A Biography of The John Marshall, 4th Chief Justice of The United States

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About this sample


Words: 1696 |

Pages: 4|

9 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

Words: 1696|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

Before John Marshall, the most basic responsibilities of the judicial system did not exist. In fact, justices could not even overturn blatantly unconstitutional laws. With Marshall, however, everything changed. Through his tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall established the ground rules for the new American government by strengthening the judicial branch and bringing forth the equal three branches of government essential to American politics.

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Great men often rose from the humblest of beginnings, and John Marshall was no exception. He was born in a log cabin in Germantown, Virginia, on September 24, 1755, the first of fifteen children born to Thomas Marshall and Mary Keith. He was not the only member of his family to rise to greatness; his brother James served as judge for the Circuit Court of Washington, D.C., his brothers Keith, William, and Charles were lawyers, and his cousin Humphrey became a U.S. senator for Kentucky. As a child, Marshall’s education was formative to his future. He was homeschooled by his father for most of his childhood, cultivating a love of classical and contemporary literature that would aid him in his future endeavors. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to Campbell Academy in Washington, where he attended class with future president James Monroe. From 1775 to 1780, Marshall served in the Continental Army, initially as a lieutenant and eventually as a captain; his admiration of his commander George Washington grew, especially after they endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge together. After the war he studied law at the College of William and Mary and was admitted to the bar in 1780. He began a legal practice by defending clients against British creditors, which prepared him for the long legal and political career he had in front of him.

Marshall’s political career was long indeed, and was crucial in forming the newly independent America. It began in 1782 when he won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, a position he would return to in later years. He began to prepare himself for his future as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1785 when he became a city recorder, where one of his duties was to preside over small court cases. Marshall made a name for himself as a fair, intelligent man who ruled based on the common good (Life and Legacy). A few years later, his reputation earned him a role in Virginia’s convention to ratify the United States Constitution; he then used his popularity to encourage others to ratify the Constitution and won by a narrow margin (Britannica). Shortly after this, he turned down several positions such as U.S. Attorney General and minister to France in favor of continuing his private law practice, which was flourishing at the time.

In 1798, however, he accepted the request of President John Adams to participate as an envoy in the diplomatic mission that later became known as the XYZ affair. Along with Elbridge Gerry and Charles Pinckney, Marshall was sent to France in an attempt to restore harmony between the United States and France, specifically to stop French attacks on American ships. The three men were to meet with the Foreign Minister, the Marquis de Talleyrand, but instead were greeted by several mediators known anonymously as X, Y, and Z. The French agreed to stop the attacks in exchange for an agreement to pay American merchant claims against the French and give a large amount of money to the Marquis. This resulted in a Cold War-like conflict between France and America and culminated in the formal severance of any official alliances with the United States ( During this time, Marshall had been elected Secretary of State and conducted the negotiations that led to America’s continuing isolationism. He served as Secretary of State for about a year and was then appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, after the first Chief Justice John Jay declined reappointment. Marshall was sworn in on February 4th, 1801, which marked the end of his political career and opened his long and successful legal career.

Marshall served as Chief Justice for thirty-four years, the longest tenure of any chief justice, and in this time established the ground rules of American government (Smith). He ruled on over 1000 decisions, writing the opinions for over half of them. This was a major change in Supreme Court workings; prior to Marshall it was common for each justice to write his own opinion for each case, but Marshall’s court only published one opinion. This practice led to an impression of authority from the Supreme Court, as multiple opinions concerning a new and unexplored body of law created a lack of certainty and trust in both the lawmakers and the law itself (Britannica). Marshall’s court was also known for its unanimity and stability; with only the occasional dissenter, the court was able to rule far more effectively and authoritatively than it had with the previous Chief Justices. Because of the capable manner in which Marshall ran the Supreme Court, he was able to rule on countless decisions that shaped the very structure of the American government.

