Life & Legacy

John Marshall Painting from 1797

John Marshall 1797

Early Life

Born in Fauquier County, Virginia, on September 24, 1755, John Marshall became one of the most influential leaders of his time – the era of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States of America. As a young boy, Marshall was influenced and encouraged by his father’s friend, George Washington. Marshall served in the Continental Army, first as a lieutenant and then as captain. Enduring the hardships of the winter at Valley Forge (1777-1778), Marshall’s admiration of Washington grew as did his resolve to help shape what was to become the new nation.

Law, Love, and Revolution

Marshall briefly studied law with George Wythe at the College of William and Mary before being admitted to the bar in 1780. It was during this time that he met  Mary Willis Ambler (known as “Polly”) who would become his beloved wife. Soon after meeting Polly, Marshall moved from Fauquier to Richmond where he served in the Virginia House of Delegates for several sessions from 1782-1797. It was not long until John Marshall was known for his fairness, his belief in a strong federal government, and his acute intellect. These characteristics made him a leading member of the legal community in Richmond and prompted Federalist John Adams to call on Marshall to serve his country.

John marshall 1828

John marshall painting 1828

Congressman &
Secretary Of State

In 1797, President John Adams convinced John Marshall to serve as an envoy to France, where he became involved in the difficult so-called XYZ Affair. Upon returning, Adams offered him a seat on the Supreme Court. Marshall declined the offer and chose instead to run for and was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives (1799). On May 12,1800, Adams nominated Marshall to the post of Secretary of State. He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate the next day.

Great Chief Justice

On January 20, 1801, Adams nominated Marshall to be Chief Justice of the United States, and the Senate confirmed the nomination unanimously on January 27. John Marshall was sworn in on February 4, 1801.

Marshall served as Chief Justice for thirty-four years. The influence of his landmark decisions did much to strengthen the judicial branch of government and to define the tripartite arrangement that is so basic to the American system of government. Many scholars hold that Marshall was the founder of constitutional law and the expounder of the doctrine of judicial review. His decision in Marbury vs. Madison in 1803 declared the power of the Supreme Court to invalidate an act of Congress if that act was in conflict with the Constitution.

Portrait of John Marshall

John Marshall !830's

In two cases, McCulloch vs. the State of Maryland, and Gibbons vs. Ogden, the rulings of the Supreme Court declared the principle of judicial power to set aside state legislative acts if they were in conflict with the federal Constitution. The Supreme Court, under the guidance of Marshall, also ruled that the federal judiciary could reverse a decision of a state court. All of these decisions are still reflected in the work of the US Supreme Court today.

Marshall’s readings of the Constitution brought him into conflict with the Republican-Democrat opponents of the Federalists. Chief among them was President Thomas Jefferson. Although the two men were cousins, Marshall and Jefferson were continually in conflict. Marshall believed that a strong federal government was necessary to ensure that the government would meet the needs of all the people. Jefferson, on the other hand, believed that the power of government should remain largely in the hands of the states. Marshall and Jefferson also took opposing positions at the trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr in (1807).

Final Years

John Marshall died on July 6, 1835 in Philadelphia. On July 8, while tolling for the funeral procession of the Great Chief Justice, the historic Liberty Bell cracked. Since then, the great bell has been on display but has never rung again. Marshall’s body was brought back to Richmond and laid next to that of his beloved wife in Shockoe Hill Cemetery.

His passing was mourned by the nation, but his legacy remains.



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