John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

John Marshall, First Chief Justice
John Marshall, First Chief Justice. "John Marshall by Henry Inman, 1832" by Henry Inman - Virginia Memory. Licensed under Public domain.


September 24, 1755


July 6, 1835

Early Years:

John Marshall was born in Virginia to Thomas Marshall and Mary Randolph Keith. He was related to Thomas Jefferson on his mother's side. Marshall was well educated, first working with private tutors and attending the Westmoreland Academy.

Career During the Revolutionary War :

Marshall joined the militia during the Revolutionary War. He fought in many major battles and spent the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge with George Washington and his men.

He took a hiatus from 1779-80 when he returned to Virginia, studied law, and was admitted to the bar. He did return to military service when Virginia was invaded but in 1781 opened his own law practice. Marshall entered Virginia politics in 1782. He married Mary Willis Ambler in 1783.

John Marshall the Federalist:

Marshall was a staunch supporter of the new US Constitution when he served on the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He was key in shaping Article III of the Constitution which deals with the judicial branch.

Negotiations with the French:

Marshall had turned down President Washington's requests to be the Attorney General and to serve as Minister to France. However, in 1797 John Adams sent him with two other appointees to France. Marshall and the others were denied the ability to negotiate with France unless they paid a large sum of money and Marshall was sent back home.

This raised anti-French sentiments at home and led to an undeclared naval war between the French and the Americans that lasted from 1798-1800. He would later be appointed Secretary of State under Adams and negotiated the Convention of 1800 ending the hostility with France.

Road to Chief Justice:

John Marshall had declined an earlier appointment to be a Supreme Court Justice in 1798.

However, in 1801 he was appointed Chief Justice of the court. He actually served as both Chief Justice and Secretary of State for Adams for one month before Adams left office. He instituted a major rule that the justices would hand down a combined majority opinion after a case was decided instead of returning individual opinions on the case.

Marbury v. Madison:

One of Marshall's most important cases in terms of the strength of the judiciary occurred in 1803. In Marbury v. Madison, Marshall and the Supreme Court refused to rule on the case in question and instead said that the instrument that William Marbury used to bring the case to the Supreme Court, the Writ of Mandamus, was unconstitutional. This set up the precedent that allows the judicial branch to use judicial review to determine if acts are unconstitutioanl.

Increasing the Power of the Federal Government:

John Marshall's Supreme Court decided many cases that set important precedents. A number of these cases involved increasing the power of the federal government. The most significant of these were McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) which ruled that Congress has implied powers in the Constitution, the Dartmouth College Case (1819) which affirmed the obligation of contracts and denied undue state interference in them, and Gibbons v.

Ogden (1824) which gave Congress ultimate authority over interstate commerce.