At the turn of the 19th century, the Judicial Branch was the weakest of the three branches of the young United States republic. But then, in 1801, President John Adams appointed a Revolutionary War veteran and congenial gentleman, John Marshall, to be the fourth Chief Justice of the United States.
Under his judgeship the Court soon took its equal place in the neophyte government and would never be ignored again. Marshall firmly established the Supreme Court’s authority by issuing rulings through 34 years of precedent-setting cases. “He and the court he led had… laid down principles of laws and politics that still apply.”
John Marshall (1755-1835) was born in northern Virginia, the oldest of 15 children. He had only two years of formal education, but had the desire and wit to acquire the skills to adeptly serve his country. Brookhiser describes how, under the tutelage of George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Marshall matured into a “selfless and wise” patriot.
His long tenure as Chief Justice, (still a record), enabled him to settle legal principles about the inviolability of contracts (Dartmouth College v. Woodward), the limits of Congress’ commerce power, (McCulloch v. Maryland) and, most importantly, the authority of the Supreme Court over acts of Congress that conflict with the Constitution, (Marbury v. Madison) These precedent-setting decisions continue to be the standards by which similar cases are judged today.
Probably just as important as determining important legal decisions, Marshall made the Supreme Court a mainstay of American life by demanding respect for the Court. He established dignity for the court by forthrightly, but genially defending the Constitution in the public forum.
John Marshall confronted populist Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson who tried to minimize the power of the Court in order to benefit the Executive Branch. Marshall, however, persuaded the other justices to set aside their partisanship and speak in one voice to Jefferson and later, Jackson. This leadership established the Court as an institution of bipartisan authority in polarized times.
Marshall refrained from engaging in political disputes he could not win in the short run, while declaring and reaffirming broad constitutional principles to bolster the long-term authority of the Court. He shared with Federalists George Washington and Alexander Hamilton the opinion that the federal government was supreme over the states. “Our Constitution is not a compact of states,” Marshall wrote. “It is the act of a single party. It is the act of the people of the United States.”
Marshall and Jefferson were distant cousins, but they hated each other. Jefferson opposed Federalism and, with his cohorts, tried to limit the tenure of federal judges by encouraging legislation that would give the Senate the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions. Jefferson also tried to increase the size of the Court to 10 justices so that a majority would be Republicans and support his viewpoint. These proposals quickly failed because of the unity and dignity the Court had attained under Marshall’s leadership.
Brookhiser’s laudatory account also discloses a significant Marshall Constitutional blind spot—the legality of American slavery. In seven lawsuits brought by slaves seeking freedom, Marshall never once sided with the slaves. Recent research indicates he owned 130 slaves himself, perhaps explaining why the Chief Justice placed more legal protections on upholding contracts than on any Constitutional rights of African slaves and their descendants. Marshall’s reluctance to address slavery led his successor, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, two decades later, to repeat Marshall’s respect for slave “property” rights. That case resulted in the regrettable Dred Scott v. Sanford decision.