitution, with power to overrule the president, Congress, the states, and all lower courts. He held in favor of the rights of individuals and corporations against intrusive state governments. Marshall, along with Daniel Webster (who argued some of the cases), was a prominent Federalist Party member (until it collapsed) and sought to build a stronger federal government over the opposition of Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans, who wanted a less powerful and intrusive federal government. Marshall wrote a 1000-page biography of George Washington which was panned by critics for being a hatchet job against his political rivals, the Democratic-Republicans.

Marshall's most important rulings include: Cohens v. Virginia, Fletcher v. Peck, Gibbons v. Ogden, Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, and Worcester v. Georgia.

Some of his decisions were unpopular; Andrew Jackson went so far as to completely ignore the ruling of Worcester v. Georgia, for example. Nevertheless, Marshall set a great precedent in American politics by being able to balance out the branches of government, and the states and the federal power, providing the rule of law that still prevails.

During his thirty-four years as head of the Supreme Court he judged over 1,100 cases, 519 of which he wrote the rulings for.[2] Marshall was in the dissenting minority only eight times throughout his tenure at the court because of his control over the associate justices. As one observer at the time noted, Marshall had the knack of "putting his own ideas into the minds of others, unconsciously to them."[3]

Marshall was one of the American diplomats sent by President John Adams to France in what became the XYZ Affair, which ineptly nearly caused a war between the two nations. But liberals heap praise on Marshall as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, which he vastly expanded its power and authority. He is described as having had charm, humor, a quick intelligence, and the ability to bring men together. His opinions were workmanlike rather than eloquent in style or subtle; and his learning in the law was not deep. What distinguished him was his skill and willingness to manipulate decisions to grab power for the court. Liberal historians and law professors confer on Marshall the sobriquet, The Great Chief Justice.


Marshall was born in a cabin on the Virginia frontier, near Germantown, in Fauquier County. He was always something of a backwoodsman and nature lover. His father Thomas Marshall was of Welsh descent and rose steadily in wealth and political prominence, serving as county sheriff, Anglican vestryman and delegate to the colonial legislature. His mother belonged to the powerful and prominent Randolph family, which included his second cousin and political adversary Thomas Jefferson. John had 14 younger siblings. Marshall was home-schooled, and showed a special interest in the works of poet Alexander Pope, and, later in life, political theorist Edmund Burke, and market-oriented economist Adam Smith. By age 17 Marshall was reading Blackstone's Commentaries, which was transforming the study of English law.


After military service in the American Revolution he attended six weeks of lectures from George Wythe at William and Mary College. In 1780, he was admitted to the bar; in 1782 he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond, where he sat, with interruptions, for the next 15 years. He married Mary Willis Ambler and became a leader of the Virginia bar. He was a leader in the 1788 Virginia convention that, after an intense struggle, ratified the proposed U.S. Constitution. Marshall worked closely with James Madison, against the anti-Federalists led by Patrick Henry. In the early 1790s as Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was building alliances with state and local leaders, Marshall became leader of the Federalist Party in the state. He declined to serve as George Washington's attorney generalship. In 1797 President John Adams appointed him to a delegation that went to France seeking peace, but was humiliated in the XYZ Affair. In 1799 Marshall was elected to Congress and in May 1800 he became secretary of state for Adams.

Chief Justice

At the last minute (January 1801) Adams appointed a series of federal judges (the "Midnight Judges") including Marshall as chief justice of the United States. The three previous chief justices had left little permanent mark beyond setting up the forms of office. The Supreme Court, like the state supreme courts, was a minor organ of government. In his 34-year tenure Marshall made it a third coequal branch, which it remains today. With his associate justices, especially Joseph Story, William Johnson, and Bushrod Washington, Marshall's Court defined the constitutional standards of the new nation. The great work of the Marshall Court was done in a handful of great cases: Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137; McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316; Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 264; Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat 1; and a few others.


Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison, decided in 1803, ruled for the government (that is, Madison), by deciding a minor law passed by Congress was unconstitutional. Ironically what was unconstitutional was Congress granting a certain power to the Supreme Court itself. The case allowed Marshall to proclaim the doctrine of judicial review, which reserves to the Supreme Court final authority to judge whether or not actions of the president or of the Congress are within the powers granted to them by the Constitution. The Constitution itself is the supreme law, and when the Court believes that a specific law or action is in violation of it, the Court must uphold the Constitution and set aside that other law or action. The Constitution does not explicitly give judicial review to the Court, and Jefferson was very angry with Marshall's position, for Jefferson, president at the time, wanted the president to decide whether his acts were constitutional or not. Historians mostly agree that the Founding Fathers Constitution did plan for the Supreme Court to have some sort of judicial review; what Marshall did was make operationalize their goals. Judicial review was not new and Marshall himself mentioned it in the Virginia ratifying convention of 1788. Marshall's opinion expressed and fixed in the American tradition and legal system a more basic theory, government under law. That i, judicial review means a government in which no person (not even the president) and no institution (not even Congress), nor even a majority of voters, may freely work their will in violation of the written Constitution. Marshall himself never declared another act of Congress or of a president unconstitutional.

