John Marshall

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This article is about the American political leader. You may be looking for John Marshall (archaeologist), Jack Marshall (New Zealand politician) or John Marshall (British captain)
Chief Justice John Marshall (1755–1835), an engraving after Henry Inman's 1834 painting.
Chief Justice John Marshall (17551835), an engraving after Henry Inman's 1834 painting.

John Marshall (September 24, 1755July 6, 1835) was a highly influential American statesman, lawyer, legislator and soldier who served as a Virginia Delegate, U.S. Representative, special emissary to France, Secretary of State and, most significantly, as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States. Marshall presided over the Supreme Court of the United States for over three decades and was the principal founder of American constitutional law and the power of judicial review.

While a signatory of neither the Declaration of Independence nor the United States Constitution, his extraordinary legal mind and powerful personality both energized and legitimized the judicial branch of the early national government and cemented his position as one of America's preeminent Founding Fathers.


Family and education

John Marshall was born to planter Thomas Marshall (1732–1806) and his wife Mary Isham Keith in 1755 in Germantown, Virginia, in a section of Prince William County that became Fauquier County, Virginia four years after his birth. Germantown no longer exists, but the archeological sites relating to the German settlers who gave the settlement its name were added to the National Register of Historic Places and a plaque noting the historic status of the area stands near the present-day town of Midland, Virginia.

John was the oldest of 15 children, seven boys and eight girls, all of whom survived to adulthood and many of whom (along with their descendants) were also remarkably significant in the development of the Republic. As a young man he studied the classics and English literature, eventually working with a private tutor, the Reverend James Thompson, an Episcopal clergyman from Scotland. At the age of 14 he was sent to a "classical academy" in Westmoreland County for additional instruction. Marshall's father, Thomas, and George Washington, the "Father of His Country," as he was later called, had studied at the same academy in their youths. James Monroe was one of Marshall's fellow students during the year the latter spent at the academy. Thereafter, he returned to the family home, Oak Hill, and resumed studying with the Rev. Thompson. By age 18 he had begun to study law, particularly William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, but his academic work was interrupted by the coming of the American Revolution. In 1780, Marshall attended lectures of renowned jurist and law professor George Wythe at the College of William and Mary.

Military service

When John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, known to history as "Lord Dunmore," invaded Lower Virginia in 1775, young Marshall was appointed a lieutenant and his father a major in the "minute battalion," later called the Culpeper Minute Men. This unit was composed of citizens of Culpeper, Orange and Fauquier counties, armed with rifles, knives and tomahawks, and on their green hunting shirts they bore the motto "Liberty or death!" and on their banner was the emblem of a coiled rattlesnake, with the inscription "Don't tread on me!" Together the Marshalls and their Virginia compatriots engaged and defeated Dunmore in the Battle of Great Bridge, near the Dismal Swamp, on December 9, 1775, therefore ending English control of the Old Dominion forever.

This state militia unit was eventually reorganized, and Thomas Marshall was appointed colonel in the 3d Virginia infantry of the Continental line, and John's company was attached to the 11th regiment of Virginia troops, which was sent to join Washington's army in New Jersey. Both were in most of the principal battles of the war until the end of 1779.

In July 1776 he was attached to the Virginia Continental line, with the same commission; and, early in 1777, he joined the army under George Washington. He was in the Battle of Brandywine and Battle of Germantown, endured the miserable winter at Valley Forge, and fought at the Battle of Monmouth, Battle of Stony Point, and Battle of Paulus Hook in the summer of 1778, as commander of a Virginia company.

His marked good sense and discretion and his general popularity often led to his being selected to settle disputes between his brother officers, and he was frequently employed to act as deputy judge advocate. This brought him into extensive acquaintance with the officers, and into personal intercourse with General Washington and Colonel Alexander Hamilton, an acquaintance that subsequently ripened into sincere regard and attachment.