Marshall’s most famous ruling, and arguably the most important ruling in Supreme Court history, was with Marbury v. Madison in 1803. The circumstances surrounding this case were complicated (PBS). In the controversial election of 1800, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams, causing a few months of political panic for the largely-Federalist Congress before Jefferson’s inauguration. With the help of the Judiciary Act, Adams created several positions for judges and appointed a large number of justices of the peace and circuit judges in his last days and hours of the Presidency; in fact, this was when Marshall received his appointment to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Adams did this with the intention of ensuring that the Federalists would remain in power even with a Democratic-Republican president, since judicial positions were typically filled for life. These commissions were not delivered on time, however, and when President Jefferson took office on March 5, 1801, he ordered that James Madison, his secretary of state, could not deliver the remaining commissions, thus invalidating them.

William Marbury was one of the appointees whose commission was not delivered and he requested a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court forcing Madison to deliver the commissions. Marshall’s court considered several questions when determining its ruling: “Does Marbury have a right to the commission? Does the law grant Marbury a remedy? Does the Supreme Court have the authority to review acts of Congress and determine whether they are unconstitutional and therefore void (” were among the most important. It was decided that while Marbury had a right to the commission and the law granted him a remedy, the court could not write a mandamus for him because the Judiciary Act of 1789 which granted that right was directly contradicted by the Constitution. By ruling this way, Marshall’s court established that the purpose of the Supreme Court was judicial review; that is, the Supreme Court could nullify laws passed by Congress if they were found to be unconstitutional. This important ruling gave the Supreme Court a clear purpose and place in the American government.

Marbury v. Madison made clear that the Supreme Court would greatly influence the laws in America, and Marshall kept true to this promise (PBS). In 1816, Congress created the Second Bank of the United States, the success of which caused state banks to resent it when they began to fail in the depression of 1818. Maryland targeted the Bank by imposing taxes on any non-state bank and sued James McCulloch, cashier for the Bank’s Baltimore branch, when they refused to pay this tax. The Supreme Court ruled in this case that Congress was constitutionally allowed to create the Bank and that Maryland lacked the power to tax it. More importantly, it ruled that Congress had implied powers, meaning if the desired end result is constitutional, Congress was allowed to implement any means to achieve that goal, as long as it was not explicitly prohibited in the Constitution. This ruling on McCulloch v. Maryland, combined with Marbury v. Madison, set the stage for the Supreme Court to make many important decisions over the next two centuries.

Marshall’s rulings, particularly Marbury v. Madison, have left an important legacy that has been utilized by Supreme Court even until the present day. After Marshall’s court, the next time the Supreme Court declared a federal law unconstitutional was with Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857. The issue to be ruled on in this case was whether Dred Scott, a slave, was still considered a slave after spending time in a free state (PBS). Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that Scott remained a slave, citing Marbury v. Madison by declaring the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. A more modern example of utilizing judicial review would be Obergefell v. Hodges, the case in which same-sex marriage was legalized nationally in June 2015. The Supreme Court redefined “marriage” to be extended to same-sex couples. While the argument can be made that these rulings were immoral or simply wrong, the Supreme Court upheld its responsibility for judicial review, instituted by Marshall. Practically since its inception, Marbury v. Madison has been used to overturn unconstitutional laws.

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John Marshall’s court changed the American government. Marbury v. Madison chiefly provided a purpose for the Supreme Court; the inception of judicial review permitted the court to overturn any unconstitutional acts of Congress and paved the way for a society grounded in the laws on which it was founded. This brought the judicial branch up to the same level as the executive and legislative branches, creating the three-branch system for which the United States was known. His other rulings, such as McCulloch v. Maryland, created other powers for the government, such as implied powers for Congress. Overall, Marshall’s rulings allowed for a fairer America no longer subject to the whims of the elected officials, but rather one that followed the laws upon which it was founded in 1776.

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A Biography Of The John Marshall, 4th Chief Justice Of The United States. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 1, 2023, from
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