The longest-serving Chief Justice and the fourth longest-serving justice in U.S. Supreme Court history, Marshall dominated the Court for over three decades (34 years) and played a significant role in the development of the American legal system. Most notably, he reinforced the principle that federal courts are obligated to exercise judicial review, by disregarding purported laws if they violate the constitution. Thus, Marshall cemented the position of the American judiciary as an independent and influential branch of government. Furthermore, Marshall's court made several important decisions relating to federalism, affecting the balance of power between the federal government and the states during the early years of the republic. In particular, he repeatedly confirmed the supremacy of federal law over state law, and supported an expansive reading of the enumerated powers.
Some of his decisions were unpopular. Nevertheless, Marshall built up the third branch of the federal government, and augmented federal power in the name of the Constitution, and the rule of law. Marshall, along with Daniel Webster (who argued some of the cases), was the leading Federalist of the day, pursuing Federalist Party approaches to build a stronger federal government over the opposition of the Jeffersonian Republicans, who wanted stronger state governments.
John Marshall was born in a log cabin in Germantown, a rural community on the Virginia frontier, in what is now Fauquier County, near Midland, on September 24, 1755, to Thomas Marshall and Mary Isham Keith, the granddaughter of politician Thomas Randolph of Tuckahoe.
John Marshall was of almost entirely English ancestry, though his mother also had some distant Scottish ancestry as well. The oldest of fifteen, John had eight sisters and six brothers. Also, several cousins were raised with the family. From a young age, he was noted for his good humor and black eyes, which were "strong and penetrating, beaming with intelligence and good nature". His younger brother, James Markham Marshall, also served briefly in a newly created judgeship for the Federal judiciary on the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia from 1801 to 1803, and three of his brothers, Keith, William and Charles were lawyers.
Marshall loved his home, built in 1790, in Richmond, Virginia, and spent as much time there as possible in quiet contentment. For approximately three months each year, Marshall lived in Washington during the Court's annual term, boarding with Justice Story during his final years at the Ringgold-Carroll House. Marshall also left Richmond for several weeks each year to serve on the circuit court in Raleigh, North Carolina. He also maintained the D. S. Tavern property in Albemarle County, Virginia, from 1810–1813.
Marshall himself was not religious, and although his grandfather was a priest, never formally joined a church. He did not believe Jesus was a divine being, and in some of his opinions referred to a deist "Creator of all things." He was an active Freemason and served as Grand Master of Masons in Virginia in 1794–1795 of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free, and Accepted Masons of the Commonwealth of Virginia. While in Richmond, Marshall attended St. John's Church on Church Hill until 1814 when he led the movement to hire Robert Mills as architect of Monumental Church, which was near his home and rebuilt to commemorate 72 people who died in a theater fire. The Marshall family occupied Monumental Church's pew No. 23 and entertained the Marquis de Lafayette there during his visit to Richmond in 1824.
Thomas Marshall was employed in Fauquier County as a surveyor and land agent by Lord Fairfax, which provided Marshall with a substantial income.
In the early 1760s, the Marshall family left Germantown and moved about 30 miles (48 km) to Leeds Manor (so named by Lord Fairfax) on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the banks of Goose Creek, Thomas Marshall built a wood frame house, with two rooms on the first floor and a two-room loft above. Thomas Marshall was not yet well established, so he leased it from Colonel Richard Henry Lee. The Marshalls called their new home "the Hollow", and the ten years they resided there were John Marshall's formative years.
In 1773, the Marshall family moved once again. Thomas Marshall, by then a man of substantial means, purchased an estate adjacent to North Cobbler Mountain in Delaplane. The new farm was located adjacent to the main stage road (now US 17) between Salem (the modern day village of Marshall, Virginia) and Delaplane. When John was 17, Thomas Marshall built Oak Hill there, a seven-room frame home with four rooms on the first floor and three above. Although modest in comparison to the estates of George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, it was a substantial home for the period. John Marshall became the owner of Oak Hill in 1785 when his father moved to Kentucky. Although John Marshall lived his later life in Richmond, Virginia, and Washington D.C., he kept his Fauquier County property, making substantial improvements to the house until he transferred the property as a wedding present to his eldest son Thomas in 1809.
Marshall's early education was superintended by his father who gave him an early taste for history and poetry. Thomas Marshall's employer, Lord Fairfax, allowed access to his home at Greenway Court, which was an exceptional center of learning and culture. Marshall took advantage of the resources at Greenway Court and borrowed freely from the extensive collection of classical and contemporary literature. There were no schools in the region at the time, so home schooling was pursued. Although books were a rarity for most in the territory, Thomas Marshall's library was exceptional. His collection of literature, some of which was borrowed from Lord Fairfax, was relatively substantial and included works by the ancient Roman historian Livy, the ancient Roman poet Horace, and the English writers Alexander Pope, John Dryden, John Milton, and William Shakespeare. All of the Marshall children were accomplished, literate, and self-educated under their parents' supervision. At the age of twelve John had transcribed Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man and some of his Moral Essays.
