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John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court

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The life of John Marshall, Founding Father and America's premier Chief Justice In 1801, a genial and brilliant Revolutionary War veteran and politician became the fourth Chief Justice of the United States. He would hold the post for 34 years (still a record), expounding the Constitution he loved. Before he joined the Court, it was the weakling of the federal government, lac The life of John Marshall, Founding Father and America's premier Chief Justice In 1801, a genial and brilliant Revolutionary War veteran and politician became the fourth Chief Justice of the United States. He would hold the post for 34 years (still a record), expounding the Constitution he loved. Before he joined the Court, it was the weakling of the federal government, lacking in dignity and clout. After he died, it could never be ignored again. Through three decades of dramatic cases involving businessmen, scoundrels, Native Americans, and slaves, Marshall defended the federal government against unruly states, established the Supreme Court's right to rebuke Congress or the president, and unleashed the power of American commerce. For better and for worse, he made the Supreme Court a pillar of American life. In John Marshall, award-winning biographer Richard Brookhiser vividly chronicles America's greatest judge and the world he made.


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The life of John Marshall, Founding Father and America's premier Chief Justice In 1801, a genial and brilliant Revolutionary War veteran and politician became the fourth Chief Justice of the United States. He would hold the post for 34 years (still a record), expounding the Constitution he loved. Before he joined the Court, it was the weakling of the federal government, lac The life of John Marshall, Founding Father and America's premier Chief Justice In 1801, a genial and brilliant Revolutionary War veteran and politician became the fourth Chief Justice of the United States. He would hold the post for 34 years (still a record), expounding the Constitution he loved. Before he joined the Court, it was the weakling of the federal government, lacking in dignity and clout. After he died, it could never be ignored again. Through three decades of dramatic cases involving businessmen, scoundrels, Native Americans, and slaves, Marshall defended the federal government against unruly states, established the Supreme Court's right to rebuke Congress or the president, and unleashed the power of American commerce. For better and for worse, he made the Supreme Court a pillar of American life. In John Marshall, award-winning biographer Richard Brookhiser vividly chronicles America's greatest judge and the world he made.

38 review for John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court

  1. 5 out of 5

    George P.

    The life of John Marshall (1755–1835) spans the first and formative decades of the United States. Born in colonial Virginia, Marshall fought for American independence under George Washington, whom he revered as the beau ideal of a true republican and memorialized in a biography. “For the rest of his life,” Richard Brookhiser writes, “John Marshall saw Washington as his commander and himself as one of his troops.” And so, when Washington personally urged Marshall to run for Congress in 1798, he d The life of John Marshall (1755–1835) spans the first and formative decades of the United States. Born in colonial Virginia, Marshall fought for American independence under George Washington, whom he revered as the beau ideal of a true republican and memorialized in a biography. “For the rest of his life,” Richard Brookhiser writes, “John Marshall saw Washington as his commander and himself as one of his troops.” And so, when Washington personally urged Marshall to run for Congress in 1798, he didsuccessfully, representing Virginia’s 13thDistrict from 1799–1800. Like Washington, Marshall was a Federalist. John Adams tapped him to be U.S. Secretary of State in 1800. After the momentous 1800 election, in which Adams and the Federalists lost both the White House and Congress to Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, Adams appointed Marshall chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court the month before Jefferson’s inauguration. Marshall and Jefferson were cousins, and though both were patriots, they were indefatigable political foes. Marshall swore Jefferson into office, then used Supreme Court legal opinions to continue the Federalist battle against the Democrats for the next 34 years. When he died, Andrew Jackson was president. Roger Taney—author of the Dred v. Scott infamy—succeeded him as chief justice. Richard Brookhiser surveys Marshall’s “public career and its effects” in his engaging new study. This is not a comprehensive biography of the great man. In many ways, it is the story of the most significant cases he tried:Marbury v. Madison, United States vs. Burr(in which Jonathan Edwards’ grandson and Alexander Hamilton’s killer stood trial for treason), Fletcher v. Peck, Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward,McCullough v. Maryland, Cohens v. Virginia, Gibbons v. Ogden, the Antelopecase (touching on slavery), Ogdenv. Saunders(a bankruptcy case, this Ogden being the nephew of the previous Ogden—evidence of a litigious family, no doubt; also, the only case in which Marshall wrote a dissenting opinion), The Cherokee Nation v. Georgiaand Worcester v. Georgia(both cases dealing with Georgia’s abominable treatment of Native Americans), and Barron v. Baltimore, among others. Though not well known today, outside the legal profession at least, these cases were flashpoints of controversy between a broadly Federalist vision of the American republic and a Democratic one. Was the United States a “union” or a “confederacy”? Where was the boundary between federal supremacy and states’ rights? Could Congress establish a Bank of the United States without explicit wording in the Constitution? More broadly, was the law a “debt against the living,” in which generations were obligated by the laws of previous generations? Or did “the land belong in usufruct to the living,” in which each generation passed laws as it saw fit? The words were Madison’s and Jefferson’s, respectively, but the sentiments were Marshall’s and Jefferson’s exactly. Brookhiser is a political journalist, not a lawyer, so his descriptions of both the facts of these cases and their relevance are easy to follow and enlightening. In a summary chapter on Marshall’s legacy, he notes that Marshall brought “dignity” to the Supreme Court. How it tried cases and how it rendered opinions strengthened the hand of what Hamilton called “the least dangerous branch” of the federal government. If the membership and opinions of the Supreme Court loom large in the minds of Americans today, Marshall should receive credit. But more than the dignity of the Supreme Court, Marshall’s legacy, was “defending the Constitution as the people’s supreme act.” Brookhiser explains: “The people had made a new government, giving it new powers, and binding it with new prohibitions…. Marshall devoted his decades as chief justice to explicating and upholding the people’s government against the attacks of men he deemed demagogues in Congress, in the states (including his own Virginia), and in the White House (including his own cousin).” That defense relied on the Constitution’s “words” and—sometimes or—“the historical context of its creation.” Marshall knew both intimately. He had worked for the document’s ratification. He had witnessed the struggles and trials that had brought it into being. In the last months of his life, as his health deteriorated, Marshall feared for the future of the Constitution he had spent his life laboring to explain and defend. Marshall’s opinions “were substantially the policies of Washington and his most trusted aide, Alexander Hamilton”—slavery being the great exception. But by 1835, Jackson was in power, states’ rights were on the rise, and Roger B. Taney was in the wings. From then until the Civil War, an anti-Marshall view of the nature of the U.S. government and the meaning of its Constitution prevailed. It was as if the arguments between the cousins—Marshall and Jefferson—had never gone away. Today, we live in a vastly different era. Both union and emancipation are taken for granted, which they were not in Marshall’s era, not even by Marshall himself. But the court Marshall once led continues to fascinate and repel, depending on who wins and who loses before the bench. To that extent, as William Faulkner put it so well, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We all live in John Marshall’s shadow. Book Reviewed Richard Brookhiser, John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court(New York: Basic Books, 2018). P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jon

