John Marshall presided over the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. Appointed by President JOHN ADAMS, Marshall assumed leadership during a pivotal era. The early nineteenth century saw tremendous political battles over the future of the United States and its Constitution, often with the Court at the center of controversy. By the force of personality, argument, and shrewdness, Marshall steered it through this rocky yet formative period. He weathered harsh criticism as the Court set important precedents that increased its power and defined its role in government. Historians credit him with establishing what has been called the American judicial tradition, in which the Supreme Court acts as an independent branch of government endowed with final authority over constitutional interpretation.
Marshall was born September 24, 1755, near Germantown (now Midland), Virginia. He was the son of Thomas Marshall, a wealthy landowner, JUSTICE OF THE PEACE, and sheriff. Like his father he fought in the Revolutionary War and married into a prominent family. His father's tutoring significantly enhanced his mere two years of formal education, which were augmented in 1780 by a brief attendance at lectures in law at the College of William and Mary.
Marshall was also influenced by GEORGE WASHINGTON. Because of his service to General Washington in the war, Marshall became a strong Federalist. He later wrote about his mentor in his book Life of George Washington (1805–7).
Marriage ties made Marshall a relative of a leading Virginia political family. This helped secure his place in society, paving the way for an early legal and political career in the 1780s. He specialized in appellate cases and quickly distinguished himself in the Virginia state bar. He also served in Virginia's council of state from 1782 to 1784, and in its house of delegates four times between 1782 and 1795. But it was as a partisan of the Federalists—the opponents of the states' rights–minded Republicans—that he came to wide acclaim. The struggle between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans was the most important political contest of the day. Marshall served as a devoted publicist and organizer for the Federalist cause in Virginia, and this work earned him various offers to serve as U.S. attorney general and as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. It also earned him the animosity of his distant cousin, Republican THOMAS JEFFERSON, who soon became U.S. president and was his lifelong political adversary.
In 1798 Marshall agreed to serve Federalist president John Adams as one of three U.S. ministers to France during one of the Napoleonic Wars between France and Great Britain. In a scandal known as the XYZ AFFAIR, the French foreign ministry attempted to solicit a bribe from the U.S. emissaries, and Marshall became a national hero for refusing. He quickly emerged
as the leading spokesman for FEDERALISM in Washington, D.C., as a member of Congress from 1799 to 1800 and briefly as SECRETARY OF STATE under Adams in 1800. Then Adams lost the 1800 presidential election to Jefferson, and the Republicans won control of Congress. In a desperate attempt to preserve the Federalists' power, Adams spent the remaining days of his administration making judicial appointments. Sixteen new positions for judges on federal circuit courts and dozens for justices of the peace in the District of Columbia were handed out during the final days of Adams's administration. These last-minute appointees came to be known as MIDNIGHT JUDGES. One of these seats went to Marshall, who was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court.
On March 4, 1801, Marshall assumed his duties as the head of the Court. Jefferson and the Republicans were furious over Adams's court stacking, and they swiftly quashed the appointments—except that, inexplicably, they did not challenge Marshall's. Marshall kept the Court out of the fray. He feared that in a conflict between the judiciary and the EXECUTIVE BRANCH, the Court would lose.
Marshall again faced political conflict when in 1803 the Court ruled on a case brought by William Marbury, whose appointment as a D.C. justice of the peace had been one of those barred by the Republicans. Marshall's opinion for the unanimous Court in MARBURY V. MADISON, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60, dismissed Marbury's suit on the ground that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to rule on it. But at the same time, the Court restated the position that it had the power to rule on questions of constitutionality. By striking down a section of the JUDICIARY ACT OF 1789 (1 Stat. 73), Marshall's opinion marked the first time that the Court overturned an act of Congress. Not for more than fifty years would it exercise this power again. Marshall asserted the right of the Supreme Court to engage in JUDICIAL REVIEW of the law, writing, "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is." Marbury was the crucial first step in the evolution of the Supreme Court's authority as it exists today.
Marshall emphasized the need to limit state power by asserting the primacy of the federal government over the states. In 1819, as Marshall reached the height of his influence, he cited the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution (art.
1, § 10) as a basis for protecting corporate charters from state interference (TRUSTEES OF DARTMOUTH COLLEGE V. WOODWARD, 17 U.S. [4 Wheat.] 518, 4 L. Ed. 629). That year he also struck a blow to STATES' RIGHTS in MCCULLOCH V. MARYLAND, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 4 L. Ed. 579, where he noted that the Constitution is not a "splendid bauble" that states can abridge as they see fit. In 1821 he advanced the theory of judicial review, rejecting a challenge by the state of Virginia to the appellate authority of the Supreme Court (Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. [6 Wheat.] 264, 5 L. Ed. 257).
In his written opinions, Marshall typically relied on the power of logic and his own forceful eloquence, rather than citing law. This approach was noted by Associate Justice JOSEPH STORY: "When I examine a question, I go from headland to headland, from case to case. Marshall has a compass, puts out to sea, and goes directly to the result."
Marshall was not without opponents. Foremost among them was Jefferson. In 1810 Jefferson wrote to President JAMES MADISON that "[t]he Chief Justice's leadership was marked by "cunning and sophistry" and displayed "rancourous hatred" of the democratic principles of the Republicans. Jefferson led the Republican attack on Marshall with the accusation that he twisted the law to suit his own biases.
Although Marshall weathered the attacks, his authority, and the Court's, was ultimately affected. Not all his decisions were enforced; some were openly resisted by the president. New appointments to the Court brought states' rights advocates onto the bench, and Marshall began to compromise as a leader and to make concessions to ideological opponents.
Marshall died in office on July 6, 1835.