There being no formal school in Fauquier County at the time, John was sent, at age fourteen, about one hundred miles from home to an academy in Washington parish. Among his classmates was James Monroe, the future president. John remained at the academy one year, after which he was brought home. Afterward, Thomas Marshall arranged for a minister to be sent who could double as a teacher for the local children. The Reverend James Thomson, a recently ordained deacon from Glasgow, Scotland, resided with the Marshall family and tutored the children in Latin in return for his room and board. When Thomson left at the end of the year, John had begun reading and transcribing Horace and Livy.
The Marshalls had long before decided that John was to be a lawyer. William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England had been published in America and Thomas Marshall bought a copy for his own use and for John to read and study. After John returned home from Campbell's academy he continued his studies with no other aid than his dictionary. John's father superintended the English part of his education. Marshall wrote of his father, "... and to his care I am indebted for anything valuable which I may have acquired in my youth. He was my only intelligent companion; and was both a watchful parent and an affectionate friend".
Marshall served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War and was friends with George Washington. He served first as a Lieutenant in the Culpeper Minutemen from 1775 to 1776, and went on to serve as a Lieutenant and then a Captain in the Eleventh Virginia Continental Regiment from 1776 to 1780. During his time in the army, he enjoyed running races with the other soldiers and was nicknamed Silverheels for the white heels his mother had sewn into his stockings. Marshall endured the brutal winter conditions at Valley Forge (1777–1778). After his time in the Army, he read law under the famous Chancellor George Wythe at the College of William and Mary, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and was admitted to the Bar in 1780. He was in private practice in Fauquier County before entering politics.
In 1782, Marshall won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, in which he served until 1789 and again from 1795 to 1796. The Virginia General Assembly elected him to serve on the Council of State later in the same year. In 1785, Marshall took up the additional office of Recorder of the Richmond City Hustings Court.
In 1788, Marshall was selected as a delegate to the Virginia convention responsible for ratifying or rejecting the United States Constitution, which had been proposed by the Philadelphia Convention a year earlier. Together with James Madison and Edmund Randolph, Marshall led the fight for ratification. He was especially active in defense of Article III, which provides for the Federal judiciary. His most prominent opponent at the ratification convention was Anti-Federalist leader Patrick Henry. Ultimately, the convention approved the Constitution by a vote of 89–79. Marshall identified with the new Federalist Party (which supported a strong national government and commercial interests), and opposed Jefferson's Republican Party (which advocated states' rights and idealized the yeoman farmer and the French Revolution).
Meanwhile, Marshall's private law practice continued to flourish. He successfully represented the heirs of Lord Fairfax in Hite v. Fairfax (1786), an important Virginia Supreme Court case involving a large tract of land in the Northern Neck of Virginia. In 1796, he appeared before the United States Supreme Court in another important case, Ware v. Hylton, a case involving the validity of a Virginia law providing for the confiscation of debts owed to British subjects. Marshall argued that the law was a legitimate exercise of the state's power; however, the Supreme Court ruled against him, holding that the Treaty of Paris in combination with the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution required the collection of such debts.
Henry Flanders in his biography of Marshall remarked that Marshall's argument in Ware v. Hylton "elicited great admiration at the time of its delivery, and enlarged the circle of his reputation." Flanders also wrote that the reader "cannot fail to be impressed with the vigor, rigorous analysis, and close reasoning that mark every sentence of it."
In 1795, Marshall declined Washington's offer of Attorney General of the United States and, in 1796, declined to serve as minister to France.
In 1797, Marshall accepted when President John Adams appointed him to a three-member commission to represent the United States to negotiate with France which, during the midst of its Revolutionary Wars, had seized neutral American merchant vessels. This had prompted the United States to appropriate funds to equip and man three frigates.
The other members of this commission were Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry. However, when the envoys arrived in October 1797, they were kept waiting for several days, and then granted only a 15-minute meeting with French Foreign Minister Talleyrand. After this, the diplomats were met by three of Talleyrand's agents. Each refused to conduct diplomatic negotiations unless the United States paid enormous bribes, one to Talleyrand personally, and another to the Republic of France. The Americans refused to negotiate on such terms. Marshall and Pinckney returned home, while Gerry remained. This diplomatic scandal became known as the XYZ Affair, inflaming anti-French opinion in the United States. Marshall arrived in New York on June 17. His handling of the affair, as well as public resentment toward the French, made him popular with the American public. He opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, enacted by the Federalists in response to the crisis.
