Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall
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Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall

John Marshall (September 24, 1755 – July 6, 1835) was an American statesman and jurist who greatly influenced American constitutional law. Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice of the United States, serving from February 4, 1801 until his death. He had previously served in a variety of political offices; most notably, he was a member of the United States House of Representatives from March 4, 1799 to June 7, 1800, and Secretary of State from June 6, 1800 to March 4, 1801. Marshall was a native of the state of Virginia and a member of the Federalist Party.

(Note that the title "Chief Justice of the United States" is a modern version of the title, in official use since approximately the middle of the 19th century. At the time Marshall was Chief Justice, his official title would have been "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.")

The longest-serving Chief Justice in Supreme Court history, Marshall dominated the Court for over three decades, and played a significant role in the development of the American political system. Most notably, he established that the courts were entitled to exercise judicial review, or the power to strike down laws that violated the Constitution. Thus, Marshall has been credited with cementing the position of the judiciary as an independent and influential branch of government. Furthermore, Marshall made several important decisions relating to federalism, shaping the balance of power between the federal government and the states during the early years of the republic. In particular, he repeatedly confirmed the supremacy of federal law over state law, and supported an expansive reading of the enumerated powers.

John Marshall was born in a log cabin near Germantown, a rural community on the Virginia frontier. His parents were Thomas Marshall, a planter, and Mary Randolph Keith. John was the oldest of fifteen children (seven boys and eight girls), all of whom survived into adulthood, and many of whom were remarkably significant in the development of the republic. Marshall was of English descent.

As a young man, he studied the classics and English literature, eventually working with a private tutor from Scotland, the Reverend James Thompson. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to a classical academy in Westmoreland County for additional instruction. James Monroe, who would later become the fifth President of the United States, studied alongside Marshall. After a year, he returned home to resume studies with the Reverend Thompson.

As the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, Marshall joined the Culpeper Minutemen, and was appointed a lieutenant. He fought at the Battle of Great Bridge, where the minutemen defeated British troops under Lord Dunmore, permanently ending British control of Virginia. In 1776, Marshall’s company was attached to the Eleventh Virginia Continental Regiment. He participated in many battles, including Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, Stony Point, and Paulus Hook. While serving in the Continental Army, Marshall became an acquaintance of General George Washington, who would later become President of the United States.

Having reached the rank of captain, Marshall returned to Virginia in 1779. He studied law privately, attending lectures conducted by George Wythe at the College of William and Mary. He was admitted to the bar in 1780, but returned to the army when British troops invaded Virginia later in the same year. He served under the Baron von Steuben until 1781, when he resigned his army commission in order to begin private law practice. Soon, Marshall gained a reputation as a leading lawyer. He married seventeen year-old Mary Willis Ambler in 1783; the couple would have ten children, of whom six would survive into adulthood. With his new wife, the young lawyer settled in Richmond, the state capital.

In 1782, Marshall entered politics, winning a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, in which he served until 1790, and again from 1795–1796. The Virginia General Assembly elected him to serve on the Council of State later in the same year. In 1785, Marshall took up the additional office of Recorder of the Richmond City Hustings Court.

In 1788, Marshall was selected as a delegate to the Virginia convention responsible for ratifying or rejecting the United States Constitution, which had been proposed by the Philadelphia Convention a year earlier. Together with James Madison and Edmund Randolph, Marshall led the fight for ratification. His most prominent opponent at the ratification convention was the anti-Federalist leader Patrick Henry. Ultimately, the convention approved the constitution by a vote of 89–79. New parties developed soon after the constitution came into effect; Marshall identified the Federalist Party (which supported a strong national government and commercial interests), rather than the Democratic-Republican Party (which advocated states’ rights and agricultural interests).

Meanwhile, Marshall’s private law practice continued to flourish. He successfully represented the heirs of Lord Fairfax in Hite v. Fairfax (1786), an important Virginia Supreme Court case involving a large tract of land in the Northern Neck of Virginia. In 1796, he appeared before the United States Supreme Court in another important case, Ware v. Hylton, a case involving the validity a Virginia law providing for the confiscation of debts owed to British subjects. Marshall argued that the law was a legitimate exercise of the state’s power; however, the Supreme Court ruled against him, holding that the Treaty of Paris required the collection of such debts.

There is a law school in Chicago named in his honor.

