John Marshall

September 24, 1755–July 6, 1835

John Marshall (1755–1845) was a Founding Father, an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, a congressional representative from Virginia, Secretary of State, and 4th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Marshall, Portrait

This portrait of Founding Father John Marshall was painted by Henry Inman in 1832. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Biography of John Marshall

John Marshall (1755–1845) was a Founding Father, an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, a congressional representative from Virginia, Secretary of State, and 4th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall is best known for his judicial decisions that often reflected his strong Federalist beliefs. His decision in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) strengthened the power of the federal judiciary by establishing the principle of judicial review. His opinion in McCulloch v Maryland (1819) expanded the power of the federal government by introducing the concept of implied powers when interpreting the U.S. Constitution.

John Marshall Quick Facts

  • Date of Birth: John Marshall was born on September 24, 1755, in Virginia.
  • Parents: His parents were Thomas Marshall and Mary Randolph.
  • Date of Death: He died on July 6, 1835, at the age of 79.
  • Buried: Marshall is in Shockhoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
  • Fun Fact: His second cousin was Thomas Jefferson.

John Marshall History and Overview

John Marshall was arguably the greatest Chief Justice in the history of the United States Supreme Court. He was born on September 24, 1755, in present-day Fauquier County, Virginia. He was the oldest of 15 children born to Thomas Marshall and Mary Randolph and was a second cousin to Thomas Jefferson. In 1783, he married Mary Ambler, with whom he had ten children of his own. Despite receiving little formal education as a youth, Marshall went on to have a distinguished career in public service before he was appointed to the Supreme Court by President John Adams in 1801.

John Adams, Portrait, Stuart
John Adams. Image Source: Wikipedia.

American Revolutionary War and Secretary of State

Prior to his appointment, Marshall was a successful lawyer, practicing in Richmond, Virginia. He also served as a soldier in the American Revolutionary War, fought in several battles, including Brandywine, and spent the winter at Valley Forge with the Continental Army. Following the war, he served several terms in the Virginia legislature and was a diplomat to France during the XYZ Affair. However, he refused several offers to serve in government, including as U.S. Attorney General and as an assistant Supreme Court Justice. Marshall served in Congress from 1799 to 1800 and as Secretary of State for President John Adams.

4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Following the resignation of Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth due to illness, Adams nominated John Jay to replace him. Jay declined and Adams turned to Marshall. When he sent Marshall’s nomination to the Senate in January 1801, the Federalists were still in control, but most were not enthusiastic about the nomination, which led to a delay in confirmation. Marshall was confirmed on January 27, 1801, however, he stayed on as Secretary of State to help Adams finish his presidency. 

Midnight Judges

In the last days and hours of the Adams Administration — and Federalist control of Congress — the Judiciary Act of 1801 was passed. It modified the existing circuit court system and led to the appointment of the so-called “Midnight Judges.” Federalists viewed the act in two ways. First, it streamlined the Supreme Court and circuit court system. Second, it allowed them to fill the courts with Federalist appointees. However, the Democratic-Republicans saw it as an unnecessary expansion of Federal power.

Repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801

Jefferson was sworn in as President on March 1, 1801, and Marshall assumed his duties on March 5. Marshall was the highest-ranking Federalist as the Jeffersonian Era dawned on the United States and the division between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans rose to new heights over the Judiciary Act of 1801. Over the course of the year, Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans worked to repeal the act and were successful. The act was repealed in January 1802 and then replaced by the Judiciary Act of 1802, which retained the new circuit courts but eliminated the judges that were supposed to oversee them.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Marbury v. Madison

The move created more controversy that led to the landmark case, Marbury v. Madison. Federalist William Marbury had been appointed by Adams as a justice of the peace in the District of Columbia, but Secretary of State James Madison refused to process the appointment. Marbury requested a Writ of Mandamus to force Madison to make the appointment official, but Marshall ruled that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to issue such writs. The ruling declared part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional and established Judicial Review, giving the Supreme Court the power to review acts of Congress and the ability to declare them unconstitutional if they conflict with the Constitution.