In 1798, Marshall declined a Supreme Court appointment, recommending Bushrod Washington, who would later become one of Marshall's staunchest allies on the Court. In 1799, Marshall reluctantly ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Although his congressional district (which included the city of Richmond) favored the Democratic-Republican Party, Marshall won the race, in part due to his conduct during the XYZ Affair and in part due to the support of Patrick Henry. His most notable speech was related to the case of Thomas Nash (alias Jonathan Robbins), whom the government had extradited to Great Britain on charges of murder. Marshall defended the government's actions, arguing that nothing in the Constitution prevents the United States from extraditing one of its citizens.
On May 7, 1800, President Adams nominated Congressman Marshall as Secretary of War. However, on May 12, Adams withdrew the nomination, instead naming him Secretary of State, as a replacement for Timothy Pickering. Confirmed by the United States Senate on May 13, Marshall took office on June 6, 1800. As Secretary of State, Marshall directed the negotiation of the Convention of 1800, which ended the Quasi-War with France and brought peace to the nation.
Elected as a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830, John Marshall advanced his view that the electorate should be expanded in Virginia by the provision that any white male who had served in the War of 1812 or who would serve in the militia in the future defense of the country deserved the right to vote.
Marshall served as Chief Justice during the administrations of six Presidents: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He remained a stalwart advocate of Federalism and a nemesis of the Jeffersonian school of government throughout its heyday. He participated in over 1000 decisions, writing 519 of the opinions himself. While Chief Justice, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1804. Marshall was also elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1813.
He helped to establish the Supreme Court as the final authority on the meaning of the Constitution in cases and controversies that must be decided by the federal courts. According to the Oyez Project, Marshall's impact on constitutional law is without peer, and his imprint on the Court's jurisprudence remains indelible.
Marshall was thrust into the office of Chief Justice in the wake of the presidential election of 1800. With the Federalists soundly defeated and about to lose both the executive and legislative branches to Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, President Adams and the lame duck Congress passed what came to be known as the Midnight Judges Act, which made sweeping changes to the federal judiciary, including a reduction in the number of Justices from six to five (upon the next vacancy in the court) so as to deny Jefferson an appointment until two vacancies occurred. As the incumbent Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth was in poor health, Adams first offered the seat to ex-Chief Justice John Jay, who declined on the grounds that the Court lacked "energy, weight, and dignity." Jay's letter arrived on January 20, 1801, and as there was precious little time left, Adams surprised Marshall, who was with him at the time and able to accept the nomination immediately. The Senate at first delayed, hoping that Adams would make a different choice, such as promoting Justice William Paterson of New Jersey. According to New Jersey Senator Jonathan Dayton, the Senate finally relented "lest another not so qualified, and more disgusting to the Bench, should be substituted, and because it appeared that this gentleman [Marshall] was not privy to his own nomination". Marshall was confirmed by the Senate on January 27, 1801, and received his commission on January 31, 1801. While Marshall officially took office on February 4, at the request of the President he continued to serve as Secretary of State until Adams' term expired on March 4. President John Adams offered this appraisal of Marshall's impact: "My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life."
Soon after becoming Chief Justice, Marshall changed the manner in which the Supreme Court announced its decisions. Previously, each Justice would author a separate opinion (known as a seriatim opinion) as was done in the Virginia Supreme Court of his day and is still done today in the United Kingdom and Australia. Under Marshall, however, the Supreme Court adopted the practice of handing down a single opinion of the Court, allowing it to present a clear rule. As Marshall was almost always the author of this opinion, he essentially became the Court's sole spokesman in important cases. Marshall also got rid of the tradition that U.S. Supreme Court justices had inherited from the British of wearing ornate powdered wigs and red robes with ermine trim.
Marshall's forceful personality allowed him to steer his fellow Justices; only once did he find himself on the losing side in a constitutional case. In that case—Ogden v. Saunders in 1827—Marshall set forth his general principles of constitutional interpretation:
To say that the intention of the instrument must prevail; that this intention must be collected from its words; that its words are to be understood in that sense in which they are generally used by those for whom the instrument was intended; that its provisions are neither to be restricted into insignificance, nor extended to objects not comprehended in them, nor contemplated by its framers—is to repeat what has been already said more at large, and is all that can be necessary.
In his Ogden dissent, Marshall also adopted a definition of the word "law" that would later be denounced by the individualist anarchist Lysander Spooner: "a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a State." Marshall was in the dissenting minority only eight times throughout his tenure at the Court, partly because of his influence over the associate justices. As Oliver Wolcott observed when both he and Marshall served in the Adams administration, Marshall had the knack of "putting his own ideas into the minds of others, unconsciously to them". However, he regularly curbed his own viewpoints, preferring to arrive at decisions by consensus. He adjusted his role to accommodate other members of the court as they developed.
