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Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who wrote the decision establishing the Court's right to determine the constitutionality of laws
John Marshall was born in a log cabin near Germantown, Virginia, on September 24, 1755. His father moved the family to a larger and nicer home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 30 miles away, when John was about ten years old. His mother was related to the Randolph family, which made John a relative of a number of leading Virginians of the day, including Thomas Jefferson. Marshall received most of his education at home, with only the briefest of formal educations at the academy of Reverend Archibald Campbell, for a few weeks in 1772.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, Marshall joined the Culpepper Minute Men and was elected their Lieutenant. During the course of the war, he fought at Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and spent the winter of 1778-1779 with George Washington at Valley Forge. In 1779, he was part of Major Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee's daring raid on a British encampment at Powles Hook, New Jersey. Marshall left the Continental Army in 1781 to take up the practice of law, having risen to the rank of Captain.
Early Law and Political Career
In 1780 Marshall took a six week law course given by George Wythe at William and Mary College. He was admitted to the practice of law in Virginia that same year, and quickly built a successful practice.
In 1782 Marshall was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. He went on to serve a total of fifteen years, 1782 to 1790 and again 1795 to 1796. During this period of service he participated in the 1788 Virginia Convention that ratified the United States Constitution, during which he became a leader of the Federalists pushing for ratification.
In 1795 President George Washington offered Marshall the position of Attorney General, but he turned it down. He also turned down the position of Minister to France in 1796. But he did accept President John Adams's 1797 offer to participate in a trade mission to France, a mission which ultimately led to the infamous XYZ Affair. In 1799, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until being named Secretary of State by President Adams in May 1800.
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
In January 1801, President Adams named Marshall to succeed Oliver Ellsworth as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. At the time of his appointment, the Supreme Court had yet to become a respected part of the federal government, but by the time Marshall died the Court had become a vigorous and equal third branch of government. The structure of the government was made clear through his decisions, and the Court's authority to make the final decision as to the constitutionality of the government's actions had been firmly established.
The first major test of the Supreme Court's authority to make binding decisions came with the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison. The case began in the final hours of President Adams' administration, when Adams waited until the very last possible moment to appoint 42 men to be Justices of the Peace for Washington and Alexandria counties in the District of Columbia. All of Adams' appointments were confirmed by the Federalist-controlled Senate, and the commissions were signed and sealed, but not delivered, before Adams left office. When Thomas Jefferson came into office, he directed his Secretary of State, James Madison, to issue 25 of Adams' commissions, but to withhold the other 17. Those 17 men, one of whom was William Marbury, applied to the Supreme Court for a Writ of Mandamus compelling Madison to deliver the commissions. They argued that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 compelled Madison to grant the appointments, but the Court refused to rule on the appointments because Section 13 gave the Supreme Court powers not provided by the Constitution and, therefore, that Section 13 was unconstitutional. By so ruling, the Supreme Court reserved for itself the final authority to judge whether or not actions of the President or Congress are constitutional. The ruling also affirmed the Supreme Court's responsibility to act whenever the actions of a lower court are believed to have been unconstitutional.
Other important cases heard during Marshall's tenure on the Court included: McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), which laid down the basic theory of implied powers under a written Constitution, and upheld the power of Congress to create the United States Bank; Cohens v. Virginia (1821), which enforced the supremacy of federal law over conflicting state law, and assumed for the federal judiciary the power to declare and impose on the states the Constitution and laws of the United States; and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), which invalidated a monopoly granted by the State of New York to certain persons to run steamboats in the waters of the state, and suggested the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce.
In addition to his duties on the Supreme Court, Marshall also presided as a Circuit Court Judge over the arraignment and treason trial of Aaron Burr.
In 1835, while returning home from Washington, Marshall suffered severe injuries in a stagecoach accident. His health, which was already frail, began to decline rapidly. He went to Philadelphia for medical assistance in June, and died there on July 6, 1835. He was subsequently buried in Shockhoe Hill Cemetery, in Richmond, Virginia.
John Marshall was the author of a five-volume biography of George Washington, which was published between 1804 and 1807. He published a revised edition of that biography, in two volumes, in 1832.
John Marshall married Mary Willis Ambler on January 3, 1783. They had a total of ten children, six of whom survived to adulthood. She died on December 25, 1831.
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This page was last updated on September 23, 2017.