John Marshall

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Marshall, John,

1755–1835, American jurist, 4th chief justice of the United States (1801–35), b. Virginia.

Early Life

The eldest of 15 children, John Marshall was born in a log cabin on the Virginia frontier (today in Fauquier co., Va.) and spent his childhood and youth in primitive surroundings. His father rose to prominence in local and state politics. Through his mother he was related to the Lees and the Randolphs and to Thomas Jefferson, later his great antagonist.

Marshall first left home for any length of time to serve as an officer in the American Revolution. He returned in 1779 after attending for a few months lectures on law given by George WytheWythe, George
, 1726–1806, American lawyer, signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. Elizabeth City co., Va. Admitted to the bar in 1746, Wythe was a member (1754–55, 1758–68) and clerk (1769–75) of the house of burgesses.
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 at the College of William and Mary (his only formal education). Admitted to the bar in 1780, he practiced law in the West and was elected (1782) a delegate to the Virginia assembly. He married and settled in Richmond, his home until his death.

Political Career

His brilliant skill in argument made him one of the most esteemed of the many great lawyers of Virginia. A defender of the new U.S. Constitution at the Virginia ratifying convention, Marshall later staunchly supported the Federalist administration, and after refusing Washington's offer to make him U.S. Attorney General or minister to France, he finally accepted appointment as one of the commissioners to France in the diplomatic dispute that ended in the XYZ AffairXYZ Affair,
name usually given to an incident (1797–98) in Franco-American diplomatic relations. The United States had in 1778 entered into an alliance with France, but after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars was both unable and unwilling to lend aid.
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Marshall's effectiveness there made him a popular figure, and he was elected to Congress as a Federalist in 1799. One of the tiny group that continued to support President John AdamsAdams, John,
1735–1826, 2d President of the United States (1797–1801), b. Quincy (then in Braintree), Mass., grad. Harvard, 1755. John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams, founded one of the most distinguished families of the United States; their son, John Quincy
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, he was prevailed upon to become Secretary of State (1800–1801). Before he left the cabinet he was appointed chief justice and confirmed by the Senate despite some opposition.

Great Chief Justice

In his long service on the bench, Marshall raised the Supreme Court from an anomalous position in the federal scheme to power and majesty, and he molded the Constitution by the breadth and wisdom of his interpretation; he eminently deserves the appellation the Great Chief Justice. He dominated the court equally by his personality and his ability, and his achievements were made in spite of strong disagreements with Jefferson and later Presidents.

A loyal Federalist, Marshall saw in the Constitution the instrument of national unity and federal power and the guarantee of the security of private property. He made incontrovertible the previously uncertain right of the Supreme Court to review federal and state laws and to pronounce final judgment on their constitutionality. He viewed the Constitution on the one hand as a precise document setting forth specific powers and on the other hand as a living instrument that should be broadly interpreted so as to give the federal government the means to act effectively within its limited sphere (see McCulloch v. MarylandMcCulloch v. Maryland,
case decided in 1819 by the U.S. Supreme Court, dealing specifically with the constitutionality of a Congress-chartered corporation, and more generally with the dispersion of power between state and federal governments.
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His opinion in the Dartmouth College CaseDartmouth College Case,
decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1819. The legislature of New Hampshire, in 1816, without the consent of the college trustees, amended the charter of 1769 to make Dartmouth College public. The trustees brought suit.
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 was the most famous of those that dealt with the constitutional requirement of the inviolability of contract, another favorite theme with Marshall. His interpretation of the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution, most notably in Gibbons v. OgdenGibbons v. Ogden,
case decided in 1824 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Aaron Ogden, the plaintiff, had purchased an interest in the monopoly to operate steamboats that New York state had granted to Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston.
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, made it a powerful extension of federal power at the expense of the states. In general Marshall opposed states' rightsstates' rights,
in U.S. history, doctrine based on the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
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 doctrines, and there were many criticisms advanced against him and against the increasing prestige of the Supreme Court.