Marshall had charm, humor, a quick intelligence, and the ability to bring men together. His sincerity and presence commanded attention. His opinions were workmanlike and not especially eloquent or subtle. His influence on learned men of the law came from the charismatic force of his personality and his ability to seize upon the key elements of a case and make highly persuasive arguments. Together with his vision of the future greatness of the nation, these qualities are apparent in his historic decisions and gave him the sobriquet, The Great Chief Justice.
Marshall ran a congenial court; there was seldom any bickering. The Court met in Washington only two months a year, from the first Monday in February through the second or third week in March. Six months of the year the justices were doing circuit duty in the various states. Marshall was therefore based in Richmond, his hometown, for most of the year. When the Court was in session in Washington, the justices boarded together in the same rooming house, avoided outside socializing, and discussed each case intently among themselves. Decisions were quickly made usually in a matter of days. Marshall wrote nearly half the decisions during his 34 years in office. Lawyers appearing before the court, including the most brilliant in the United States, typically gave oral arguments and often did not present written briefs. The justices did not have clerks, so they listened closely to the oral arguments, and decided among themselves what the decision should be. The court issued only one decision; the occasional dissenter usually did not issue a separate opinion.
While Marshall was attentive when listening to oral arguments and often persuaded other justices to adopt his interpretation of the law, he was not widely read in the law, and seldom cited precedents. After the Court came to a decision, he would usually write it up himself. Often he asked Justice Joseph Story, a renowned legal scholar, to do the chores of locating the precedents, saying, "There, Story; that is the law of this case; now go and find the authorities."
Marbury v. Madison (1803) was the first important case before Marshall's Court. In that case, the Supreme Court invalidated a provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 on the grounds that it violated the Constitution by attempting to expand the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Marbury was the first and only case in which the Marshall Court ruled an act of Congress unconstitutional, and thereby reinforced the doctrine of judicial review. Thus, although the Court indicated that the Jefferson administration was violating another law, the Court said it could not do anything about it due to its own lack of jurisdiction. President Thomas Jefferson took the position that the Court could not give him a mandamus (i.e. an order) even if the Court had jurisdiction:
In the case of Marbury and Madison, the federal judges declared that commissions, signed and sealed by the President, were valid, although not delivered. I deemed delivery essential to complete a deed, which, as long as it remains in the hands of the party, is as yet no deed, it is in posse only, but not in esse, and I withheld delivery of the commissions. They cannot issue a mandamus to the President or legislature, or to any of their officers.
More generally, Jefferson lamented that allowing the Constitution to mean whatever the Court says it means would make the Constitution "a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they please."
Because Marbury v. Madison decided that a jurisdictional statute passed by Congress was unconstitutional, that was technically a victory for the Jefferson administration (so it could not easily complain). Ironically what was unconstitutional was Congress' granting a certain power to the Supreme Court itself. The case allowed Marshall to proclaim the doctrine of judicial review, which reserves to the Supreme Court final authority to judge whether or not actions of the president or of the congress are within the powers granted to them by the Constitution. The Constitution itself is the supreme law, and when the Court believes that a specific law or action is in violation of it, the Court must uphold the Constitution and set aside that other law or action, assuming that a party has standing to properly invoke the Court's jurisdiction. Chief Justice Marshall famously put the matter this way:
It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the Courts must decide on the operation of each.
The Constitution does not explicitly give judicial review to the Court, and Jefferson was very angry with Marshall's position, for he wanted the President to decide whether his acts were constitutional or not. Historians mostly agree that the framers of the Constitution did plan for the Supreme Court to have some sort of judicial review; Marshall made their goals operational. Judicial review was not new and Marshall himself mentioned it in the Virginia ratifying convention of 1788. Marshall's opinion expressed and fixed in the American tradition and legal system a more basic theory—government under law. That is, judicial review means a government in which no person (not even the President) and no institution (not even Congress or the Supreme Court itself), nor even a majority of voters, may freely work their will in violation of the written Constitution. Marshall himself never declared another law of Congress or act of a president unconstitutional.
Marshall, during Marbury v. Madison on the constitution:
Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently the theory of every such government must be, that an act of the legislature repugnant to the Constitution is void.
The Burr trial (1807) was presided over by Marshall together with Judge Cyrus Griffin. This was the great state trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr, who was charged with treason and high misdemeanor. Prior to the trial, President Jefferson condemned Burr and strongly supported conviction. Marshall, however, narrowly construed the definition of treason provided in Article III of the Constitution; he noted that the prosecution had failed to prove that Burr had committed an "overt act", as the Constitution required. As a result, the jury acquitted the defendant, leading to increased animosity between the President and the Chief Justice.
