John Marshall (jurist) (1755-1835), American jurist and statesman, who as the fourth chief justice of the United States was principally responsible for developing the power of the United States Supreme Court and formulating constitutional law in the nation.
Marshall was born in Germantown, Virginia, on September 24, 1755, the eldest of 15 children. His childhood was spent under pioneer conditions in Fauquier County, Virginia, and his parents provided his early education. Marshall served in the American Revolution, first as a lieutenant and then as a captain. He received his only formal education in 1779, when he briefly studied law at the College of William and Mary. Admitted to the bar in 1780, he began practice in the West. Two years later he moved to Richmond, Virginia, and was soon a leader among Virginia lawyers.
As a member of the Virginia Assembly from 1782 to 1791, Marshall worked for ratification of the U.S. Constitution and became a prominent member of the Federalist Party. In 1795 he turned down George Washington's appointment of U.S. attorney general; he later declined appointment as a minister to France. After Marshall's second term in the Virginia Assembly (1795-1797), however, Washington prevailed upon him to serve as a member of a commission to arbitrate diplomatic affairs with France (see XYZ Affair). Although the mission failed, Marshall's activities in this dispute made him a popular figure and earned him a monetary reward from Congress. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1799, where he acted as spokesman for the Federalist Party. In 1800 he became secretary of state in the cabinet of President John Adams, and a year later Adams appointed him chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall held this office for 34 years until his death.
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The most important judicial figure in U.S. history, Marshall is justly famed as the “great chief justice.” Before his appointment to the bench, the Supreme Court was regarded as ineffectual. By the force of his personality and the wisdom of his decisions, Marshall raised the Court to a position of great power in the federal government. He succeeded in making it the ultimate authority in constitutional matters.
The first and perhaps most important of Marshall's great cases was Marbury v. Madison (1803), which established once and for all the right of judicial review. The decision upheld the Court's power to review legislation and to overrule acts of Congress and of state legislatures that it considered unconstitutional. The power of judicial review was fundamental to Marshall's interpretation of constitutional doctrine.
Marshall and the Court followed this with decisions that made sure federal law would be exercised under a unified judicial system. In Fletcher v. Peck (1810) the Court ruled that a state could not arbitrarily interfere with an individual's property rights. Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) reaffirmed the inviolability of a state's contract (see Dartmouth College Case).
One of the most famous cases to come before the Court during Marshall's tenure was McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), which established the principle that the Constitution granted certain implied powers to Congress—in this case, the power to create a U.S. bank. The importance of this decision was in its affirmation of a broad interpretation of the Constitution, thus making it a flexible instrument to support the federal government.
In Cohens v. Virginia (1821) the Supreme Court again upheld its right to overrule state action that violated the Constitution. Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) confirmed congressional control over foreign and interstate commerce. These cases and others during Marshall's tenure made up a body of judicial rulings that generally favored federal power as opposed to states' rights.
Marshall's judicial activities brought him into conflict with several presidents. His quarrels with Thomas Jefferson peaked in 1807 when Marshall presided at the treason trial of the former vice president Aaron Burr. President Jefferson, who had publicly condemned Burr before the trial, was hoping for a speedy conviction. According to Marshall's interpretation of the Constitution, however, conviction for treason required proof of an overt treasonous act, rather than only proof of engaging in a conspiracy (see Treason). Burr was acquitted in a generally unpopular decision.
Although Marshall's decisions were controversial, his personal integrity, wit, and charm made him much admired even among his enemies. His legal opinions were characterized by a precise and lucid style, literary skill, and thorough, logical analysis. He was the author of Life of George Washington (5 volumes, 1804-7). Marshall died in Philadelphia on July 6, 1835. According to tradition, the Liberty Bell cracked while being tolled in mourning for him.
See also Supreme Court of the United States.