Chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Marshall, who had almost no formal schooling and studied law for only six weeks, nevertheless remains the only judge in American history whose distinction as a statesman derived almost entirely from his judicial career. Following a diplomatic mission to France, he won election to Congress, where he supported President John Adams. Adams appointed him secretary of state and in 1801 chief justice, a position he held until death.
Combat experience during the Revolution helped him develop a continental viewpoint. After admission to the bar in 1780, he entered the Virginia assembly and rose rapidly in state politics. He had good looks, a charismatic personality, and a debater’s gifts. A Federalist in politics, he championed the Constitution in his state’s ratification convention.
John Jay, the first chief justice, who had resigned, described the Court as lacking ‘weight’ and ‘respect.’ After Marshall no one could make that complaint. In 1801 he and his colleagues had to meet in a tiny room in the basement of the Capitol because the planners of Washington, D.C., had forgotten to provide space for the Supreme Court. Marshall made the Court a prestigious, coordinate branch of the government. In 1824 Senator Martin Van Buren, a political enemy, conceded that the Court attracted ‘idolatry’ and its chief was admired ‘as the ablest Judge now sitting upon any judicial bench in the world.’
During Marshall’s thirty-four years as chief justice, he gave content to the Constitution’s omissions, clarified its ambiguities, and added breathtaking sweep to the powers it conferred. He set the Court on a course for ‘ages to come’ that would make the U.S. government supreme in the federal system and the Court the Constitution’s expositor. He acted as if he were the enduring Framer whose constituency was the nation; he knew the true meaning of the Constitution and he meant it to prevail; he made his position a judicial pulpit to foster the Union of his dreams and to compete, if possible, with the political branches in shaping public opinion and national policy.
Marshall’s judicial energies were as indefatigable as his vision was broad. Although he cast but a single vote and was eventually surrounded by colleagues appointed by a party he deplored, he dominated the Court as no one has since. He scrapped seriatim opinions in favor of a single ‘opinion of the Court’ and during his long tenure wrote nearly half the Court’s opinions in all fields of law and two-thirds of those involving constitutional questions. He exercised judicial review, firmly over state statutes and state courts, prudently over acts of Congress. Marbury v. Madison (1803) remains the fundamental case. Marshall read principles of vested rights into the contract clause and expanded the Court’s jurisdiction. Notwithstanding judicial rhetoric conjuring up the bugles of Valley Forge, his judicial nationalism, which was real enough and helped emancipate American commerce in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), sometimes constituted a guise to block regulatory state legislation that limited property rights. He linked the Constitution with national supremacy, capitalism, and judicial review.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.