John Marshall (1755
), an American jurist, was one of the towering figures in the formation of the American government. As the fourth chief justice of the United States
), Marshall presided over more cases of more lasting importance than any other chief justice before or since, and in the process definined the nature of the American federal government and secured the power of the Supreme Court
for his successors.
Marshall was born on in a log cabin in the backwoods of Virginia on September 24, 1755, the eldest of 15 children. Marshall's father, Thomas, was a friend of George Washington's, and his mother was distantly related to Thomas Jefferson, who would later be Marshall's archenemy. There were no schools nearby, so Marshall received no formal education.
Marshall left home to fight in the American Revolution, serving under Light Horse Harry Lee, and rising to the rank of captain before returning home in 1779. Marshall began practicing law in 1780,
and in 1782 he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. That year he also met and fell in love with Mary Ambler, whom he married on January 3, 1783. By all accounts a match of unfaltering love and devotion, their marriage lasted 49 years, until Mary's death in 1831.
Marshall's brilliant argumentation abilities soon earned him recognition as one of the best lawyers in Virginia. A staunch Federalist supporter, Marshall strongly argued for the new Consitution in the Virgina legislature, and was offered posts as Attorney General and minister to France by President Washington, but he turned them down.
Finally in 1797, President John Adams convinced Marshall to serve as one of the envoys to France during the diplomatic dispute that culminated in the "XYZ Affair." Marshall's effectiveness in France gained him further popularity in his home state, which he rode into Congress in 1799. The next year, Adams appointed him Secretary of State, and then in January, 1801, Chief Justice, as one of the infamous "midnight appointments." Marshall would hold the post for the next 34 years.
Career as Chief Justice
When Marshall arrived on the scene, the Supreme Court was a nearly powerless, almost superfluous, and often forgotten branch of the federal government. In several important cases over the next three and a half decades, Marshall defined a new role for the high court as the sole and final authority on the constitutionality of laws. In Marbury v. Madison (1803), he declared the power of the Supreme Court to invalidate an act of Congress if it that act was in conflict with the Constitution. In McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Marshall firmly established the doctrine of implied powers. Later that year, Marshall's ruling in the Dartmouth College v. Woodward case reaffirmed the constitutional inviolability of contracts. In Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), Marshall invoked the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution to substantially extend the power of the federal government in to many areas formerly held to be reserved for the states.
Marshall's constant striving to extend the powers of the federal government at the expense of the states brought him into conflict with presidents Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, who both strongly favored states' rights. Marshall's feud with Jefferson reached particularly high levels of nastiness during the 1807 trial of Aaron Burr for treason, in which Marshall acquitted Jefferson's enemy on a technicality, and Marshall particularly angered Jackson by ruling against the state of Georgia over the issue of the Cherokees.
Marshall's legacy is significant and lasting. In his years as Chief Justice, Marshall carved out a new role for the judicial branch as the sole arbiter of constituionality, as well as many new powers for the federal government, and singlehandedly created the field of Consitituional Law. Marshall demanded strict adherence to the letter of Constituion whenever possible, but strongly believed something we now take for granted - that there are many things that the federal government can do that are not explicitly stated in the Consitution but are instead "implied" and can be discovered through judicial interpretation of the spirit of the document. From this belief Marshall developed the crucial importance of judicial precedent, which is the foundation of all Consitutional interpretation to this day. Marshall also developed a new method of writing up judicial opinions using logical deductions from previously established propositions, the format used by all judges thereafter, up to the present.
John Marshall died in 1835 in Philadelphia. His body was brought back to Richmond and laid next to that of his beloved wife in Shockoe Valley Cemetery. Today, his legacy remains secure as one of the finest legal minds the United States or any nation has ever produced.