John Marshall, the Great Chief Justice

Nominated By John Adams, He Defined the Role of the Supreme Court

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

In January 1801, President John Adams faced a troublesome decision. The country needed a new Chief Justice for the Supreme Court.

Oliver Ellsworth had resigned the position, which, at that time, was not considered terribly prestigious. The Supreme Court itself was a fairly weak institution at that time. And as justices had to “ride the circuit,” traveling on horseback to hear cases, serving on the court could be a grueling and thankless task.

Adams intended to nominate John Jay, who was an old and trusted friend. But Jay, a distinguished lawyer who had previously held the position, turned Adams down.

And with little more than a month left in his term before president-elect Thomas Jefferson would take the oath of office in March, Adams found himself in a bind.

John Adams and John Marshall Had a Fateful Meeting

John Marshall, who was serving as secretary of state to Adams, later wrote that he had delivered Jay's letter refusing the position to Adams, who had recently moved into the unfinished executive mansion, which would later be known as the White House.

Adams, disappointed when he read Jay's letter, asked, ”Who shall I nominate now?"

Marshall replied that he did not know.

“I believe I must nominate you,” said Adams.

Marshall recalled being surprised, and bowing his head in silence. The next day, January 20, 1801, he was nominated as Chief Justice.

The Senate confirmed him a week later, on January 27.

Historians have long debated whether or not Adams had always intended to nominate Marshall or whether the nomination actually was a decision made on the spot. In either case, the decision was not frivolous; Adams knew Marshall to be extremely capable.

And because of Marshall’s unassailable reputation, Adams was confident he would be confirmed by the Senate.

Roots on the Frontier

John Marshall was born on the Virginia frontier on September 24, 1755, the son of a land surveyor who had somehow amassed a substantial library of books. As a child Marshall was encouraged to read extensively.

As a young man he served as a captain in the Continental Army, and saw action in several battles, including Brandywine and Monmouth. While still serving in the military, he studied law part-time at William and Mary College. The course of lectures he attended would be his only formal legal education. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1780, and entered political life a few years later, winning election to the Virginia legislature in 1782.

Marshall earned a reputation as a very good lawyer who could think on his feet. And he also became known for arguing forcefully that Virginia should ratify the Constitution. At the 1788 Constitutional Convention in Virginia he defended Article III, which deals with the judiciary. The concept of judicial review was embraced by Marshall, a foreshadowing of his later career on the Supreme Court.

Marshall's Tenure on the Supreme Court

Despite the apparently hasty circumstances of Marshall’s nomination to the Supreme Court, he would be the longest serving Chief Justice in American history, holding the position for 34 years.

His influence on the Court was profound. When Marshall took office the judiciary was considerably weaker than the other two branches of the government, as the Constitution gave little direction to the Supreme Court. But under Marshall’s guidance the Supreme Court became the powerful institution it has remained.

Marbury v. Madison

The 1803 Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison arose out of a fairly trifling matter of political intrigue, yet the case would have enormous consequences for the young American nation. In his decision, John Marshall would assert the Supreme Court’s doctrine of judicial review, the power to strike down unconstitutional laws.

A series of other landmark decisions followed, such as the 1819 decision in McCulloch v. Maryland, which determined the distribution of powers between the federal government and the states, and Cohens v. Virginia, which emphasized federal power and upheld the supremacy of federal courts.

John Marshall's Legacy at the Supreme Court

Over the 34 years of Marshall’s tenure the Supreme Court became an equal branch of the federal government. The stature and great power the Supreme Court holds today would be impossible to imagine without Marshall's guidance in the early years of the 19th century.

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

Though Marshall was largely self-taught in the law, and his appointment to the Supreme Court seemed to be a spur of the moment decision, he became known in history as “The Great Chief Justice.”