Biography of John Marshall, Influential Supreme Court Justice

Engraved portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall
Chief Justice John Marshall. Getty Images

John Marshall served as the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. During Marshall's 34 year tenure, the Supreme Court attained stature and established itself as a fully co-equal branch of the government.

When Marshall was appointed by John Adams, the Supreme Court was widely viewed as a weak institution with little impact on government or society. However, the Marshall court became a check on the power of the executive and legislative branches. Many opinions written during Marshall's tenure established precedents which still continue to define the powers of the federal government to this day.

Fast Facts: John Marshall

  • Occupation: Supreme Court chief justice, secretary of state, and lawyer
  • Born: September 24, 1755 in Germantown, Virginia
  • Died: July 6, 1835 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Education: College of William & Mary
  • Spouse's Name: Mary Willis Ambler Marshall (m. 1783–1831)
  • Children's Names: Humphrey, Thomas, Mary
  • Key Accomplishment: Raised the stature of the U.S. Supreme Court, established the Supreme Court as a co-equal branch of government

Early Life and Military Service

John Marshall was born on the Virginia frontier on September 24, 1755. His family was related to some of the wealthiest members of the Virginia aristocracy, including Thomas Jefferson. However, because of several scandals in previous generations, Marshall's parents had inherited little and subsisted as hard-working farmers. Marshall's parents were somehow able to acquire a number of books. They instilled a love of learning in their son, and he compensated for a lack of formal education through extensive reading.

When the colonies rebelled against the British, Marshall enlisted in a Virginia regiment. He rose to the title of officer and saw combat at battles including Brandywine and Monmouth. Marshall spent the bitter winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge. It was said that his sense of humor helped him and his friends cope with the great hardship.

As the Revolutionary War neared its end, Marshall found himself sidelined, as most of the men in his regiment had deserted. He remained an officer, but he had no men to lead, so he spent time attending lectures on the law at the College of William and Mary—his only experience with formal education.

Legal and Political Career

In 1780, Marshall was admitted to the Virginia Bar and began a law practice. Two years later, in 1782, he entered politics, winning the election to the Virginia legislature. Marshall earned a reputation as a very good lawyer whose logical thinking made up for his lack of formal schooling.

He attended the convention at which Virginians debated whether to ratify the Constitution. He argued forcefully for ratification. He took a particular interest in defending Article III, which deals with the powers of the judiciary, and embraced the concept of judicial review—foreshadowing of his later career on the Supreme Court.

In the 1790s, as political parties began to form, Marshall became a leading Federalist in Virginia. He aligned himself with President George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, and was a proponent of a strong national government.

Marshall avoided joining the federal government, preferring to stay in the Virginia legislature. This decision arose partly from the fact that his private law practice was doing very well. In 1797, he accepted an assignment from President Adams, who sent him to Europe as a diplomat during a time of tension with France.

After returning to America, Marshall ran for Congress, and was elected in 1798. In early 1800, Adams, who had been impressed by Marshall's diplomatic work, appointed him secretary of state. Marshall was serving in that position when Adams lost the election of 1800, which was eventually decided in the House of Representatives.

Appointment to the Supreme Court

In the final days of John Adams' presidency, a problem arose on the Supreme Court: the Chief Justice, Oliver Ellsworth, resigned due to failing health. Adams wanted to appoint a successor before leaving office, and his first choice, John Jay, turned down the job.

Marshall delivered the letter that contained Jay's rejection of the position to Adams. Adams was disappointed to read Jay's letter turning him down, and asked Marshall who he should appoint.

Marshall said he did not know. Adams replied, "I believe I must nominate you."

Though surprised, Marshall agreed to accept the position of chief justice. In an odd quirk, he did not resign from the post of secretary of state. Marshall was easily confirmed by the Senate, and for a brief period he was both chief justice and secretary of state, a situation that would be unthinkable in the modern era.

As the post of chief justice was not considered a lofty position at the time, it was perhaps surprising that Marshall accepted the offer. It is possible that, as a committed Federalist, he believed serving on the nation's highest court might be a check on the incoming administration of Thomas Jefferson.

Landmark Cases

Marshall's tenure leading the Supreme Court began on March 5, 1801. He sought to strengthen and unify the court, and at the outset he was able to convince his colleagues to stop the practice of issuing separate opinions. For his first decade on the court, Marshall tended to write the court's opinions himself.

The Supreme Court also assumed its lofty position in the government by deciding cases which set important precedents. Some of the landmark cases of the Marshall era are:

Marbury v. Madison, 1803

Perhaps the most discussed and influential legal case in American history, Marshall's written decision in Marbury v. Madison established the principle of judicial review and was the first Supreme Court case to declare a law was unconstitutional. The decision written by Marshall would provide future courts with a sturdy defense of judicial power.

Fletcher v. Peck, 1810

The decision, which involved a land dispute case in Georgia, established that a state court could strike down a state law as being inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution.

McCulloch v. Maryland, 1819

The case arose from a dispute between the state of Maryland and the Bank of the United States. The Supreme Court, led by Marshall, held that the Constitution gave the federal government implied powers and that a state could not regulate the power of the federal government.

Cohens v. Virginia, 1821

The case, which arose from a dispute between two brothers and the state of Virginia, established that the federal courts could review state court decisions.

In case involving the regulation of steamboats in the waters around New York City, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution's commerce clause gave the federal government broad powers to regulate commerce.

Legacy

During the 34 years of Marshall’s tenure, the Supreme Court became a fully co-equal branch of the federal government. It was the Marshall court that first declared a law passed by Congress to be unconstitutional and set important limits on state powers. Without Marshall's guidance in the early decades of the 19th century, it is unlikely the Supreme Court could have grown into the powerful institution it has become.

Marshall died on July 6, 1835. His death was marked with public displays of grieving, and in Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell cracked while being rung in tribute to him.

Sources

  • Paul, Joel Richard. Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times. New York, Riverhead Books, 2018.
  • "Marshall, John." Shaping of America, 1783-1815 Reference Library, edited by Lawrence W. Baker, et al., vol. 3: Biographies Volume 2, UXL, 2006, pp. 347-359. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Marshall, John." Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 6, Gale, 2011, pp. 473-475. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "John Marshall." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 10, Gale, 2004, pp. 279-281. Gale Virtual Reference Library.