An engraving of Justice Marshall made by Charles-Balthazar-Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin in 1808.Upon the death of William Bradford in 1795, President George Washington offered Marshall the position of Attorney General of the United States. Marshall, however, declined, preferring to continue as a practicing lawyer. In 1796, Washington offered to make him minister to France, but Marshall again refused. Marshall finally left private practice in 1797, when President John Adams appointed him to a three-member commission to represent the United States in France. (The other members of this commission were Charles Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry.) However, when the envoys arrived, the French refused to conduct diplomatic negotiations unless the United States paid enormous bribes. This diplomatic scandal became known as the XYZ Affair, inflaming anti-French opinion in the United States. Hostility increased even further when the Directoire expelled Marshall and Pinckney from France. Marshall’s handling of the affair, as well as resentment towards the French, made him a popular man when he returned to the United States.

In 1798, President Adams requested him to fill a Supreme Court seat made vacant by the death of Justice James Wilson. Marshall, however, refused, instead recommending Bushrod Washington, the nephew of George Washington. Bushrod Washington would later become one of Marshall’s staunchest allies on the Court. Thereafter, in 1799, Marshall reluctantly ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Although his congressional district (which included the city of Richmond) favored the Republican Party, Marshall won the race, in part due to his conduct during the XYZ Affair and in part due to the support of Patrick Henry. His most notable speech was related to the case of Thomas Nash (alias Jonathan Robbins), whom the government had extradited to Great Britain on charges of murder. Marshall defended the government’s actions, arguing that nothing in the Constitution prevents the United States from extraditing one of its citizens.

On May 7, 1799, President Adams nominated Congressman Marshall to replace James McHenry as Secretary of War. However, on May 12, Adams withdrew the nomination, instead naming him Secretary of State, as a replacement for Timothy Pickering. Confirmed by the Senate on May 13, Marshall took office on June 6, 1800. As Secretary of State, Marshall directed the negotiation of the Convention of 1800 with France.

It was in 1801 that Marshall embarked upon the most important work of his life, that of leading the Supreme Court of the United States. On January 20 of that year, President Adams nominated him to replace Oliver Ellsworth as Chief Justice. Adams had first offered the seat to ex-Chief Justice John Jay, who declined on the grounds that the Court lacked "energy, weight, and dignity." Marshall was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on January 27 and took office on February 4. However, he continued to serve as Secretary of State until President Adams’ term expired on March 4.

Soon after becoming Chief Justice, Marshall revolutionized the manner in which the Supreme Court announced its decisions. Previously, each Justice would author a separate opinion (known as a seriatim opinion). Under Marshall, however, the Supreme Court adopted the practice of handing down a single opinion of the Court. As Marshall was almost always the author of this opinion, he essentially became the Court’s sole mouthpiece in important cases. His forceful personality allowed him to dominate his fellow Justices; he very rarely found himself on the losing side. (The case of Ogden v. Saunders in 1827 was the sole constitutional case in which he dissented from the majority.)

The first important case of Marshall’s career was Marbury v. Madison (1803), in which the Supreme Court invalidated a provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 on the grounds that it violated the Constitution. Marbury was the first case in which the Supreme Court ruled an act of Congress unconstitutional; it firmly established the doctrine of judicial review. Oddly enough the very commissions which were the subject of the Marbury case were to be delivered by then Secretary of State, John Marshall. Some historians have speculated that Marshall planned and purposefully forgot to deliver to Marbury his appointment as Justice of the Peace so as to create the doctrine of judicial review. The decision was opposed by President Thomas Jefferson, who lamented that this doctrine made the Constitution "a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they please."

In 1807, the Chief Justice presided over the trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr for treason. Prior to the trial, President Jefferson condemned Burr and strongly supported conviction. Marshall, however, narrowly construed the definition of treason provided in Article III of the Constitution; he noted that the prosecution had failed to prove that Burr had committed an "overt act," as the Constitution required. As a result, the jury acquitted the defendant, leading to increased animosity between the President and the Chief Justice.

During the 1810s and 1820s, Marshall made a series of decisions involving the balance of power between the federal government and the states. He repeatedly affirmed federal supremacy; for example, he established in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) that states could not tax federal institutions, and in Cohens v. Virginia (1821) that the federal judiciary could hear appeals from decisions of state courts. Justices Bushrod Washington and Joseph Story proved to be his strongest allies in these cases.