The sometimes undignified quarrel with JeffersonJefferson, Thomas,
1743–1826, 3d President of the United States (1801–9), author of the Declaration of Independence, and apostle of agrarian democracy. Early Life

Jefferson was born on Apr. 13, 1743, at "Shadwell," in Goochland (now in Albemarle) co.
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 (which had one of its earliest expressions in Marbury v. MadisonMarbury v. Madison,
case decided in 1803 by the U.S. Supreme Court. William Marbury had been commissioned justice of the peace in the District of Columbia by President John Adams in the "midnight appointments" at the very end of his administration.
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) reached a high point in the trial (1807) of Aaron BurrBurr, Aaron,
1756–1836, American political leader, b. Newark, N.J., grad. College of New Jersey (now Princeton). Political Career

A brilliant law student, Burr interrupted his study to serve in the American Revolution and proved himself a valiant soldier in
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 for treason. Marshall presided as circuit judge and interpreted the clause in the Constitution requiring proof of an "overt act" for conviction of treason so that Burr escaped conviction because he had engaged only in a conspiracy. Marshall's difficulties with President JacksonJackson, Andrew,
1767–1845, 7th President of the United States (1829–37), b. Waxhaw settlement on the border of South Carolina and North Carolina (both states claim him). Early Career

A child of the backwoods, he was left an orphan at 14.
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 reached their peak when Marshall declared against Georgia in the matter of expelling the CherokeeCherokee
, largest Native American group in the United States. Formerly the largest and most important tribe in the Southeast, they occupied mountain areas of North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.
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, a decision that the state flouted.

Influence and Style

Marshall in his arguments drew much from his colleagues, especially his devoted adherent, Justice Joseph Story, and he was stimulated and inspired by the lawyers pleading before the court, among them some of the most brilliant legal minds America has seen, including Daniel Webster, Luther Martin, William Pinkney, William Wirt, and Jeremiah Mason. Marshall in his manners combined the unceremonious heartiness of the frontier with the leisurely grace of the Virginia aristocracy. So great was his winning charm and so absolute his integrity that he gained the admiration of his enemies and the unbounded affection of his friends.

His style combined conciseness and precision. He wrote each opinion as a series of logical deductions from self-evident propositions, and it was almost never his practice to cite legal authority. It is in these opinions that his literary skill is shown rather than in his major nonlegal work, The Life of George Washington (5 vol., 1804–7). Marshall's constitutional opinions are collected in editions by J. M. Dillon (1903) and J. P. Cotton (1905). An autobiographic sketch was published in 1937.


See biographies by A. J. Beveridge (4 vol. 1916–19), L. Baker (1981), F. N. Stites (1981), J. E. Smith (1998), H. G. Unger (2016), and R. Brookhiser (2018); R. K. Newmyer, John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court (2001); J. F. Simon, What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States (2002).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Marshall, John

(1755–1835) Supreme Court justice; born in Prince William (now Fauquier) County, Va. Born in a log cabin, with little formal education, he fought in the American Revolution and studied law briefly (1779–80) before setting up a practice and getting elected to the Virginia legislature (1782). An outspoken advocate of the Federalists' position on the need for a strong central government, he was asked by President George Washington (1795) to be the U.S. attorney general but he declined because of his financial difficulties. After helping to negotiate Jay's Treaty in France (1797–98), he was elected to the House of Representatives (Fed., Va.; 1799–1800) but left when President John Adams appointed him chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1801–35). During his 34 years, the "Marshall court" profoundly shaped the law and government of the U.S.A. by testing and defining the powers of the new Constitution. Perhaps his most important decision was Marbury v. Madison (1803), in which he laid down the concept of "judicial review"—namely, that federal courts had the final say in deciding whether congressional legislation was constitutional. In various other decisions over the years, he enforced his view of the supremacy of a strong federal government over the demands of states and their legislatures; presiding over the treason trial of Aaron Burr (1807), he went out of his way to attack the anti-Federalist positions of President Thomas Jefferson (a distant relative). Often the focus of political controversy, autocratic in his dominance of the court—it was he who imposed the practice of issuing a single majority opinion—he had a casual frontier manner but the keenest of intellects. The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia cracked when ringing for the funeral of Marshall.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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