Fletcher v. Peck (1810) was the first case in which the Supreme Court ruled a state law unconstitutional, though the Court had long before voided a state law as conflicting with the combination of the Constitution together with a treaty (Marshall had represented the losing side in that 1796 case). In Fletcher, the Georgia legislature had approved a land grant, known as the Yazoo Land Act of 1795. It was then revealed that the land grant had been approved in return for bribes, and therefore voters rejected most of the incumbents; the next legislature repealed the law and voided all subsequent transactions (even honest ones) that resulted from the Yazoo land scandal. The Marshall Court held that the state legislature's repeal of the law was void because the sale was a binding contract, which according to Article I, Section 10, Clause I (the Contract Clause) of the Constitution, cannot be invalidated. Marshall emphasized that the rescinding act would seize property from individuals who had honestly acquired it, and transfer that property to the public without any compensation. He then expanded upon his own famous statement in Marbury about the province of the judiciary:
It is the peculiar province of the legislature to prescribe general rules for the government of society; the application of those rules to individuals in society would seem to be the duty of other departments.
Based on this separation of powers principle, Marshall questioned whether the rescinding act would be valid even if Georgia were a completely sovereign state independent of the federal Constitution. Ultimately, though, Marshall grounded the Court's opinion in the restrictions imposed by the federal Constitution. As in Marbury, this decision of the Court in Fletcher was unanimous.
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) was one of several decisions during the 1810s and 1820s involving the balance of power between the federal government and the states where Marshall affirmed federal supremacy. He established in McCulloch that states could not tax federal institutions, and upheld congressional authority to create the Second Bank of the United States, even though the authority to do this was not expressly stated in the Constitution.
While Marshall's opinion in McCulloch was consistent with Marbury v. Madison, it cut the other way by affirming the constitutionality of a federal statute while preventing states from passing laws that violate federal law. The opinion includes the famous statement, "We must never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding." Marshall laid down the basic theory of implied powers under a written Constitution; intended, as he said "to endure for ages to come, and, consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs ...." Marshall envisaged a federal government which, although governed by timeless principles, possessed the powers "on which the welfare of a nation essentially depends." It would be free in its choice of means, and open to change and growth.
The Court held that the bank was authorized by the clause of the Constitution that states that Congress can implement its powers by making laws that are "necessary and proper", which Marshall said does not refer to one single way that Congress is allowed to act, but rather refers to various possible acts that implement all constitutionally established powers. Marshall famously provided the following time-honored interpretation of this clause in the Constitution:
Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.
According to The New York Times, "Marshall did not intend his words as license for Congress to do whatever it wishes." Instead, Marshall and the Court deemed the bank necessary and proper because it furthered various legitimate ends that are listed in the Constitution, such as regulating interstate commerce.
Cohens v. Virginia (1821) displayed Marshall's nationalism as he enforced the supremacy of federal law over state law, under the Constitution's Supremacy Clause. In this case, he established that the Federal judiciary could hear appeals from decisions of state courts in criminal cases as well as the civil cases over which the court had asserted jurisdiction in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816). Justices Bushrod Washington and Joseph Story proved to be his strongest allies in these cases.
Like Marbury, this Cohens case was largely about the Supreme Court's jurisdiction. The State of Virginia claimed that the Court had no jurisdiction to hear appeals from a state court in a case between a state and its own citizens, even if the case involved interpretation of a federal statute. Marshall wrote that his court did have appellate jurisdiction, but then went on to affirm the decision of the Virginia Supreme Court on the merits. Marshall wrote:
We have no more right to decline the exercise of jurisdiction which is given, than to usurp that which is not given. The one or the other would be treason to the constitution.
In Marshall's day, the Court had not yet been given the discretion whether or not to take cases. Scholars such as Edward Hartnett contend that the Court's discretionary certiorari practice undercuts the rationale that Chief Justice Marshall gave in the Cohens case for reviewing the validity of state law, which was that the Court had no choice in the matter.
The decision in Cohens demonstrated that the federal judiciary can act directly on private parties and state officials, and has the power to declare and impose on the states the Constitution and federal laws, but Marshall stressed that federal laws have limits. For example, he said, "Congress has a right to punish murder in a fort, or other place within its exclusive jurisdiction; but no general right to punish murder committed within any of the States."
In this case, the Court affirmed that the Virginia Supreme Court correctly interpreted a federal statute that had established a lottery in Washington D.C. Like the Jefferson administration in Marbury, the State of Virginia technically won this case even though the case set a precedent consolidating the Court's power.
Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) overturned a monopoly granted by the New York state legislature to certain steamships operating between New York and New Jersey. Daniel Webster argued that the Constitution, by empowering Congress to regulate interstate commerce, implied that states do not have any concurrent power to regulate interstate commerce. Chief Justice Marshall avoided that issue about the exclusivity of the federal commerce power because that issue was not necessary to decide the case. Instead, Marshall relied on an actual, existing federal statute for licensing ships, and he held that that federal law was a legitimate exercise of the congressional power to regulate interstate commerce, so the federal law superseded the state law granting the monopoly.
