As the fourth chief justice of the United States, John Marshall (1755-1835) was the principal architect in consolidating and defining the powers of the Supreme Court. Perhaps more than any other man he set the prevailing tone of American constitutional law.
The eldest of Thomas and Mary Marshall's 15 children, John Marshall was born on Sept. 24, 1755, near Germantown, Va. Frontier and family were the shaping forces of his youth. His mother came from the aristocratic Randolphs of "Turkey Island." His father—"the foundation of all my own success in life," recalled John Marshall—was a man of humble origin who, through native ability and strength of character, rose to relative prominence. Marshall's spare formal education consisted mainly of tutored lessons in the classics and Latin. His father saw to it, however, that John was solidly grounded in English literature and history; he also brought home practical lessons in politics from his service in the Virginia House of Burgesses during the years preceding the American Revolution.
Family unity, a tradition of learning, and a concern for affairs of the world shielded young Marshall from the barbarity of the frontier. But the West also left its mark—in a gaiety of heart, an open democratic demeanor, and a manliness of character that were no small part of Marshall's gift of leadership.
A dedicated patriot from the outset, Marshall saw action with the Culpepper Minutemen in 1775. As an officer in the Continental Line, he took part in several important battles and endured the hardships of Valley Forge. His experience, fortified by his association with George Washington and other nationalist leaders, left him with the passionate love of union and chronic distrust of state particularism that later became the twin pillars of his constitutional law.
Before Capt. Marshall was mustered out of the Army in 1781, he had decided on law as a profession. He heard George Wythe's law lectures at the College of William and Mary in 1780, and during that summer he was licensed to practice and that August was admitted to the county bar. During this same period Marshall fell in love with Mary Ambler. They were married in January 1783 and took up residence in Richmond, Va.
Early Political Career
Marshall's natural eloquence, charismatic personality, and rare gift for logical analysis overcame the deficiencies in his legal education. He rose quickly to the head of the Richmond bar. He also distinguished himself in state politics. He sat in the House of Burgesses (1782-1784, 1787-1791, and 1795-1797), where he consistently supported nationalist measures. He served on the important Committee on the Courts of Justice and when only 27 was elected by the legislature to the governor's Council of State.
Marshall's legislative experience confirmed his belief that the Articles of Confederation needed to be strengthened against the irresponsible and selfish forces of state power. As a delegate to the Virginia convention for the ratification of the Federal Constitution (1788), he put his nationalist ideas to use. Though somewhat overshadowed by established statesmen, he spoke influentially for ratification. And on the hotly debated subject of the Federal judiciary, he led the nationalist offensive.
Federalist orthodoxy and demonstrated ability soon won Marshall national prominence. During the crisis over the Jay Treaty in 1795, when party lines began to crystallize, Marshall supported Washington and Alexander Hamilton against the Jeffersonian Republicans. As a lawyer in the Supreme Court case of Ware v. Hylton (1796), he adhered to Federalist principles by arguing the supremacy of national law.
Marshall had turned down offers from President Washington to be attorney general and minister to France. In 1797 he agreed to serve on the "XYZ mission" to France. Shortly after his return, President John Adams offered him an appointment to the Supreme Court, but he declined. Elected to Congress in 1798, he soon became a leader of the Federalists in the House. Declining to serve as secretary of war, he accepted appointment in 1800 as secretary of state. Eight months later Adams appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court, hoping to hold back the forces of states'-rights democracy, which in the form of the Jeffersonian Republicans had gained control of the Federal government.
Marshall took his seat on the Court on March 5, 1801, and from that time until his death was absorbed in judicial duties. He did find time, however, to write a five-volume biography of George Washington (1804-1807) and to serve in the Virginia constitutional convention (1829-1830). But it was as chief justice that Marshall made his mark on American history. The pressing problem in 1801 was to unify and strengthen the Court. Accordingly he persuaded his colleagues to abandon the practice of delivering separate opinions and to permit him to write the opinion of the Court, which he did in the great majority of cases from 1801 to 1811. In addition, Marshall gave the Court a needed victory. His opinion in Marbury v. Madison (1803) for the first time declared an act of Congress unconstitutional, thus consolidating the Court's power of judicial review and providing future Courts with an elaborate defense of judicial power.
