The Chief Justiceship of John Marshall, 1801-1835

By Saladino, Gaspare J. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Chief Justiceship of John Marshall, 1801-1835


Saladino, Gaspare J., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Chief Justiceship of John Marshall, 1801-1835. By HERBERT A. JOHNSON. Chief Justiceships of the United States Supreme Court. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. xii, 317 pp. $39.95.

JOHN MARSHALL of Virginia, the greatest justice to sit on the United States Supreme Court, casts a long shadow over America's constitutional and political history. By the time his thirty-four-year tenure as chief justice ended in 1835, the Court had become coequal with the other two branches of government, and its jurisprudence had established the federal government's supremacy over the states and had encouraged America's domestic and international growth. A mother lode of studies on this Court makes periodic syntheses almost mandatory. Herbert A. Johnson-professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina and former editor of The Papers of John Marshall-has mined numerous books, articles, and manuscripts and has produced a thoughtful, wideranging synthesis on the Court as part of a projected thirteen-volume series, of which he is general editor. Johnson has included computer-derived data of Supreme Court and federal circuit court cases respecting the points of law decided in them and the numbers and types of written opinions. His findings appear in thirty-three pages of tables and graphs.

Marshall, the central character of Johnson's study, is described as intelligent, humane, magnanimous, forgiving, ebullient, passionate, extroverted, good-humored, modest, principled, virtuous, idealistic, courageous, and open-minded and as having a "great ability to relate to others in a constructive and understanding way" (p. 21). A pragmatic consensus builder, Marshall initiated the "Opinion of the Court" practice, in which the Court spoke with one voice, thereby protecting individual justices and demonstrating Court unity. Both a republican and a Lockean, he was suspicious of democrats and debtors and took pains to protect private property and to promote industry and commerce. Unpretentious in dress and speech, he nevertheless possessed aristocratic values. Toward his tenure's end, the slaveholding Marshall rarely adopted natural-law principles in cases involving Indians, slaves, and the slave trade, although he employed these principles in commercial and contract cases.

Adopting a topical approach, Johnson provides, first, biographical sketches of the justices, including their Supreme and circuit court roles, their political and judicial philosophies, their relationships with one another and politicians, and their cohesiveness in protecting the Court; second, an outline of the period's often volatile politics and the profound influence politics had on the Court's decisions and of the politically astute Marshall's success in protecting the Court against congressional tampering and from such political enemies as presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson; third, a description of Marshall's deft management of Court business, the high standards he set for future chief justices, and the waxing and waning of his influence during the four phases of his tenure; fourth, a depiction of the demanding and challenging work of federal circuit courts, where some of the Court's justices did their best work by projecting federal power, especially in commercial law; fifth, an analysis of the Court's far-reaching decisions defining the nature and scope of the federal government's supremacy (particularly through the Constitution's commerce and contract clauses) and of the growth of federal judicial power in the face of the increasingly popular doctrine of state sovereignty; sixth, an examination of the Court's seminal decisions protecting private property and contracts, whereby the foundation for America's commercial and industrial expansion was laid and the American common market was established; seventh, a discussion of judicial decisions expanding federal jurisdiction to state private-law cases involving federal questions, decisions essential to the common market's further development; and eighth, a review of decisions in which the Court securely fixed itself as the principal American court of international law and readily acknowledged the primacy of the president and Congress in foreign relations. …

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