Webster was at that time a member of Congress, but nevertheless pressed his constitutional views on behalf of clients. After he won this case, he bragged that Marshall absorbed his arguments "as a baby takes in his mother's milk", even though Marshall had actually dismissed Webster's main argument.
In the course of his opinion in this case, Marshall began the careful work of determining what the phrase "commerce...among the several states" means in the Constitution. He stressed that one must look at whether the commerce in question has wide-ranging effects, suggesting that commerce which does "affect other states" may be interstate commerce, even if it does not cross state lines. Of course, the steamboats in this case did cross a state line, but Marshall suggested that his opinion had a broader scope than that. Indeed, Marshall's opinion in Gibbons would be cited by the Supreme Court much later when it upheld aspects of the New Deal in cases like Wickard v. Filburn in 1942. But, the opinion in Gibbons can also be read more narrowly. After all, Marshall also wrote:
The enumeration presupposes something not enumerated; and that something, if we regard the language or the subject of the sentence, must be the exclusively internal commerce of a state.....Inspection laws, quarantine laws, health laws of every description, as well as laws for regulating the internal commerce of a State, and those which respect turnpike roads, ferries, &c., are....subject to State legislation. If the legislative power of the Union can reach them, it must be for national purposes; it must be where the power is expressly given for a special purpose, or is clearly incidental to some power which is expressly given.
The immediate impact of the historic decision in Gibbons was to end many state-granted monopolies. That in turn lowered prices and promoted free enterprise.
Under Marshall's leadership and pen, the Supreme Court established the foundational framework for relations between the United States and indigenous American tribes in the cases Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). The first case asserted a doctrine of federal primacy in relations with Indian tribes, resolving a land dispute in favor of the party who had obtained his land grant from the federal government over a claim to the land established by having purchased it directly from the tribe. The second case refused to recognize indigenous tribes as foreign nations, holding instead that they were "domestic dependent nation[s]" whose relationship with the United States was comparable to that of a "ward to a guardian"; however, Marshall did recognize and acknowledge the inherent right of each tribe to sovereignty on their tribal lands.
The final case again upheld tribal sovereignty and reasserted federal supremacy with respect to tribal affairs by protecting tribal sovereignty from incursions by the states, holding that the laws of a state have no force on tribal lands within that state's geographical boundaries. The case resulted from a criminal prosecution of a preacher for entering Indian lands in violation of Georgia statute. It is often reported that in response to the Worcester decision President Andrew Jackson declared "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" More reputable sources recognize this as a false quotation. In fact, the ruling in Worcester ordered nothing more than that Samuel Worcester be freed; Georgia complied after several months.
Marshall wrote several other important Supreme Court opinions, including the following.The Dartmouth College case
In Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1819), the legal structure of modern corporations began to develop, when the Court held that private corporate charters are protected from state interference by the Contract Clause of the Constitution.Barron v. Baltimore
In Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833), the Court held that the Bill of Rights was intended to apply only against the federal government, and therefore does not apply against the states. The courts have since incorporated most of the Bill of Rights with respect to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was adopted 33 years after Marshall's death.Mima Queen v. John Hepburn
In Mima Queen v. John Hepburn the majority opinion written by Marshall argued against the use of hearsay evidence stating "That hearsay evidence is incompetent to establish any specific fact, which fact is in its nature susceptible of being proved by witnesses who speak from their own knowledge."
Marshall greatly admired George Washington, and between 1804 and 1807 published an influential five-volume biography. Marshall's Life of Washington was based on records and papers provided to him by the late president's family. The first volume was reissued in 1824 separately as A History of the American Colonies. The work reflected Marshall's Federalist principles. His revised and condensed two-volume Life of Washington was published in 1832. Historians have often praised its accuracy and well-reasoned judgments, while noting his frequent paraphrases of published sources such as William Gordon's 1801 history of the Revolution and the British Annual Register. After completing the revision to his biography of Washington, Marshall prepared an abridgment. In 1833 he wrote, "I have at length completed an abridgment of the Life of Washington for the use of schools. I have endeavored to compress it as much as possible. ... After striking out every thing which in my judgment could be properly excluded the volume will contain at least 400 pages." The Abridgment was not published until 1838, three years after Marshall died.
In 1823–1824, although Marshall had always been loyal to the now-defunct Federalist Party, he was asked to re-enter the political arena as a Democratic-Republican Party candidate for the Office of U.S. President in time for the 1824 election. He turned this offer down.
In 1828, Marshall presided over a convention to promote internal improvements in Virginia. The following year, Marshall was a delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1829–30, where he was again joined by fellow American statesman and loyal Virginians, James Madison and James Monroe, although all were quite old by that time (Madison was 78, Monroe 71, and Marshall 74). Although proposals to reduce the power of the Tidewater region's slave-owning aristocrats compared to growing western population proved controversial, Marshall mainly spoke to promote the necessity of an independent judiciary.
