John Marshall was the fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1801-35). In Marbury v. Madison (1803) and other landmark cases, Marshall asserted the Supreme Court’s authority to determine the constitutionality of the nation’s laws—a principle known as judicial review—and shaped the judicial branch into a powerful force in the U.S. government.
Early Life and Revolutionary War Service
Marshall was born on September 24, 1755 on the Virginia frontier, in what is now Fauquier County. He was the oldest of 15 children born to Thomas Marshall, a land surveyor who worked for the powerful Lord Fairfax and was later elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, and Mary Keith, a granddaughter of William Randolph, a key figure in the establishment of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Largely self-educated, Marshall attended only one year of formal school, during which James Monroe was his classmate and friend. At 20, Marshall volunteered for the 3rd Virginia Regiment after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. After first seeing action in the Battle of Great Bridge in December 1775, in which Patriot militia liberated Virginia from the British, Marshall fought bravely in battles at Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth. He spent the harsh winter of 1777-78 alongside Gen. George Washington (his father’s friend and a major influence on Marshall) and his Continental Army at Valley Forge.
Law Practice and Entrance Into Politics
After leaving military service in 1780, Marshall studied law at William & Mary with the renowned jurist George Wythe and courted his future wife, Mary Willis (Polly) Ambler, who lived in nearby Yorktown. He was soon admitted to the Virginia bar and began his own law practice, which flourished due to his success defending clients against British creditors. He also launched his career in politics, serving in the Virginia state legislature and working doggedly to convince Virginia to vote for ratification of the Constitution in 1789.
During Washington’s two terms as president, Marshall emerged as an influential advocate for the Federalist Party, despite turning down several federal appointments in order to stay in Richmond. Federalists favored a strong national government, in contrast to the emphasis on state’s rights favored by the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson, Marshall’s fellow Virginian, as well as his second cousin.
As one of three U.S. envoys charged with resolving a looming crisis between the United States and France in 1797, Marshall refused to pay the bribes requested by French officials in order to negotiate. When President John Adams later released messages from the French officials, the ensuing XYZ Affair led to an undeclared war with France known as the Quasi-War.
From Secretary of State to Chief Justice
In 1798, Marshall was elected to the House of Representatives. He served for less than two years before Adams appointed him as secretary of state in 1800. After losing to Jefferson in the tumultuous election of 1800, Adams nominated Marshall as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He took office in early 1801, just weeks before Jefferson’s inauguration.
As one of its earliest important cases, Marshall’s Court took on Marbury v. Madison (1803), which stemmed from a flurry of Federalist judicial appointments made in the last weeks of the Adams administration. As secretary of state, Marshall had signed a number of the judges’ commissions but failed to deliver them by the time Adams left office. Jefferson directed James Madison, his secretary of state, not to deliver some of the commissions—including that of William Marbury, whom Adams had chosen as justice of the peace for the District of Columbia. In his lawsuit, Marbury asked the Supreme Court to issue a “writ of mandamus,” an order forcing Madison to honor his commission.
In the Court’s unanimous ruling, Marshall declared that Marbury had a legal right to the office, and that Madison had violated that right. However, he wrote that the Constitution didn’t give the Supreme Court the authority to grant Marbury a writ of mandamus, despite an earlier act of Congress that asserted the contrary. In this way, Marshall asserted the Court’s ultimate power to interpret the constitutionality of the nation’s laws, known as the principle of judicial review.
Marshall’s Impact on the Supreme Court
At the time, the Supreme Court had little authority relative to the president and Congress; it didn’t even have its own building, meeting instead in a vacant committee room at the Capitol. But over his 34 years as chief justice, Marshall shaped the judicial branch into an equal force in government alongside the president (executive branch) and Congress (legislative branch).
As a steadfast Federalist, Marshall also interpreted the U.S. Constitution in a way that expanded the power of the federal government relative to the states. In particular, the Court’s landmark ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), which Marshall also wrote, established the idea that the Constitution gave Congress implied powers beyond those specifically enumerated in the document, including the power to create a national bank that could not be taxed by individual states. In Cohens v. Virginia (1921), the Court affirmed its own right to review the judgments of state courts, helping to establish the supremacy of federal over state courts.
Death and Legacy
Though the Federalist Party had effectively dissolved by 1815, Marshall remained a champion of the idea of a strong national government, and a worthy adversary for Democratic-Republican political rivals from Jefferson to Andrew Jackson. During Marshall’s tenure, the Supreme Court would issue more than 1,000 decisions—more than half of those written by Marshall himself. Nearly all were unanimous, a testament to Marshall’s strong leadership and ability to build consensus despite the fact that every justice during his tenure was appointed by a president who opposed Marshall’s views.
Marshall led the Supreme Court through six presidential administrations, serving until his death in Philadelphia on July 6, 1835 at the age of 79. Widely considered the most influential jurist in U.S. history, Marshall laid the foundations for the Supreme Court’s role as ultimate interpreter of the Constitution and paved the way for the expansion of the federal government in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Joel Richard Paul. Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times (Penguin Publishing Group, 2019)
Ben Wynne. “John Marshall.” Washington Library - Center for Digital History - Digital Encyclopedia, Mount Vernon.
“John Marshall, the Great Chief Justice.” William & Mary Law School.