    A very enjoyable, well-written, biography with touches of humanity to it. This is my third biography I've read on John Marshall (2nd this year), and first book I've read written by Richard Brookhiser. Brookhiser has two chief strengths: excellent writer and an ability to encapsilate complicated / complex things into easily understandable points. For the reader interested in a short (277 pages), concise biography of John Marshall, this is the best pick that won't bog down the non-lawyer / historia A very enjoyable, well-written, biography with touches of humanity to it. This is my third biography I've read on John Marshall (2nd this year), and first book I've read written by Richard Brookhiser. Brookhiser has two chief strengths: excellent writer and an ability to encapsilate complicated / complex things into easily understandable points. For the reader interested in a short (277 pages), concise biography of John Marshall, this is the best pick that won't bog down the non-lawyer / historian. Brookhiser captures well in this biography (1) Marshall establishing the supreme court into a respected institution; (2) Marshall was a Federalist to the end; (3)Marshall was a nationalist who loved the Union; (4) Marshall's judicial philosophy. Prior to Marshall becoming Chief Justice, each justice tended to write out their separate opinions and the reader would have to plod through all the opinions to discover what the rule of the case may be. Marshall tried (very successfully) to speak with one voice. Because he sat on the court for so long and there were no more Federalist presidents to appoint other like-minded judges, this feat is extraordinary. He did it through both his smarts and congenial personality. Encouraging all of the judges to stay at the same boarding house no doubt forced the justices to get along in a way that likely reflected itself in the judicial opinions. One voice (several justices) conoted (and conotes today still) that the opinion is more settled and less up for debate or subject to partisan leanings. The unity did much to build the institution of the Supreme Court. He revered George Washington, worked for him first as a soldier, then a political operative, wrote a several volume biography on him, and wanted to mold the country in the way Washington wanted it to be. I was struck by how much and how often Marshall channeled Alexander Hamiliton. Most of Marshall's most famous opinions are traced back to Hamilton's writings either in the Federalist Papers, or Hamilton's writings while Secretary of the Treasury (judicial review, necessary and proper, commerce clause, contracts clause to name a few). Justice Story recognized Marshall as the advocate of George Washington's principles, and "a Federalist of a good school of which Washington was the acknowledged head." He loved the Union. Marshall was not at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He was at the Virginia Ratifiation Convention and spoke for adoption of the new constitution. In several of his opinions he made it clear that the Union sprang from the people. "in form and in substance it eminates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directlyon them, and for their benefit." The competing argument was that the constitution was a compact among states / sovereigns and this Marshall repeatedly reject. Marshall was present at the Virginia Ratification, he knew the parties at the Constitutional Convention, he fought in the revolution and all of these things impacted his judicial philosophy. He almost was a living Originalist unlike any after him. He used both originalist and textualism. In the Dartmouth case, when the two diveraged, he followed the text. "We must never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding". Brookhiser correctly notes that constitutions are not compendium of all laws;they are large -scale maps with a lot of necessarily blank space. "Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited...are constitutional.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nate

