John Marshall was one of the most prominent leaders of his time – the period of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States of America. He was a charismatic personality and had a debater's gifts. He was the only judge in American history whose difference as a statesman ensuing almost entirely from his judicial career. He was a backwoodsman at heart. John Marshall felt more comfortable in the company of the farmers than intellectuals or scholars. His father’s association and his admiration to George Washington shaped his national outlook. He served as a lieutenant under Gen. George Washington’s command during the American Revolution, where he endured the hardships of the winter at Valley Forge. He became one of the planter-turned-statesman of most loyal supporters. After Washington’s death, he became the great man’s biographer.
Marshall was no bumpkin. John’s father has played a significant role in his earliest schooling. He taught him to read and write and gave a taste of poetry and history. At the age of fourteen, Marshall was sent to school where future president James Monroe was one of his classmates. After a year, he returned to be tutored by a Scottish pastor, which later lived in the Marshall house. He read Horace and Livy, pored through English Dictionary, Bible of the Common Law and Commentaries on the Laws of England by William Blackstone. In 1799, Marshall attended lectures for a few weeks at the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg. He did not remain long there. It was the custom of future lawyers to read law in the office of the older lawyer or judge or to experience their instructions. In August 1780, Marshall appeared at the Fauquier Country Courthouse. He was admitted to the bar.
In 1782, Marshall’s neighbors sent him to Richmond as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Richmond became Marshall’s home after his election to the legislature. He built a comfortable brick house on the outskirt of the city where he and his wife raised their five sons and one daughter.
Marshall took a prominent part in efforts to secure ratification of the constitution in Philadelphia, in 1787. When George Washington took office as president, he offered Marshall the post of the attorney general. Marshall declined the appointment explaining that he preferred to stay in Richmond with his family and law practice as he did a later post of the prestigious post of American minister to France.
In 1798, John Marshall went to Paris as one of the 3 envoys from President John Adams to the government of revolutionary France. He was assured that his duties in Paris would be temporary. Marshall believed he could perform a real service for his country by helping to preserve peaceful relations with France.
Marshall was outraged to learn that the French government expected to be paid before it would receive the American emissaries. He recognized their request as a solicitation for a bribe so he refused to consider it.
When the American people received the news of the XYZ affair they were outraged too. In the summer of 1787, Marshall was welcomed as a hero when he returned home. He was sent to Congress as a Federalist representative from Richmond in the elections of the following fall.
Marshall vigorously supported the federalist policies of President John Adams. He was
appointed to the important post of the secretary of the state where he was left in effective charge of the government during Adam’s frequent absences in Massachusetts.
John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson had little similarity, although distantly related. In fact, they have clashed repeatedly over fundamental and constitutional issues. Their opposing political beliefs put the two men in contrast. Jefferson, a Democratic Republican, was an advocate of limiting the powers of central government, while Marshall was a supporter of a strong federal government and a stable, well ordered society run by the great landowners and merchants. Jefferson and his supporters discoursed the qualities of agrarian democracy, while Marshall allied himself with Washington, Adams, and Hamilton and to the Federalist policies they promoted.
It was inevitable that the Supreme Court and the executive branch of the government should come into conflict when it was Jefferson who ruled in the Executive Mansion and John Marshall in the Chief Justice chair. Marshall believed firmly in a strong national government and was willing to do all he could to build up federal institutions. Jefferson believed as firmly in state sovereignty and the necessity for maintaining constant vigilance against federal “usurpations”. In legal matters, Jefferson believed that the constitution should be interpreted strictly to reduce the federal power. In contrast, Marshall believed that the Constitution should be construed fairly so as to carry out the intentions of its framers. In Marshall’s view, any law or executive act that violated the terms of the Constitution was a nullity. Jefferson believed that the other branches of the government also had the duty and right to decide on constitutional questions. In 1803, in the case of Marbury v. Madison came the opportunity of Marshall to implement his view of the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of constitutional questions. He used it as a springboard to a great constitutional pronouncement. It turned out that the courts of the United States had the right to declare law unconstitutional.
If historians and constitutional lawyers were asked to name a single person to represent the Supreme Court of the United States, no doubt that it would John Marshall.
Brian McGinty points out that Chief Justice John Marshall made the nation’s high tribunal a court that is supreme, in fact, as well as in name. It was Marshall’s court decisions that had the biggest influence on his country. As McGinty says, Marshall’s ruling in Marbury v. Madison, which established the principle of Judicial review, was perhaps the most important decision ever to come from the United States Supreme Court. Judicial review empowered the Supreme Court to interpret the meaning of the Constitution and define the authority of the national government and the states. It was the cornerstone of American constitutional law.
During the whole of Marshall’s more than thirty four years as head of the federal judiciary, the court grew steadily in authority and respect.
In 1830, James Buchanan, a young Pennsylvania congressman and future president of the United States commented on Marshall that he was probably one of the great and best men Virginia had ever produced.
Joseph Story, an associate for more than twenty years of Chief Justice Marshall thought that Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court contributed more “to the preservation of the true principles of the Constitution than any other circumstances in our domestic history”.