The term of enlistment of his regiment having expired, Captain Marshall and other supernumerary officers were ordered to Virginia to take charge of any new troops that might be raised by the state. While he was detained in Richmond during the winter of 1779 through 1780, awaiting the action of the legislature, he availed himself of the opportunity to attend the lectures of George Wythe at College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia on the law and those of Professor (afterward Bishop) Madison on natural philosophy.

Early career

He was admitted to the bar on August 28, 1780, but on the invasion of Virginia by General Alexander Leslie in October of that year, he joined the army again, serving under Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, and remained in the service until January 1781. He resigned his Army commission at that time and began in earnest a private practice of law in Fauquier County. As soon as the courts were reopened young Marshall began practice, and he quickly rose to high distinction in the legal community.

In the spring of 1782, at the age of 27, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, and in the fall of that year, made a member of the state executive council. On January 3, 1783, he married 17-year-old Mary Willis Ambler (called Polly, Molly or Maria), youngest daughter of Jacqueline Ambler, the then-treasurer of Virginia, and Rebecca Lewis Burwell, whom Thomas Jefferson had loved in his youth. The young lawyer and his bride relocated his primary residence from Fauquier County to Richmond, Virginia where the future Chief Justice would maintain a home and a legal practice for nearly 15 years.

In the spring of 1784 John Marshall resigned his seat on the Virginia executive council board in order to devote himself more exclusively to his work as an attorney. Unfortunately for the fate of that ambition, he was immediately returned to the state's legislature by Fauquier County, even though he resided there on rare occasions. He held that seat until 1785, at which time he took on the additional responsibility of Recorder of the Richmond City Hustings Court, holding that post through 1788. In 1787 he was reelected to the Virginia state legislature as the Delegate from Henrico County, which includes the city of Richmond.

His practice, in the meantime, became extended and lucrative. He was employed in nearly every important cause that came up in the state and United States courts in Virginia.

In the summer of 1788, Marshall joined other delegates at the Virginia state convention that was to ratify or reject the proposed United States Constitution. He joined with fellow Virginian James Madison in eloquently urging his fellow statesmen to vote in favor of the document.

His own constituents were opposed to its provisions, but chose him in spite of his refusal to pledge himself to vote against its adoption. In this body he spoke only on important questions, such as the direct power of taxation, the control of the militia and the judicial power—the most important features of the proposed government, the absence of which in the Confederation was the principal cause of its failure. On these occasions he generally answered Patrick Henry, a leader of the anti-Federalist faction and the most powerful opponent of the constitution, and he spoke with such force of argument and breadth of views as greatly to affect the final result. The final tally was 89 in favor versus 79 against. When the Constitution went into effect, Marshall acted with the party that desired to give it fair scope and to see it fully carried out. His great powers were frequently called into requisition in support of the Federalist cause, and in defense of the measures of Washington's administration.

Marshall was a very active Freemason during his adult life and during this time was elected the Worshipful Master of the Grand Lodge of Virginia, serving from 1793 to 1795.

He was again a member of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1795 and 1796, and notably defended Jay's Treaty in a speech of remarkable power.

Federal service

In August 1795, President Washington offered him the position of Attorney General of the United States, which had been made vacant by the death of William Bradford, but Marshall declined, preferring to continue as a practicing lawyer.

In February, 1796, he attended the Supreme Court at Philadelphia to argue the great case of the British debts Ware vs. Hylton, and while he was there received unusual attention from the leaders of the Federalist party in congress. He was now, at 41 years of age, undoubtedly at the head of the Virginia bar; and in the branches of international and public law, which, from the character of his cases and his own inclination, he had profoundly studied, he probably had no superior, if he had an equal, in the country.

An engraving of Justice Marshall made by Charles-Balthazar-Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin in 1808.
An engraving of Justice Marshall made by Charles-Balthazar-Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin in 1808.

