John Marshall: The Great Chief Justice
John Marshall was born in Fauquier County, Virginia on September 4, 1755.
He was the first son of Thomas Marshall and Mary Randolph Keith. His role in
American history is undoubtedly a very important one.As a boy, Marshall was
educated by his father. He learned to read and write, along with some lessons
in history and poetry. At the age of fourteen, he was sent away to school, and
a year later he returned home to be tutored by a Scottish pastor who lived with
the Marshall family.
As a young college student, John Marshall was particularly impressed by
the lectures of professor George Wythe. Wythe was a lawyer, judge, and a
signer of the constitution. Other students of professor Wythe were Thomas
Jefferson, John Breckinridge, and Henry Clay.
Marshall became a lawyer at the age of twenty five. As Brian McGinty
says about Marshall in the article, “His first cases were not important, but he
handled them well and made a favorable impression on his neighbors; so favorable
that they sent him to Richmond in 1782 as a member of the Virginia House of
Delegates.” He became a prominent lawyer and was on his way to a successful
Mr. Marshall worked under the administration of John Adams starting in
1798. He was offered the position of attorney general under George Washington’s
administration, but declined because he wanted to stay with his family and
practice law in his home town of Richmond, Virginia. He was one of three
delegates sent to France by John Adams in 1798. His reasoning for taking the
job in France was partly because it was only a temporary mission and also
because he wanted to be of service to his country, aiding in peaceful relations
with France. When he found out that France expected to be paid, he was outraged
and believed they were soliciting bribery. Although the mission to France was a
failure, he returned to the US a hero.
Marshall was appointed to the position of secretary of state by John
Adams in 1800. He was put in charge of foreign affairs and was often left in
charge of the government when Adams was gone.Then, later that year, he was
appointed to be chief justice of the US by Adams before Thomas Jefferson took
over the presidency.
Thomas Jefferson soon took office and John Marshall was now chief
justice. Although the two were distant cousins, they held very different
positions and belonged to opposing political parties. Jefferson believed that
the constitution should be interpreted strictly to keep the government’s power
relatively low. In the article, Mr. McGinty sums up Marshall’s views of what
government should be: “Marshall believed in a strong central government, in the
Constitution as the key to the laws of the land, and in courts as the supreme
custodians of those lawsviews that would influence his shaping of the Supreme
Court.” Marshall believed that the Constitution should not be interpreted as
strict, allowing the government to become more powerful.
Possibly the most important case of its time was Marbury vs. Madison in
1803. In this case, John Marshall’s ruling set an extremely important precident.
His ruling declared that a law was unconstitutional, therefore setting a
precident giving the Supreme Court the power to declare laws unconstitutional.
Because of this ruling alone, John Marshall is a very prominent figure in
American history and American law, but his acheivements do not end at that.
During John Marshall’s life, and particularly during his reign as chief justice,
the power of the judicial branch became equally powerful to the other branches
of the US government.