The Marshall Court

Marshall further established himself as a guiding hand in the establishment of the court by presiding over the treason trial of Aaron Burr (1807), affirming the Court’s independence from politics. In Fletcher v. Peck (1810), he issued a decision that established the supremacy of the national government in conflicts with state authorities and the importance of the contract clause of the Constitution. His opinions in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) expanded the powers of the federal government, broadening the interpretation of the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause and extending the commerce clause, respectively. In other key decisions, such as Cohens v. Virginia (1821), Marshall upheld the authority of the federal courts to review state court decisions.

Over the course of his career on the Supreme Court, Marshall was successful in persuading the Court to produce single “opinions of the court,” except for dissents, so decisions were clear, and concise and strengthened the perception Court. In most unanimous opinions, at least in the significant cases, Marshall wrote the opinion of the Court. Most, if not all, of his noteworthy opinions increased the power of the federal government at the expense of the states.

Marshall’s influence on the Court was greatest from 1801 to 1823. His influence declines due to the rise of Justices Joseph Story and William Johnson who were influential and prominent in their own right.

Conflict with the Jackson Administration

During his later years as Chief Justice, Marshall clashed with the Jackson Administration over the doctrine of Indian Removal. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), Marshall said that the Cherokee and other tribes were under the protection of the federal government and in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) he held the Cherokee were entitled to hold their lands in Georgia. However, the state of Georgia did not abide by the decision, and President Andrew Jackson would not enforce it, leading to the removal of the Cherokee west of the Mississippi River and the Trail of Tears.

Andrew Jackson, Portrait, Painting
Andrew Jackson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Founding Father

Marshall is widely considered to be a Founding Father for the role he played in the American Revolutionary War and the decisions the Supreme Court issued during his 34-year tenure as Chief Justice.

Death of John Marshall

Marshall died on July 6, 1835,  in Philadelphia from injuries sustained in a stagecoach accident after the 1835 Supreme Court term ended. When his death was announced, the Liberty Bell was rung. According to legend, the bell cracked and was never rung again. At the time of his death, Marshall was one of the last of the Founding Fathers. He was the last living member of the cabinet of John Adams, and the last government official that served in the 18th Century.

Significance of John Marshall

John Marshall is significant to United States history because of his service on the Supreme Court. His legacy has endured, and he is often considered by historians as the most distinguished justice to sit on the Supreme Court and the one who shaped its place in the American government. Marshall’s opinions helped establish the powers of the federal government, the role of the Supreme Court in judicial review, and the importance of the contract clause of the Constitution.

Interesting Facts About John Marshall

Early Life

  • Born September 24, 1755, near Germantown, Virginia.

Service in the American Revolutionary War

  • Commissioned as a lieutenant in the Fauquier County militia in 1775.
  • Served as an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
  • Spent the winter of 1777–1778 with the troops in Valley Forge.

Education and Professional Career

  • Studied law at the College of William and Mary, under George Wythe.
  • Admitted to the Virginia bar in 1780.

Political Service in Virginia

  • Member of the Virginia Assembly from 1782–1791 and again from 1795–1797.
  • Participated in the Virginia convention of 1788 that ratified the U.S. Constitution.
  • Represented Virginia in Congress from 1799–1800.

XYZ Affair and Secretary of State

  • Appointed by President John Adams on the “XYZ”  mission of 1797–1798 to resolve political differences with France.
  • U.S. Secretary of State from June 6, 1800, to February 4, 1801.

United States Chief Justice

  • Commissioned Chief Justice of the United States on January 31, 1801, and took office on February 4, 1801.
  • Served through six presidential administrations and over a thousand decisions as Chief Justice.

Accomplishments as Chief Justice

  1. Established the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review with the decision in the case of Marbury v. Madison, in 1803.
  2. Affirmed the concept of implied powers of Congress, through the “necessary and proper” clause in the U.S. Constitution, in the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819.

Death and Burial

  • Died July 6, 1835, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • Buried in Shockhoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

John Marshall APUSH Notes

Use the following resources to study John Marshall, the Constitution, and the Federal Court System for the AP US History (APUSH) exam.

John Marshall Definition for APUSH

The definition of John Marshall for the AP US History exam is the 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who played an influential role in establishing the court’s power through landmark decisions like Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland. Marshall is widely considered to be the most significant Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a Founding Father for his contributions to the nation.

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