In the summer of 1796 Washington offered him the place of envoy to France to succeed James Monroe, but he declined it, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was appointed. As the French Directory refused to receive Mr. Pinckney, and ordered him to leave the country, no other representative was sent to France until John Adams became president. In June, 1797, Mr. Adams appointed Pinckney, Marshall and Elbridge Gerry as joint envoys. The new envoys were as unsuccessful in establishing diplomatic relations with the French republic as General Pinckney had been. They arrived at Paris in October, 1797, and communicated with Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, but were cajoled and trifled with. Secret agents of the minister approached them with a demand for money—£50,000 for private account, and a loan to the government, events now known as the XYZ Affair. Repelling these shameful suggestions with indignation, the envoys sent Talleyrand an elaborate paper, prepared by Marshall, which set forth with great precision and force of argument the views and requirements of the United States, and their earnest desire for maintaining friendly relations with France. But it availed nothing. Pinckney and Marshall, who were Federalists, were ordered to leave the territories of the republic, while Gerry, as a Republican, was allowed to remain. The news of these events was received in this country with the deepest indignation.

Marshall returned to the United States in June, 1798, and was everywhere received with admiration, and returned again to the practice of law in Virginia. On September 26, 1798, President John Adams, offered him an appointment to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States to a seat made vacant by the death of James Wilson, but Marshall declined and recommended Bushrod Washington as a replacement. Bushrod Washington would later become one of Marshall's staunchest allies on the court although he himself had a largely mediocre career.

U.S. Representative

In part due to the measure of fame according him because of his conduct during the XYZ Affair and in part due to the promotion of his candidacy by Patrick Henry, he reluctantly ran for and won a seat in the United States House of Representatives. He was elected as a Federalist to the Sixth United States Congress and served from March 4, 1799 to June 7, 1800, when he resigned. During his tenure in the House, he was called upon to announce to that body the death of George Washington and made a short, stirring and memorable speech.

His most notable effect on the law of the land during his term in Congress was his speech on the case of Thomas Nash, alias Jonathan Robbins, in which he showed that there is nothing in the Constitution of the United States which prevents the federal government of the United States from carrying out an extradition treaty. This speech settled the principles that have since guided the government and the courts of the United States in extradition cases, and is regarded as an authoritative exposition of international law on the subject of which it treats.

While still serving the last days of his single term in Congress, with the final day of the session scheduled for May 14, he was appointed twice to the United States Cabinet by John Adams. The first nomination, on May 7, was to be United States Secretary of War in the place of the departing James McHenry, but that possibility was dropped when Adams decided on May 12 to name him instead United States Secretary of State as a replacement for Timothy Pickering. Confirmed by the United States Senate on May 13, he took the title on June 6, 1800 and served through March 4, 1801 as the fourth head of the United States Department of State.

U.S. Secretary of State

As Secretary of State, he directed the negotiation of the reconciliation convention of 1800 with France. He filled this office with ability and credit during the remainder of Adams's administration. His state papers are luminous and unanswerable, especially his instructions to Rufus King, minister to Great Britain, in relation to the right of search and other difficulties with that country. He strongly opposed violations of American rights on the high seas and adopted a policy which necessitated a strong Navy to give force to American diplomatic protests.

Supreme Court career

It was in 1801 that he embarked upon the most important work of his life, that of leading the United States Supreme Court. He was nominated January 20 of that year by John Adams to replace Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, who had resigned in November 1800. Adams first offered the seat to former Chief Justice and then-Governor of New York John Jay, but when Jay declined due to ill health, Adams turned to Marshall.

John Marshall was unanimously confirmed as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States by the United States Senate on January 27, commissioned January 31 and seated February 4. He then presided over the court at the February term, even while serving in the Cabinet as Secretary of State.

The text of the McCulloch v. Maryland decision, handed down March 6, 1819, as recorded in the minutes of the Supreme Court of the United States, in which the Court determined the separate states could not tax the federal government.
The text of the McCulloch v. Maryland decision, handed down March 6, 1819, as recorded in the minutes of the Supreme Court of the United States, in which the Court determined the separate states could not tax the federal government.

