In 1801, a 45-year-old Revolutionary War veteran and politician, slovenly, genial, brilliant, and persuasive, became the fourth chief justice of the United States, a post he would hold for a record thirty-four years. Before John Marshall joined the Court, the judicial branch was viewed as the poor sister of the federal government, lacking in dignity and clout. After his passing, the Supreme Court of the United States would never be ignored again. John Marshall is award-winning and bestselling author Richard Brookhiser’s definitive biography of America’s longest-serving Chief Justice.
Marshall (1755-1835) was born in Northern Virginia and served as a captain during the Revolutionary War and then as a delegate to the Virginia state convention. He was a friend and admirer of George Washington, and a cousin and enemy of Thomas Jefferson. His appointment to the Supreme Court came almost by chance-Adams saw him as the last viable option, after previous appointees declined the nomination. Yet he took to the court immediately, turning his sharp mind toward strengthening America’s fragile legal order.
Americans had inherited from their colonial past a deep distrust of judges as creatures of arbitrary royal power; in reaction, newly independent states made them pawns of legislative whim. The result was legal caprice, sometimes amounting to chaos. Marshall wanted a strong federal judiciary, led by the Supreme Court, to define laws, protect rights, and balance the power of the legislative and executive branches. However, America’s legal system, he believed, was threatened by specific individuals-namely Thomas Jefferson and the early Republican Party-who were intent on undermining the Constitution and respect for law in order to empower themselves.
As a Federalist and a follower of Washington and Hamilton, he also wanted a strong national government, favorable to business. In his three decades on the court, Marshall accomplished just that. As Brookhiser vividly relates, in a string of often-colorful cases involving businessmen, educators, inventors, scoundrels, Native Americans, and slaves, Marshall clipped the power of the states vis-à-vis the federal government, established the Supreme Court’s power to correct or rebuke Congress or the president, and bolstered commerce and contracts. John Marshall’s modus operandi was charm and wit, frequently uniting his fellow justices around unanimous decisions in even the most controversial cases. For better and for worse, he made the Supreme Court a central part of American life.
John Marshall is the definitive biography of America’s greatest judge and most important early Chief Justice.