McCulloch v. Maryland

McCulloch v. Maryland, (1819) was perhaps Marshall's greatest single judicial performance. While consistent with Marbury v. Madison, cuts the other way and prevents states from passing laws that violate the national Constitution. It was not allowed for a state to tax a federal body. The heart of this opinion is the famous statement, "We must never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding." Marshall laid down the basic theory of implied powers under a written Constitution; a written, but a living, Constitution, intended, as he said "to endure for ages to come, and, consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs ... ." Marshall envisaged a federal government which, although governed by timeless principles, possessed the plenary powers "on which the welfare of a nation essentially depends." It would be free in its choice of means, not tied to a literal interpretation of the Constitution, and open to change and growth.

Cohens v. Virginia

Cohens v. Virginia (1821) displayed Marshall's nationalism as he enforced the supremacy of federal law over conflicting state law and overturned the Virginia supreme court. The decision means the federal judiciary can act directly on private parties and state officials, and has the power to declare and impose on the states the Constitution and federal laws.

Gibbons v. Ogden

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) overturned a monopoly granted by the New York state legislature to certain steamships operating between New York and New Jersey. In empowering Congress to regulate interstate commerce, the Constitution automatically deprived the states of the power to obstruct interstate commerce in order to serve their own interests. The long-term impact was ending many state-granted monopolies and promoting free enterprise.


Never during Marshall's 34 years as Chief Justice was there a presidential administration fully sympathetic to his outlook. The Court faced, especially in Virginia, an unrelenting campaign against almost all the Court's decisions dealing with state powers. Marshall's opponents did not want state power limited in any way. Jefferson was actively hostile, in part because of the substance of Marshall's decisions and more because of his Federalist origins. (While on the Court, Marshall did not engage in any partisan activity.)

Marshall's persistence was even more strikingly attested a few years later when, in the midst of great popular excitement, he presided as circuit justice at the arraignment and trial for treason of Aaron Burr in Richmond, Virginia. His every move was watched by Jefferson, who was strongly intent on securing a conviction. Yet, acting under Marshall's instructions defining the law of treason, the jury acquitted Burr. Jefferson tried and failed to remove Associate Justice Samuel Chase in 1805, then gave up his efforts to control the Supreme Court.

He died in Philadelphia on July 6, 1835.


  • "[W]ith us, Christianity and religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people our institutions did not presuppose Christianity and did not often refer to it and exhibit relations with it."[4]


  1. 1.0 1.1
  2. Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, (1988) page 237
  3. George Gibbs, Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams, (1846), vol. II, p. 350
  4. John Marshall, The Papers of John Marshall, Charles Hobson, editor (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), Vol. XII, p. 278, to Rev. Jasper Adams, May 9, 1833.


  • Beveridge, Albert J. The Life of John Marshall (1916) classic biography online edition
  • Corwin, Edward W., John Marshall and the Constitution: A Chronicle of the Supreme Court, Yale University Press, 1919. Online Edition: Project Gutenberg
  • Hobson, Charles. The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law (1996).
  • Johnson, Herbert Alan. "John Marshall" in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions — Vol. 1 (1997) pp 180–200 online edition
  • Johnson, Herbert A. The Chief Justiceship of John Marshall from 1801 to 1835. U. of South Carolina Pr., 1998. 352 pp.
  • Newmyer, R. Kent. John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court (2001). 511 pp. online review; excerpt and text search
  • Robarge, David. A Chief Justice's Progress: John Marshall from Revolutionary Virginia to the Supreme Court. Greenwood 2000. 366 pp. online edition
  • Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (1998) 752 pages excerpt and text search
  • Shevory, Thomas C. John Marshall's Law: Interpretation, Ideology, and Interest Greenwood Press, 1994 online edition
  • Simon, James F. What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States. Simon & Schuster, 2002. 348 pp.
  • White, G. Edward. The Marshall Court and Cultural Change, 1815-1835 (1988). 1009 pp; abridged ed. (1991). 864 pp. advanced jurisprudence

Primary sources

  • Collon, Joseph P., Jr., ed., Constitutional Decisions of John Marshall, (New York and London, 1905)
  • Hobson, Charles F.; Perdue, Susan Holbrook; and Lovelace, Joan S., eds. The Papers of John Marshall published by the U. of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; the standard scholarly edition; most recent volume: Vol. 11: Correspondence, Papers, and Selected Judicial Opinions, April 1827–December 1830. (2002)
  • Marshall, John. The Writings of John Marshall, Late Chief Justice of the United States (1839) 728 pages online edition

See also

External links