John Marshall

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John Marshall
John Marshall

4th  Chief Justice of the United States
In office
February 4, 1801 –  July 6, 1835
Nominated by John Adams
Preceded by Oliver Ellsworth
Succeeded by Roger B. Taney

4th  United States Secretary of State
In office
June 13, 1800 –  February 4, 1801
President John Adams
Preceded by Timothy Pickering
Succeeded by James Madison

U.S. Representative from Virginia
In office
March 4, 1799 –  June 7, 1800

Born September 24, 1755(1755-09-24)
Germantown, Virginia
Died July 6, 1835 (aged 79)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Political party Federalist
Spouse Mary Willis Ambler
Profession Lawyer, Judge
Religion Episcopalian

John Marshall ( September 24, 1755 July 6, 1835) was an American statesman and jurist who shaped American constitutional law and made the Supreme Court a centre of power. Marshall was Chief Justice of the United States, serving from February 4, 1801, until his death in 1835. He served in the United States House of Representatives from March 4, 1799, to June 7, 1800, and, under President John Adams, was Secretary of State from June 6, 1800, to March 4, 1801. Marshall was from the Commonwealth of Virginia and a leader of the Federalist Party.

The longest serving Chief Justice in Supreme Court history, Marshall dominated the Court for over three decades (a term outliving his own Federalist Party) and played a significant role in the development of the American legal system. Most notably, he established that the courts are entitled to exercise judicial review, the power to strike down laws that violate 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.

Early years

John Marshall was born in a log cabin near Germantown, a rural community on the Virginia frontier, in what is now Fauquier County near Midland, Virginia, to Thomas Marshall and Mary Randolph Keith (cousin of Thomas Jefferson); his family, like many of his class in the Virginia of his time period, owned slaves. 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 and Scottish descent.

As a young man, he studied the classics and English literature, eventually working with a private tutor from Scotland. He also worked for 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 as 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. In the winter of 1777–1778, he was at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, with General George Washington's troops. During his military service, he became personally acquainted with Washington.

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.

State political career

In 1782, Marshall entered politics, winning a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, in which he served until 1789 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. He was especially active in defense of Article III, which provides for the Federal judiciary. His most prominent opponent at the ratification convention was anti-Federalist leader Patrick Henry. Ultimately, the convention approved the Constitution by a vote of 89-79. Marshall identified with the new Federalist Party (which supported a strong national government and commercial interests), rather than Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party (which advocated states' rights and idealized the yeoman farmer and the French Revolution).

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 of 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.

In 1795, Marshall declined Washington's offer of Attorney General of the United States and, in 1796, declined to serve as minister to France. In 1797, he accepted 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 public resentment toward the French, made him popular with the American public when he returned to the United States.

In 1798, Marshall declined a Supreme Court appointment, recommending Bushrod Washington, who would later become one of Marshall's staunchest allies on the Court. 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 Democratic-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 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, which ended the Quasi-War with France and brought peace to the new nation.

The Marshall Court from 1801 to 1835

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), as is still done in the 20th and 21st centuries in such jurisdictions as the United Kingdom and Australia. 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 by attempting to expand the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. 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 Justice-of-the-Peace commissions, which were the subject of the Marbury case, were to be delivered to the nominees by then-Secretary of State, John Marshall. The Court's 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, he presided, with Judge Cyrus Griffin, at the great state trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr, who was charged with treason and misdemeanor. 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, where he repeatedly affirmed federal supremacy. For example, he established in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) that states could not tax federal institutions and upheld congressional authority to create the Second Bank of the United States, even though the authority to do this was not expressly stated in the Constitution. Also, in Cohens v. Virginia (1821), he established that the Federal judiciary could hear appeals from decisions of state courts in criminal cases as well as the civil cases over which the court had asserted jurisdiction in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816). Justices Bushrod Washington and Joseph Story proved to be his strongest allies in these cases whereas Smith Thompson was a strong opponent to Marshall.

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.
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.

As the young nation was endangered by regional and local interests that often threatened to fracture its hard-fought unity, Marshall repeatedly 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. Thus, for all 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)
  • Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833)

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 advocate of Federalism and a nemesis of the Jeffersonian school of government throughout its heyday. He participated in over 1000 decisions, writing 519 of the opinions himself.

Other work, later life, legacy

Marshall loved his home in Richmond, Virginia, and spent as much time there as possible in quiet contentment. While in Richmond he attended St. John's Church in Church Hill until 1814 when he led the movement to hire Robert Mills as architect of Monumental Church, which commemorated the death of 72 Virginians. The Marshall family occupied pew No. 23 at Monumental Church and entertained the Marquis de Lafayette there during his visit to Richmond in 1824. For approximately three months each year, however, he would be away in Washington for the Court's annual term; he would also be away for several weeks to serve on the circuit court in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Between 1805 and 1807, he published a five-volume biography of George Washington; his Life of Washington was based on records and papers provided him by the president's family. The first volume was reissued in 1824 separately as A History of the American Colonies. The work reflected Marshall's Federalist principles.

In 1823, he became first president of the Richmond branch of the American Colonization Society, which was dedicated to resettling freed American slaves in Liberia, on the West coast of 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 December 25, 1831, Mary, his beloved wife of some 49 years, died. Most who knew Marshall agreed that after Mary's death, he was never quite the same.

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 for several years, 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 also was the last surviving member of John Adams's Cabinet.

Two days before his death, he enjoined his friends to place only a plain slab over his and his wife's graves, and he wrote the simple inscription himself. His body, which was taken to Richmond, lies in Shockoe 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. Legend has it that Marshall was the last person for whom the Liberty Bell tolled, but it has been proved that William Henry Harrison (1841) was the last. However, the famous crack in the bell appeared when it was tolled for Marshall's funeral.

Monuments and memorials

Marshall Memorial by WW Story
Marshall Memorial by WW Story

Marshall's home in Richmond, Virginia, has been preserved by APVA Preservation Virginia.

The United States Bar Association commissioned sculptor William Wetmore Story to execute the statue of Marshall that now stands [sits] inside the Supreme Court on the ground floor. A copy of the statue also stands at Constitution Ave. and 4th Street in Washington D.C. Story's father Joseph Story had served as an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court with Marshall. The statue was originally dedicated in 1884.

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 not collecting today. Also, in 1914, an engraved portrait of Marshall was used as the central vignette on series 1914 $500 federal reserve notes. These notes are also quite scarce. Example of both notes are available for viewing on the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco website.

Four law schools and one University today bear his name: The Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia; The Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio; John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, Georgia; and, The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois. The University that bears his name is Marshall University in Huntington West Virginia.

Having grown from a Reformed Church academy, Marshall College, named upon the death of Chief Justice John Marshall, officially opened in 1836 with a well-established reputation. After a merger with Franklin College in 1853, the school was renamed Franklin and Marshall College. The college went on to become one of the nations foremost liberal arts colleges.

John Marshall's birthplace in Fauquier County is a park, the John Marshall Birthplace Park, and a marker can be seen on Route 28 noting this event.

Marshall University began as Marshall Academy in 1837. Marshall became a university in 1961 and has since grown tremendously, particularly in the 1990s which saw the construction of the state-of-the-art Drinko Library, Jomie Jazz Centre and the addition of the Graduate College.


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