In United States v. Peters (1809) Marshall struck another blow for judicial power, this time against the claims of a state, by establishing the Court's right to be the final interpreter of Federal law. His opinion in Fletcher v. Peck held that the contract clause of the Constitution prevented state legislatures from repealing grants of land to private-interest groups. This was the first in a series of contract decisions that encouraged the growth of corporate capitalism. Few of Marshall's opinions touched civil rights; but in the Aaron Burr treason case, he struck a powerful blow for political freedom by defining treason narrowly and requiring strict proof for conviction.
From the end of the War of 1812 through 1824 the Marshall Court was most creative. Marshall's position on the Court was less dominant than it had been before because able, new justices appeared. But he was unquestionably the guiding spirit and personally wrote opinions in the most important constitutional cases. Two such were McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824). In the first case, Marshall upheld the congressional act chartering the Second Bank of the United States, thereby securing a national currency and credit structure for interstate capitalism. Also, by authorizing Congress to go beyond enumerated powers through a broad interpretation of the "necessary and proper" clause, he created a body of implied national powers.
Marshall's Gibbons opinion gave Congress supreme and comprehensive authority within the enumerated powers of Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. The definition of commerce in the Gibbons case was sufficiently broad to bring the revolutionary developments in transportation and communication of the 20th century within the scope of congressional authority. These two cases created a reservoir of national power and guaranteed a flexible Constitution that could meet the nation's changing needs. That the Court should be the final interpreter of that flexible Constitution was the message of Marshall's compelling opinion in Cohens v. Virginia (1821).
Marshall's Concept of the Nation
Nationalist though he was, Marshall did not intend to destroy the states or establish the nation as an end in itself. He envisaged the national good as the sum of the productive individuals who constituted it, each pursuing his self-interest. Accordingly Marshall's opinions worked to release the creative energies of private enterprise and create a national arena for their operation. In Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) Marshall ruled that a corporation charter was a contract within the meaning of the Constitution which the states could not impair. As a result, private educational institutions, along with hundreds of business corporations chartered by the states, were secured against state interference. The unleashed forces of commerce, Marshall believed, would transcend selfish provincialism and create a powerful, self-sufficient nation.
Aroused states'-rights pressures in the 1820s forced the Marshall Court to curtail its nationalism. In addition, new appointments to the Court allowed division and dissent to burst into the open. The chief justice did not surrender national principles—as evidenced in Brown v. Maryland (1827) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832)—and he continued to lead the Court, but the age of judicial creativity was temporarily over. With the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828, Marshall became increasingly pessimistic.
Meanwhile the death of Marshall's wife left him disconsolate. And his own health began to fail, though he remained intellectually alert and continued performing his duties until his death on July 6, 1835.
Marshall died believing that the Constitution and the republic for which he had labored were gone, but history proved him wrong. The nation continued along the course of nationalism and capitalism that he had done so much to establish; the Court and the law continued to follow the lines he projected. His reputation as the "great chief justice" seems secure.
Further Reading on John Marshall
Albert J. Beveridge, The Life of John Marshall (4 vols., 1916-1919; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1947), despite its nationalist bias, remains the standard biography. Edward S. Corwin, John Marshall and the Constitution: A Chronicle of the Supreme Court (1919), concentrates on his judicial career.
James Bradley Thayer and others, John Marshall (1967), is a collection of classic essays. William M. Jones, ed., Chief Justice John Marshall: A Reappraisal (1956), is another collection of distinguished essays. The most exhaustive analysis of Marshall's judicial philosophy is Robert K. Faulkner, The Jurisprudence of John Marshall (1968). The relationship between the two giants of American constitutional development is examined in Samuel J. Konefsky, John Marshall and Alexander Hamilton: Architects of the American Constitution (1964). Standard constitutional histories, such as Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History (3 vols., 1923; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1926), and Charles G. Haines, The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government and Politics, 1789-1835 (1944), also contain material on Marshall's career. For further material the reader should consult James A. Servies, A Bibliography of John Marshall (1956), and numerous essays on him in historical and legal periodicals.