John Marshall was the fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1801-1835). In Marbury v. Madison (1803) and other landmark cases, Marshall asserted the Supreme Court’s authority to determine the constitutionality of the nation’s laws – a principle known as judicial review – and shaped the judiciary into a force powerful in the US government.
Early life and revolutionary war service
Marshall was born September 24, 1755 on the border with Virginia, in what is now Fauquier County. He was the eldest of 15 children born to Thomas Marshall, a land surveyor who worked for the mighty Lord Fairfax and was later elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, and to Mary Keith, a granddaughter of William Randolph, a key figure in the creation of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Largely self-taught, Marshall only attended one year of formal school, during which James Monroe was his classmate and friend. At 20, Marshall volunteered for the 3rd Virginia Regiment after the outbreak of the War of Independence. After first witnessing the Battle of Great Bridge in December 1775, in which the Patriotic Militia liberated Virginia from the British, Marshall bravely fought in the Battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. He spent the harsh winter of 1777-78 alongside General George Washington (his father’s friend and a major influence on Marshall) and his Continental Army at Valley Forge.
WATCH: Secrets of the Founding Fathers on HISTORY Vault
Practicing law and entering politics
After leaving military service in 1780, Marshall studied law at William & Mary with the famous lawyer George Wythe and wooed his future wife, Mary Willis (Polly) Ambler, who lived in the nearby town of Yorktown. He was quickly called to the Virginia Bar and started his own law firm, which flourished due to his success in defending his clients against British creditors. He also launched his career in politics, serving in the Virginia state legislature and working hard to convince Virginia to vote for the ratification of the Constitution in 1789.
During Washington’s two terms as president, Marshall became an influential supporter of the Federalist Party, despite refusing several federal appointments in order to stay in Richmond. Federalists were in favor of a strong national government, unlike the emphasis on state rights by the Democratic Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson, Marshall’s compatriot, as well as his first cousin.
As one of three American envoys tasked with resolving an impending crisis between the United States and France in 1797, Marshall refused to pay the bribes requested by the French authorities in order to negotiate. When President John Adams later published messages from French authorities, the ensuing XYZ affair led to an undeclared war with France known as a quasi-war.
From Secretary of State to Chief Justice
In 1798, Marshall was elected to the House of Representatives. He served for less than two years before Adams appointed him Secretary of State in 1800. After losing to Jefferson in the tumultuous election of 1800, Adams appointed Marshall Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He took office in early 1801, just weeks before Jefferson’s inauguration.
As one of its first significant cases, the Court of Marshall took Marbury v. Madison (1803), which arose out of a wave of federalist judicial appointments made in the final weeks of the Adams administration. As Secretary of State, Marshall had signed a number of Judges’ Commissions but had not delivered them by the time Adams left office. Jefferson ordered James Madison, his secretary of state, not to hand over some of the commissions, including that of William Marbury, whom Adams had chosen as justice of the peace for the District of Columbia. In his lawsuit, Marbury asked the Supreme Court to issue a “summons of mandamus,” an order forcing Madison to honor her commission.
In the unanimous court decision, Marshall said Marbury had a legal right to the office and Madison had violated that right. However, he wrote that the Constitution did not give the Supreme Court the power to grant Marbury a mandate as mandamus, despite an earlier act of Congress that said otherwise. In this way, Marshall asserted the ultimate power of the Court to interpret the constitutionality of the laws of the nation, known as the principle of judicial review.
Marshall’s impact on the Supreme Court
At the time, the Supreme Court had little authority over the President and Congress; it didn’t even have its own building, meeting instead in a vacant committee room on the Capitol. But during his 34 years as Chief Justice, Marshall shaped the judicial branch into an equal force in government alongside the President (executive branch) and Congress (legislative branch).
As a steadfast federalist, Marshall also interpreted the U.S. Constitution in a way that expanded the power of the federal government over states. In particular, the landmark Court decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), which Marshall also wrote, established the idea that the Constitution gave Congress implied powers beyond those specifically listed in the document, including the power to create a national bank that could not be imposed by the various states. In Cohens v. Virginia (1921), the Court asserted its own right to review judgments of state courts, helping to establish the supremacy of federal courts over state courts.
Death and inheritance
Although the Federalist Party effectively dissolved in 1815, Marshall remained a champion of the idea of a strong national government and a worthy opponent of Democratic-Republican political rivals from Jefferson to Andrew Jackson. During Marshall’s tenure, the Supreme Court would render over 1,000 decisions, more than half of those written by Marshall himself. Almost all were unanimous, a testament to Marshall’s strong leadership and ability to build consensus despite the fact that every judge during their tenure was appointed by a president who opposed Marshall’s views.
Marshall led the Supreme Court through six presidential administrations, serving until his death in Philadelphia on July 6, 1835 at the age of 79. Widely regarded as the most influential jurist in U.S. history, Marshall laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court’s role as the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution and paved the way for the expansion of the federal government to 19th and 20th centuries.
Joël Richard Paul. Unprecedented: Chief Justice John Marshall and his time (Penguin Publishing Group, 2019)
Ben Wyne. “John Marshall. Washington Library – Center for Digital History – Digital Encyclopedia, Mount Vernon.
“John Marshall, the Grand Chief Justice. »William & Mary Law School.