No one did more to shape the judicial system of the United States than John Marshall (1755-1835). Marshall was the eldest of 15 children born to an impoverished farm family on the Virginia frontier. Although he attended only a single year of formal education, he rose from these limited beginnings to give exceptional service to his country.
At age 19, Marshall became a rifleman at Valley Forge under the command of General George Washington. An able diplomat, at age 42 he was appointed an ambassador to France charged with defusing a potential war between France and the U.S. In 1801 President John Adams appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
When Marshall took the reins of the Court it was the neglected orphan among the three branches of government. The Judicial Branch had few cases, no dedicated meeting place and no genuine authority. But Marshall changed all this. During his 34-year tenure, the power and the prestige of the Court soared; it became a coequal branch of the government.
Marshall was a Federalist who favored a strong central government. His decisions often infuriated his cousin Thomas Jefferson, a Republican who favored states’ rights. Marshall’s historic rulings progressively established the Supreme Court as the principle interpreter of the Constitution.
Under Marshall’s leadership, the vital concept of judicial review was put into practice and enforced by the outcome of the Marbury v. Madison case. Considered the most important court decision in U.S. history, Marbury v. Madison established that courts have the authority to assess the constitutionality of law. Marshall also promoted the practice of making court rulings based upon the majority decision. As Chief Justice, he presided over cases that produced more than 1100 decisions, all but 87 of them unanimous ones.
Joel Richard Paul capably draws the reader into the factual and legal complexities involved in dozens of court cases without resorting to legalese he writes in a relaxed prose style. The author also skillfully describes the troublesome tensions which pulled at Marshall throughout his life. For example, he was continually torn between loyalty to his country and loyalty to his chronically depressive wife, Polly. Some of Paul’s accounts of their relationship are especially poignant.
This comprehensive and insightful biography is mostly homage to this often-overlooked founder of our nation. But Paul does not ignore Marshall’s “blind spots”, his occasional faulty reasoning or compromised ethics. As a biographer, Paul exceptionally balances Marshall’s character development with his historic achievements in a very human story.
Federalism died when Marshall died. The Chief Justice succumbed to a spinal injury in 1835, at age 79 and President Andrew Jackson replaced him with Roger Taney a “states’ rights” advocate. Even though Taney tried to reverse the direction of the Supreme Court to favor states’ rights, the power of the legal precedents Marshall established live on and continues to shape the law of the land.
As Paul summarizes, “In an era without precedent, Marshall invented the legal principles that form the foundation of American constitutional and international law today.”
Joel Richard Paul is a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of California, Hastings Law School in San Francisco. Riverhead Books is the publisher of this 502-page book.