John Marshall: Supreme Court Stalwart

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Marbury v. Madison
McCulloch v. Maryland
Gibbons v. Ogden

John Marshall is the most famous Chief Justice in American history.

Born in 1755 to a Virginia farm family, John was the first of 15 children born to his parents. His father, a surveyor, provided most of John's schooling. The youth did go for a year to a private school, the Campbell Academy, and one of his classmates was James Monroe.

George Washington was a friend of the family and persuaded John, who was 20 when the Revolutionary War began, to join the Continental Army. Marshall fought in several of the war's more famous battles, including Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. He was also in winter quarters at Valley Forge, where Washington appointed him chief legal officer.

In 1780, Marshall met his future wife and left the military to pursue a career in law. He won admittance to the Virginia bar and later opened his own private law practice. A couple years later, he turned his hand to politics, representing his home county in the Virginia General Assembly and then the Virginia House of Delegates. After a stint as magistrate on the Richmond Hustings Court, issuing rulings on small cases both civil and criminal, he got himself named as a delegate to the Virginia state convention formed to ratify the Constitution. Marshall, a fan of a strong central government, strongly urged his fellow delegates to replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. In the process of guiding Virginia to ratify the Constitution, Marshall gained the respect and support of Alexander Hamilton, founder of the new Federalist Party.

After the Constitution became the law of the land, Marshall returned to his law practice. He and his wife, Mary, settled in Richmond and began a family.

President Washington appointed Marshall Attorney General in 1795, but Marshall refused the appointment, the first of several refusals of high-profile jobs. The following year, he declined the job of Minister to France. In 1797, however, then-President John Adams convinced Marshall to accompany Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry on a diplomatic mission to improve relations between the U.S. and France. The three men refused to pay the high price France demanded even for starting negotiations, however, and the events came to be known as the XYZ Affair. The three men, Marshall especially, gained in popularity with their fellow Americans.

Adams appointed Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1798, but Marshall turned down that appointment as well. The following year, he won election to the House of Representatives but served only briefly, leaving that post to assume the job of Secretary of State. Marshall wasn't long in that job, either, as he accepted Adams's second offer of a place on the Supreme Court and took up the mantle of Chief Justice of the United States in 1801.

Marshall served as Chief Justice for 35 years (longer than anyone who succeeded him in the Chief's chair). He participated in more than 1,000 cases and wrote 519 opinions, including some of the most famous in the history of the Court.

The first and most famous was Marbury v. Madison, the decision that cemented the Supreme Court's role as the arbiter of judicial review.

As was the custom at the time, he also served on the circuit court for several weeks, in Raleigh, N.C.

Not long after he became Chief Justice, Marshall published a five-volume biography of his longtime family friend George Washington, based on Washington's family papers. The first volume of this Life of Washington was reissued in 1824, under a different title, A History of the American Colonies.

Mary Marshall died in 1831. John Marshall died in 1835. He was 79. The Liberty Bell was rung during his funeral procession. (Some sources say that this was when the bell cracked.)

One of Chief Justice John Marshall's landmark decisions came in the Supreme Court case of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). The case involved a dispute between a state bank and a federal bank. The origin of the dispute was in a disagreement over the Constitution's "Necessary and Proper" Clause and how it should be interpreted in practice. From Article I, Section 8: "The Congress shall have Power ... To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof."

Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists supported a Bank of the United States, a federal organization that would assume all state debts from the Revolutionary War and would provide a national currency for the new young nation. Thomas Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans thought that such a bank would be dominated by northern aristocrats and so opposed it. The dispute quieted down when the agreement was hammered out to move the nation's capital to a more southern location, what is now Washington, D.C., and the First Bank of the United States came into being. That bank had a limited tenure, and eventually Congress established the Second Bank of the United States, in 1816. This was too much for the Democratic-Republicans, who objected again.

Meanwhile, the Second Bank of the United States established a branch in Baltimore, the capital of the state of Maryland. Soon after, Maryland passed a law that imposed a tax on all banks that were operating within Maryland state borders without having a charter approved by the state government. In practice, this was only the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank of the United States. James McCulloch, the cashier of the federal bank Baltimore branch, issued federal bank notes without paying the Maryland state tax. The State of Maryland sued McCulloch for not paying the tax, and the state Court of Appeals ruled that McCulloch had broken Maryland state law. McCulloch appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which took the case.

The Supreme Court had, in 1816, in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, ruled that the Court itself could, in essence, overrule the decisions of state courts. This was an extension of the principle of a pre-eminent federal government espoused by Marshall in Marbury v. Madison. (Justice Joseph Story wrote the Martin opinion, however, because Marshall had removed himself from considering the case because of a financial conflict of interest.)

The issues before the Supreme Court in McCulloch v. Maryland were these: Could a state government tax a federal entity, and did the Constitution grant the federal government the power to open a national bank?

Writing for the Court, Marshall answered no and yes, respectively, reiterating the Martin decision to deny the State of Maryland's tax on the federal bank and then, to answer the second question, finding within the Necessary and Proper Clause an "implied power" of the federal government to create a national bank. This doctrine of "implied powers" would come to be cited many times throughout the history of the Supreme Court.


A famous Supreme Court decision written by Chief Justice John Marshall was Gibbons v. Ogden, a case that involved famed steamboat inventor Robert Fulton.

The State of New York had granted to two men, Fulton and Robert Livingston, exclusive rights to navigate steam boats up and down the waterways in New York State. Aaron Ogden paid Livingston a fee that enabled Ogden to have a share of this steamboat monopoly, and Ogden got permission from Livingston to sail steamboats between New York City and some ports in New Jersey.

Another steamboat operator, Thomas Gibbons, bypassed the monopoly held by Fulton, Livingston, and Ogden and started running his own ships between New York and the New Jersey ports. Ogden convinced a New York state court to prevent Gibbons from accessing the waterways, and Gibbons sued Ogden.

The case wound up in front of the Supreme Court, which ruled for neither party, really, although Gibbons won a nominal victory. The decision handed by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1824 was a reiteration of the power of the federal government, in this case the Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution: Congress has the power to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes."

The Court said that because the steamships were operating between states, the result was interstate commerce, which the federal government had the express power to regulate.

The decision invalidated the monopoly granted by the State of New York, meaning that Gibbons could, in fact, run his steamships between the two states as often as he liked, without legal interference from Ogden or anyone else.

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