Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Legacy of Chief Justice John Marshall

He didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence like his president, John Adams, did but John Marshall was about as busy as any one patriot could be.

He was a friend of George Washington and wrote his biography, he was a member of the U.S. House and a White House cabinet member, and he served as fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for 35 years, longer than any other Supreme Court Justice in history.

A letter he wrote in 1800, a few months before he became Chief Justice, is in the collection of rare and unusual items at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. It is framed along with an engraved portrait taken from a painting by Henry Imman, a noted New York artist. Asher Brown Durand, one of the best engravers in New York at the time, is responsible for the engraving. (Later Durand became one of the leaders of the Hudson River School painting style.)

By the time Adams appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court, Marshall had already served as the president’s Secretary of State, been a leader in the Federalist party, and a Congressman from Virginia, a position he held when he wrote the letter noted above. Before that, he was a state legislator, a lawyer and an army officer who fought at Valley Forge.

His father made a good living acting as an agent for Lord Thomas Fairfax, a Scottish nobleman who owned five million acres in Colonial Virginia between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Thomas Marshall’s major task was to find people to settle on Fairfax’s land, and then to collect rent from them. He became a man of means and his son benefitted.

Young John had access to Fairfax’s estate, a center for culture and learning in the colonies. He read from Fairfax’s extensive collection of classic literature and history, including works by Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Pope, Livy and Horace.

Marshall was not John Adams’ first choice for Chief Justice. John Jay, who had acted as the first Chief Justice, topped the list of potential candidates. At the time, however, Jay was governor of New York State. Jay declined, saying the court lacked “energy, weight and dignity.” As a lame-duck president, Adams had little time to find another choice. Fortunately, Marshall proved a great choice for the position.

Probably Marshall’s greatest contribution to the country is that he gave the Supreme Court the energy, weight and dignity it lacked. He amassed the power of the judiciary and established the principle that the court could overrule Congress if legislation was found to be unconstitutional.

Not all of his decisions were popular. In fact, he was a downright nemesis to Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Jeffersonian Republicans favored stronger states’ rights. With his strong Federalist views, Marshall helped build a stronger federal government and to establish the supremacy of federal law over state law.

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