John Marshall (1755–1835)

John Marshall was the longest serving and arguably greatest chief justice of the United States (1801–1835). Marshall was born on September 24, 1755, in what is now Fauquier County, Virginia. As a young man, Marshall fought in the Revolutionary War and served with George Washington at Valley Forge in 1777–1778. During 1780, when the fighting had subsided, he studied law under George Wythe at the College of William & Mary. Following the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781, Marshall was elected to the Virginia General Assembly. He also began a law practice in Richmond, the new capital of Virginia. He was a delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention for the Constitution in 1788 and distinguished himself with a speech defending the proposed federal judiciary.

Following Virginia’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution and subsequent establishment of the new national government, Marshall declined various suggestions that he seek election to Congress or some other federal appointment. In 1797, he did accept an appointment from President Adams to be part of a commission negotiating with France. Although the commission failed due to French intrigues and corruption, Marshall established a national reputation by resisting French demands. As a result, Marshall was elected to Congress in 1798 and was appointed secretary of state in 1800. When the chief justice position became vacant and President Adams’ first choice declined, the appointment was offered to Marshall. He assumed office one month before President Adams left office.

During Marshall’s tenure as chief justice, the fundamental question before the Court, indeed before the nation, was the nature of the more perfect union created by the Constitution of 1787. Many Americans regarded the union as merely a treaty between independent states, each of which was actually an independent country. They saw the national government as nothing more than an early example of the European Union or NATO. It was not sovereign. In sharp contrast, others believed that the union was a distinct nation. The national government, like the states, was a sovereign. Within the spheres of responsibility explicitly assigned by the Constitution, the national government was supreme.

Marshall subscribed to the latter view and, through his extraordinary powers of persuasion, convinced his fellow justices to go along with him. Several of Marshall’s opinions form the foundation of modern constitutional law. First and most significantly, in Marbury v. Madison (1803), Marshall established the principle of judicial review—the Court could review the constitutionality of an act of Congress. Thus, the Court acquired the right to have the final say as to the meaning of the Constitution and to set aside legislation passed by democratically elected legislators. In Fletcher v. Peck (1810), he held that the Contracts Clause of the Constitution forbids the states from rescinding land grants. McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) established a broad view of the enumerated powers of the national government. His opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) suggested a broad view of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.

Yet, while affirming that the national government was sovereign, he also recognized the sovereignty of the states. The Court’s decision in Barron v. Baltimore (1833) held that the Bill of Rights limited only the national government, not the states. Wilson v. Black Bird Creek Marsh Co. (1829) recognized the right of a state to block a navigable waterway and, thus, regulate interstate commerce.

Marshall’s tenure spanned the Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Quincy Adams, and Jackson administrations. He died in July 1835.

William E. Thro

Further Readings

  • Hobson, C. F. (1996). The great chief justice: John Marshall and the rule of law. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press. 
  • Simon, J. F. (2002). What kind of nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the epic struggle to create the United States. New York: Simon & Schuster. 
  • Stites, F. N. (1981). John Marshall: Defender of the Constitution. Boston: Little, Brown. 

Legal Citations

  • Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 243 (1833). 
  • Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. (6 Cranch) 87 (1810). 
  • Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1 (1824). 
  • Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137 (1803). 
  • McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819). 
  • Wilson v. Black Bird Creek Marsh Co., 27 U.S. (2 Pet.) 245 (1829).