The legacy of John Marshall’s Supreme Court


In this excerpt from his new biography of Chief Justice John Marshall, the award-winning author Harlow Giles Unger describes the impact of Marshall’s legendary tenure.

Like thunderbolts from on high, Supreme Court rulings began crashing onto the legal landscape of the United States in early 1819, as Virginia’s John Marshall, the American Law Giver, proclaimed to all Americans what thou shalt and shalt not do. Together with Marbury v. Madison, the decisions from 1819 to 1832 firmly established the Supreme Court of the United States as the third pillar of America’s federal government and final arbiter of the nation’s legal matters.

Although the Court did not and could not initiate domestic cases, Marshall’s Supreme Court grew far more powerful than the appellate court described in the Constitution. To make the Constitution work—“to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility … and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”—Marshall’s Supreme Court put restraints on Presidents and governors, Congress and state assemblies, and federal and state courts.

See Harlow Giles Unger at the Bill of Rights Day Book Festival on December 15 at the National Constitution Center.

Marshall’s Court assumed so many powers so quickly, however, that southern states opposed to union and reluctant to cede state sovereignty rose in protest. First, South Carolina, then Georgia called out its state militia in 1832 to confront federal troops and prepared for civil war—thirty years ahead of history’s schedule. Indeed, Marshall himself feared “that our Constitution cannot last.”

Thus, Marshall conceded that the Court’s decisions had indeed changed the Constitution and altered the shape of the government that the Founders—from North and South—had created.

John Marshall’s Supreme Court ruled America’s legal landscape for thirty-five years and made him the longest-serving Chief Justice in U.S. history. Of the Court’s hundreds of decisions, the following nine may have been the most far-reaching, in that they formed a new foundation for U.S. constitutional law:

  • Marbury v. Madison (1803),

  • United States v. Peters (1809),

  • Fletcher v. Peck (1810),

  • Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816),

  • Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819),

  • McCulloch v. Maryland (1819),

  • Cohens v. Virginia (1821),

  • Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), and

  • Worcester v. Georgia (1832).

Historians and jurists may debate which were the most important, but each was most important in certain ways—as are so many cases the Supreme Court decided then and since.

From John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation by Harlow Giles Unger (October 2014). Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.

Unger will participate in the Bill of Rights Day Book Festival on December 15 at the National Constitution Center. For tickets, call 215.409.6700 or order an all-day pass online.

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