Marshall was among many slave owners who supported the abolition movement. As a young attorney, he represented prominent Virginia abolitionist Robert Pleasants, who sought to enforce his father's will and free slaves, although such was illegal at the time his late father had written the will. Although Marshall won before Chancellor George Wythe and the specific slaves were ultimately freed, in the final opinions in that case, Virginia justice Spencer Roane (who would become Marshall's rival) began enunciating the rationale for slaveholding as a property right, contrary to the lofty principles of natural law enunciated by Judge Wythe (and his former pupil Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. Declaration of Independence). Marshall's good friend John Wickham was another of the architects of the legal rationales for slaveholding which transformed Richmond into a leading slave-trading center.
In 1823, Marshall became the first president of the Richmond branch of the American Colonization Society, which was dedicated to resettling freed American slaves in Liberia, on the West coast of Africa. In 1825, as Chief Justice, Marshall wrote an opinion in the case of the captured slave ship Antelope, in which he acknowledged that slavery was against natural law, but upheld the continued enslavement of approximately 1/3 of the ship's cargo (although the remainder were to be sent to Liberia). In his last will and testament, Marshall gave his elderly manservant the choice either of freedom and travel to Liberia, or continued enslavement under his choice of Marshall's children.
Research by historian Paul Finkelman reveals that Marshall owned hundreds of slaves, contrary to the conventional belief that he owned only a dozen or so slaves. Marshall also engaged in the buying and selling of slaves throughout his life. As the then Ariel F. Sallows Chair in Human Rights, Finkelman first presented his research at the College of Law, University of Saskatchewan. Finkelman's research will be published in his forthcoming book, Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation’s Highest Court, to be published by the Harvard University Press. Finkelman suggests that Marshall's substantial slave holdings may have influenced him to render judicial decisions in favor of slave owners.
Among the few Founding Fathers who lived longer than Marshall were: James Madison, Aaron Burr, and Paine Wingate. Marshall was also the last surviving Cabinet member from the John Adams administration.
In 1831, the 76-year-old Marshall traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and underwent an operation to remove bladder stones. He recovered from it without complications, but his wife died at the end of the year and his health quickly declined from that point onward. In June 1835, Marshall again traveled to Philadelphia for medical treatment, where he died on July 6 at the age of 79, having served as Chief Justice for over 34 years.
Two days before his death, Marshall enjoined his friends to place only a plain slab over his and his wife's graves, and wrote the simple inscription himself. His body, which was taken to Richmond, lies in Shockoe Hill Cemetery. The memorial inscription on his tombstone reads as follows: "Son of Thomas and Mary Marshall/was born September 24, 1755/Intermarried with Mary Willis Ambler/the 3rd of January 1783/Departed this life/the 6th day of July 1835."
The three previous chief justices (John Jay, John Rutledge, and Oliver Ellsworth) had left little permanent mark beyond setting up the forms of office. The Supreme Court, like many state supreme courts, was a minor organ of government. In his 34-year tenure, Marshall gave it the energy, weight, and dignity of what many would say is a third co-equal branch of the U.S. government. With his associate justices, especially Joseph Story, William Johnson, and Bushrod Washington, Marshall's Court brought to life the constitutional standards of the new nation.
Marshall used Federalist approaches to build a strong federal government over the opposition of the Jeffersonian Republicans, who wanted stronger state governments. His influential rulings reshaped American government, making the Supreme Court the final arbiter of constitutional interpretation. The Marshall Court struck down an act of Congress in only one case (Marbury v. Madison in 1803) but that established the Court as a center of power that could overrule the Congress, the President, the states, and all lower courts if that is what a fair reading of the Constitution required. He also defended the legal rights of corporations by tying them to the individual rights of the stockholders, thereby ensuring that corporations have the same level of protection for their property as individuals had, and shielding corporations against intrusive state governments.
Many commentators have written concerning Marshall's contributions to the theory and practice of judicial review. Among his strongest followers in the European tradition has been Hans Kelsen for the inclusion of the principle of judicial review in the constitutions of both Czechoslovakia and Austria. In her recent book on Hans Kelsen, Sandrine Baume identified John Hart Ely as a significant defender of the "compatibility of judicial review with the very principles of democracy." Baume identified John Hart Ely alongside Dworkin as the foremost defenders of Marshall's principle in recent years, while the opposition to this principle of "compatibility" were identified as Bruce Ackerman and Jeremy Waldron. In contrast to Waldron and Ackerman, Ely and Dworkin were long-time advocates of the principle of defending the Constitution upon the lines of support they saw as strongly associated with enhanced versions of judicial review in the federal government.