Marshall, only 45 at the time of his appointment, was the second-youngest Chief Justice in U.S. history (after John Jay, appointed at age 44). In the United States Supreme Court, Marshall made his greatest contributions to the development of American government. In a series of historic decisions, he established the judiciary as an independent and influential branch of the government equal to Congress and the Presidency. Perhaps the most significant of these cases was that of Marbury v. Madison, in which the principle of judicial review was stated by Marshall: "A legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law." Then, as the young nation was endangered by regional and local interests which often threatened to fracture its hard-fought unity, Marshall again and again interpreted the Constitution broadly so that the Federal Government had the power to become a respected and creative force guiding and encouraging the nation's growth. For practical purposes, the Constitution in its most important aspects today is the Constitution as John Marshall interpreted it. As Chief Justice he embodied the majesty of the judiciary of the government as fully as the President of the United States stood for the power of the Executive Branch.

Marshall wrote several important Supreme Court opinions, including:

Marshall served as Chief Justice through all or part of six Presidential administrations (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson), and remained a stalwart proponent of Federalism and nemesis of the Jeffersonian school of government throughout its heyday.

Later life and legacy

For the first 31 years of his Chief Justiceship his life was generally serene. He never had to remain in Washington for more than three months. During the rest of the year, with the exception of a visit to Raleigh, North Carolina, which his duties as circuit judge required him to make, and a visit to his old home in Fauquier County, he lived in Richmond on Shockhoe Hill. Furthermore, Marshall's career, following his appointment to the Court and excepting his monumental contribution to that body, was relatively uneventful.

In 1805 he published a five-volume biography of George Washington, the Life of Washington, based on records and papers provided him by the President's family, of which the first volume was in 1824 reissued separately as A History of the American Colonies. The work reflected Marshall's Federalist principles, and consequently was not well received by President Jefferson.

In 1807 he presided, with Judge Cyrus Griffin, at the great state trial of Aaron Burr, who was charged with treason and misdemeanor. Few public trials have excited greater interest than this. President Thomas Jefferson and his adherents desired Burr's conviction, but Marshall preserved the most rigid impartiality and exact justice throughout the trial, acquitting himself, as always, to the public satisfaction.

In 1823 he became first president of the Richmond branch of the American Colonization Society, which was dedicated to resettling American slaves across the Atlantic Ocean in Liberia, Africa.

In 1828 he presided over a convention to promote internal improvements in Virginia.

In 1829 he was a delegate to the state constitutional convention 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. Marshall mainly spoke at this convention to promote the necessity of an independent judiciary.

On Christmas Day 1831 his wife of some 49 years passed away. All of his familiars agreed that after the death of his beloved wife, he was never quite the same again.

In 1832, Marshall's revised and condensed two-volume Life of Washington was published.

On returning from Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1835 he suffered severe contusions resulting from an accident to the stage coach in which he was riding. His health, which had not been good, now rapidly declined and in June he journeyed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for medical attendance. There he died on July 6, at the age of 79, having served as Chief Justice for over 34 years. He remains the longest-serving Chief Justice of the United States in history.

Two days before his death he enjoined his friends to place only a plain slab over the graves of himself and wife, and he wrote the simple inscription himself. His body, which was taken to Richmond, lies in Shockhoe Hill Cemetery.


Marshall's home in Richmond, Virginia has been preserved by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

Further reading

  • Collon, Joseph P., Jr., ed., Constitutional Decisions of John Marshall, (New York and London, 1905)
  • Corwin, Edward W., John Marshall and the Constitution: A Chronicle of the Supreme Court, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919. Online Edition: Project Gutenberg
  • Joseph Story, ed., The Writings of John Marshall, late Chief Justice of the United States, upon the Federal Constitution, Boston, 1839.
    • Discourse upon the Life, Character, and Services of John Marshall
  • Flanders, Henry, The lives and times of the chief justices of the Supreme court of the United States, (2d series, Philadelphia, 1858). Online Edition: Making of America Books


See also

External links

Preceded by:
Timothy Pickering
United States Secretary of State
June 13, 1800February 4, 1801
Succeeded by:
James Madison
Preceded by:
Oliver Ellsworth
Chief Justice of the United States
February 4, 1801July 6, 1835
Succeeded by:
Roger B. Taney

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