The text of the McCulloch v. Maryland decision, handed down March 6, 1819, as recorded in the minutes of the Supreme Court of the United States, in which the Court determined the separate states could not tax the federal government.In the United States Supreme Court, Marshall made his greatest contributions to the development of American government. Then, as the young nation was endangered by regional and local interests which often threatened to fracture its hard-fought unity, Marshall again and again interpreted the Constitution broadly so that the Federal Government had the power to become a respected and creative force guiding and encouraging the nation’s growth. For practical purposes, the Constitution in its most important aspects today is the Constitution as John Marshall interpreted it. As Chief Justice, he embodied the majesty of the judiciary of the government as fully as the President of the United States stood for the power of the Executive Branch.

Marshall wrote several important Supreme Court opinions, including:

Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803)
Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. 87 (1810)
McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819)
Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1819)
Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264 (1821)
Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1 (1824)
Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832)

Marshall served as Chief Justice through all or part of six Presidential administrations (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson), and remained a stalwart proponent of Federalism and nemesis of the Jeffersonian school of government throughout its heyday.

When we speak of John Marshall’s legacy, we must remember that through his decisions he helped build a nation. He favored expansive readings of federal power that allowed for us to become more then just an amalgamation of states. Through the power of his pen he wielded more influence then those who would be given the considerable powers of the purse and the command of armies. His decision in Marbury has been described by some historians as the most impressive non violent powergrab in history, imputing upon the courts the power of judicial review and upon himself, the power to shape a nation. Indeed, the historian often marvels at Marshall’s truly innate ability to speak almost as providence himself, his mighty pen driving the wisdom of this great land onward into its manifest destiny.

He never had to remain in Washington for more than three months. During the rest of the year, with the exception of a visit to Raleigh, North Carolina, which his duties as circuit judge required him to make, and a visit to his old home in Fauquier County, he lived in Richmond on Shockhoe Hill. Furthermore, Marshall’s career, following his appointment to the Court and excepting his monumental contribution to that body, was relatively uneventful.

In 1805, he published a five-volume biography of George Washington, the Life of Washington, based on records and papers provided him by the President’s family, of which the first volume was in 1824 reissued separately as A History of the American Colonies. The work reflected Marshall’s Federalist principles, and consequently was not well received by President Jefferson.

In 1807, he presided, with Judge Cyrus Griffin, at the great state trial of Aaron Burr, who was charged with treason and misdemeanor. Few public trials have excited greater interest than this. President Thomas Jefferson and his adherents desired Burr’s conviction, but Marshall preserved the most rigid impartiality and exact justice throughout the trial, acquitting himself, as always, to the public satisfaction.

In 1823, he became first president of the Richmond branch of the American Colonization Society, which was dedicated to resettling American slaves across the Atlantic Ocean in Liberia, Africa.

In 1828, he presided over a convention to promote internal improvements in Virginia.

In 1829, he was a delegate to the state constitutional convention where he was again joined by fellow American statesman and loyal Virginians, James Madison and James Monroe, although all were quite old by that time. Marshall mainly spoke at this convention to promote the necessity of an independent judiciary.

On Christmas Day, 1831 his wife of some 49 years died. All of his familiars agreed that after the death of his beloved wife, he was never quite the same again.

In 1832, Marshall’s revised and condensed two-volume Life of Washington was published.

On returning from Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1835 he suffered severe contusions resulting from an accident to the stage coach in which he was riding. His health, which had not been good, now rapidly declined and in June he journeyed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for medical attendance. There he died on July 6, at the age of 79, having served as Chief Justice for over 34 years.

He was the last person for whom the Liberty Bell tolled. After it tolled for his death, the next time someone went to see it it was broken.

Two days before his death he enjoined his friends to place only a plain slab over the graves of himself and wife, and he wrote the simple inscription himself. His body, which was taken to Richmond, lies in Shockhoe Hill Cemetery.

Son of Thomas and Mary Marshall
was born the 24th of September 1755
Intermarried with Mary Willis Ambler
the 3rd of January 1783
Departed this life
the 6th day of July 1835.
Marshall’s home in Richmond, Virginia has been preserved by APVA Preservation Virginia.

An engraved portrait of Marshall appears on U.S. paper money on the series 1890 and 1891 treasury notes. These rare notes are in great demand by collectors today, view an example at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco website:

Again, in 1914, an engraved portrait of Marshall was used as the central vignette on series 1914 0.00 federal reserve notes. These notes are also quite scarce, view an example at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco website:

His mother was a cousin of Thomas Jefferson His cousin was Congressman Humphrey Marshall.

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