    A biography of the most important Supreme Court Justice in US history is not something you except to fly through. Nevertheless, once Marshall got onto the Supreme Court, I moved through the book very quickly. Brookhiser sticks to Marshall's professional life most of the time, though of course his personal life is mentioned, so if reading a bunch of summaries of cases and Marshall's opinions on things sounds boring, this is not the book for you. This seemed impeccably researched, primary sourcing A biography of the most important Supreme Court Justice in US history is not something you except to fly through. Nevertheless, once Marshall got onto the Supreme Court, I moved through the book very quickly. Brookhiser sticks to Marshall's professional life most of the time, though of course his personal life is mentioned, so if reading a bunch of summaries of cases and Marshall's opinions on things sounds boring, this is not the book for you. This seemed impeccably researched, primary sourcing as much as possible, with many letters and opinions quoted but not so much as to bog down the book with that. The author's admiration for Marshall is very visible, particularly when describing Jefferson, where Brookhiser definitely showed some disdain (I guess Marshall would have agreed with that). Marshall was very big into contract supremacy over all other law where possible, which was very new to me, and I liked reading about his views on constitutional minutiae. Brookhiser did a really good job of keeping the legalese to minimum, explaining law in understandable terms yet still in depth. To sum up, I fully recommend this book to people interested in American history and government, for while it focuses on Marshall, his core work is what created American government as we know it. A copy of this book was given to the reviewer through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bookreporter.com Biography & Memoir

    Earlier this year, I read an engrossing biography of the Wright Brothers by the estimable David McCullough --- engrossing, that is, until about three-quarters through the book, when the Wrights are chiefly trying to build their business and deal with a morass of patent litigation. They learn through trial and error how to build a workable airplane, they show off their creation to skeptical groups in Ohio and adoring crowds in Paris, and then the story kind of sputters out, with Wilbur suffering Earlier this year, I read an engrossing biography of the Wright Brothers by the estimable David McCullough --- engrossing, that is, until about three-quarters through the book, when the Wrights are chiefly trying to build their business and deal with a morass of patent litigation. They learn through trial and error how to build a workable airplane, they show off their creation to skeptical groups in Ohio and adoring crowds in Paris, and then the story kind of sputters out, with Wilbur suffering an early death and Orville pottering around his Dayton research facility, working on the study of aeronautics. The fact that the book trails off isn’t McCullough’s fault --- that’s what happened, and he does his best to chronicle it, but the story just isn’t there. In reading JOHN MARSHALL: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court, I was concerned that the same thing would happen. The well-known and monumental Marbury v. Madison case takes place very early in Marshall’s term on the court, which would stretch out to well over 30 years. Marshall’s life, up until he was elevated to the Court, is lively and interesting, and author Richard Brookhiser does a masterful job of showing the forces that shaped his philosophy. Marshall was, all his long life, an acolyte of George Washington, under whom he served in the Revolutionary War. After the war, he lived a public-spirited life as a Virginia lawyer, serving on the state’s Constitutional ratification convention and in Congress --- and, not incidentally, engaging in a robust social life. Marshall also served as a diplomat on his one foreign adventure, getting mixed up in the so-called “XYZ Affair,” which I had never actually understood until reading Brookhiser’s concise and neat explanation of just what it was and why it stirred up anti-French resentment in the young Republic. Marshall then was appointed Secretary of State by John Adams for the last year of his presidency, and as a lame-duck, Adams nominated Marshall to the office of Chief Justice. Marbury was based on the rush to confirm Federalist appointees in the wake of Adams’ defeat by Thomas Jefferson, and so it was one of the first decisions of the Marshall Court. Brookhiser does an able job of deciphering both the odd series of events that led up to the case and Marshall’s closely reasoned, nearly impenetrable decision. But thissection does more than just shed light on Marbury; it sets the pattern for the rest of the book. What remains is over 30 years of Supreme Court cases, none of them as interesting or as monumental as Marbury, all of which are wrapped up in the arcane politics of the era. Brookhiser is a fine prose stylist with impeccable flair, but even he struggles to make the details of some of the cases sparkle. The narrative never quite bogs down, but laden as it is with Marshall’s leaden legal prose, it has more than a few rough moments. Brookhiser is more at home describing Marshall as a political animal --- as the last Federalist in a country that, at least briefly, was all Republican. Unable to direct the Court through political or ideological means, he worked behind the scenes through conviviality and charisma to mold the Court into his own image. Marshall insisted that all the Justices room together while in Washington, discussing cases over wine and darts. Brookhiser argues that his leadership of the Court, resulting in unanimous verdicts, not only led to its momentous decisions but firmly placed the Court as an equal partner in the Constitutional order. JOHN MARSHALL will please legal scholars more than casual readers, but even the latter will find much to enjoy and savor here. Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds

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