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John Marshall
(1755 - 1835)


John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was from a prominent Colonial Virginia family, the Randolphs.  His mother was a distant relative of Thomas Jefferson.    Marshall served in the American Revolutionary War, under George Washington at Valley Forge.  Marshall greatly admired Washington and published a five-volume biography of him in the early 1800's.

       After the war, Marshall "read law" at the College of William and Mary – he was admitted to the Bar in 1780.  Marshall, who served in the Virginia House of Delegates, became a successful lawyer in Virginia; he defended Americans against British claims for pre-Revolutionary War debt.

     President John Adams appointed Marshall on a diplomatic mission to France in 1797; in 1800 Adams appointed Marshall as Secretary of State.

     President Adams, in the "Midnight Judges Act," appointed Marshall Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1801.  Despite significant political wrangling, Marshall was confirmed by the Senate on January 27, 1801, and spent 34 years on the bench before his death in 1835.

     Marshall is most well-known for his contribution to the concept that the Supreme Court could review statutes and pass opinions whether they met the requirements of the Constitution.  In the case Marbury v. Madison, Marshall wrote that the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the United States Constitution.  The opinion created the concept "judicial review" – which allowed federal courts to void acts of Congress in conflict with the Constitution.  It is considered one of the most important decisions of the Supreme Court.

     During his tenure on the Supreme Court, Marshall encouraged the adoption of the court issuing one unified opinion, rather than each justice writing his own opinion.  Marshall also rid the court of the British tradition of ornate powdered wigs and robes with ermine trim.

     Marshall also presided over the treason trial of Aaron Burr, finding evidence insufficient to establish Burr was guilty of treason, but charged him with a high misdemeanor instead.  A jury later acquitted Burr of that charge.

     Marshall remained loyal to the Federalists; he was recruited to run for President in the 1820's, but declined.  Marshall strongly supported abolition even though he owned slaves; he felt that slavery was in opposition to “natural law,” but often wrote opinions affirming slave owners rights. In the mid-1820's, Marshall  was elected President of Virginia branch of the American Colonization Society, a national group that assisted with repatriating freed slaves to Liberia, on the west coast of Africa.

     Marshall’s was conflicted between his personal views on slavery and his obligation to uphold the law.  In 1825, he wrote a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette that solving the “problem” of slavery was “attended with such difficulties as to impress despair rather than hope on the minds of those who take a near view on the subject.”  Marshall freed his personal manservant Robin in his will, but bequeathed the remainder of his slaves to his son.

     The Supreme Court Historical Society quotes President John Adams as saying “my gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life.”  Marshall served as Chief Justice until his death in 1835.  

Portrait of John Marshall.
Marshall, John. 16" x 10". 1995. Collection of the artist. Montreal, Canada.

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