The University of Virginia recently placed many volumes of Marshall's papers online as a searchable digital edition. The Library of Congress maintains the John Marshall papers which Senator Albert Beveridge used while compiling his biography of the chief justice a century ago. The Special Collections Research Center at the College of William & Mary holds other John Marshall papers in its Special Collections.
Marshall's home in Richmond, Virginia, has been preserved by Preservation Virginia (formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities). It is considered to be an important landmark and museum, essential to an understanding of the Chief Justice's life and work. The United States Bar Association commissioned sculptor William Wetmore Story to execute the statue of Marshall that now stands inside the Supreme Court on the ground floor. Another casting of the statue is located at Constitution Ave. and 4th Street in Washington D.C. and a third on the grounds of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Story's father Joseph Story had served as an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court with Marshall. The statue was originally dedicated in 1884.
An engraved portrait of Marshall appears on U.S. paper money on the series 1890 and 1891 treasury notes. These rare notes are in great demand by note collectors today. Also, in 1914, an engraved portrait of Marshall was used as the central vignette on series 1914 $500 federal reserve notes. These notes are also quite scarce. (William McKinley replaced Marshall on the $500 bill in 1928.) Example of both notes are available for viewing on the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco website. Marshall was also featured on a commemorative silver dollar in 2005.
On September 24, 1955, the United States Postal Service issued the 40¢ Liberty Issue postage stamp honoring Marshall with a 40 cent stamp.
Having grown from a Reformed Church academy, Marshall College, named upon the death of Chief Justice John Marshall, officially opened in 1836 with a well-established reputation. After a merger with Franklin College in 1853, the school was renamed Franklin and Marshall College. The college went on to become one of the nation's foremost liberal arts colleges.
Additionally, four law schools and at least two colleges today bear his name: The Marshall-Wythe School of Law (now William and Mary Law School at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia; The Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio; John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, Georgia; and, The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois. The colleges that bear his name are Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. Marshall County, Illinois, Marshall County, Indiana, Marshall County, Kentucky, and Marshall County, West Virginia, are also named in his honor. A number of high schools around the nation have also been named for him.
John Marshall's birthplace in Fauquier County is a park, the John Marshall Birthplace Park, and a marker can be seen on Route 28 noting this place and event. North Marshall Mountain 38.776°N 78.203°W / 38.776; -78.203 and South Marshall Mountain 38.772°N 78.220°W / 38.772; -78.220 in Shenandoah National Park are named after him. Playing chess was "a favorite pastime" of Chief Justice Marshall. A sculpture, The Chess Players is located near a statue of the Chief Justice in John Marshall Park in Washington, DC.
Marshall, Michigan, was named in his honor five years before Marshall's death. It was the first of dozens of communities and counties named for him. Marshall County, Kentucky, was named in his honor.
Virginia State Route 55, from Front Royal, Virginia, to Gainesville, Virginia, is named "John Marshall Highway" in Marshall's honor.
Marshall was a descendant of the Randolph family of Virginia, including William Randolph I and Thomas Randolph (of Tuckahoe). The family's genealogy was published in 1885.
His wife Mary (Polly) Willis Ambler Marshall delivered 10 children, but lost four in childhood. Survivors included:Thomas Marshall (1781 - 1835) (the only son sent to Princeton University)
Jaquelin Ambler Marshall (1787 - 1852)
Mary Marshall Harvie (1795 - 1841), her father's favorite, remained in Richmond after marrying future Maj. General Jaquelin Burwell Harvie, son of Col. John Harvie Jr.
John James Marshall (1798 - 1833)
James Keith Marshall (1800 - 1862), Virginia delegate 1839-1841
Edward Carrington Marshall (1805-1882), the Marshalls' youngest son and the only one to actually graduate from Harvard University, became a Virginia farmer, delegate (1834–38) and Manassas Gap Railroad president (1850-1867)
Prominent family descendants and relations include:Humphrey Marshall (1760 – July 3, 1841), a United States Senator from Kentucky, was the first cousin and brother-in-law of the chief justice.
Thomas Francis Marshall (June 7, 1801 – September 22, 1864) a lawyer who was elected U.S. Representative from Kentucky, was a nephew of the chief justice.
Charles Marshall (1830–1902), great-nephew to John Marshall and colonel in the Confederate Army, served as an aide de camp to Robert E. Lee when the latter commanded the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War.
Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) primary author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and President of the United States, was a relative of Marshall on his mother's side. Both Marshall and Jefferson were descendants of the Virginia colonist William Randolph.
George C. Marshall (December 31, 1880 – October 16, 1959) was an American military leader, General of the U.S. Army, Chief of Staff of the Army, Secretary of State, the third Secretary of Defense, and the author of the Marshall Plan, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a distant relative of the chief justice.