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Marshall establishes court’s right to interpret

On this day (Sept. 24) in 1755, the colossus of American constitutional law John Marshall was born (the eldest of 15 children) into the family of Thomas Marshall and Mary Keith in a log cabin near Germantown (now Midland), Va.

Since there were no local schools, John was home-schooled by his father and for a year by a Scottish-educated live-in tutor. At age 14, John was enrolled in “Mr. Campbell’s” academy in Westmoreland County, Va., where he was a classmate of James Monroe.

Since John’s father had decided that John should become a lawyer, he gave John a law dictionary and a copy of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and told to study for the bar. In 1776, however, he interrupted his legal studies to join the Continental Army.

Between 1776 and 1781, Marshall participated in several major Revolutionary War battles, and endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge in 1777-1778. In 1781, having passed the bar, Marshall moved to Richmond, where he set up a law practice.

Success at the bar inevitably led to a political career. He served as a delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, as a Federalist U.S. congressman (1899-1800), and as secretary of state under President John Adams (1800-1801).

In 1797, Adams appointed Marshall, along with Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry, to go to France to negotiate a treaty. In the ensuing XYZ Affair, the French demanded a bribe before agreeing to negotiations. The American commissioners steadfastly refused to pay the demanded $250,000 bribe.

French intransigence and American anger led to a two-year undeclared naval war between France and the U.S. Marshall returned home as a hero who honorably refused to toady to the imperious French.

It is, however, as the fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court that John Marshall is rightly best known. Serving from Feb. 4, 1801, to July 6, 1835, Marshall established the Supreme Court’s right to interpret the Constitution.

During his tenure, Marshall participated in about 1,000 decisions, of which he wrote 519 himself. In a number of notable cases, Marshall greatly expanded the power of the national government vis-à-vis the states, and of the Supreme Court vis-a-vis the executive branch and legislature.

Most notably, in Marbury v. Madison (1803), Marshall set the precedence for judicial review (i.e., Supreme Court could declare acts of Congress unconstitutional), and in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), where the chief justice affirmed, in upholding congressional authority to create a bank even though it was not expressly stated in the Constitution, the “implied powers” doctrine, which has allowed the national government ever since to incrementally increase its power and influence.

In 1831, Marshall underwent bladder stone surgery and the loss of his wife of 52 years. His medical health and psychological well-being thereafter gradually declined.

In June 1835, he traveled to Philadelphia for medical treatment, where he died July 6, 1835, at age 79. His death was widely reported and lamented.

The famous Liberty Bell in Philadelphia cracked while being rung in remembrance of America’s most celebrated and influential Supreme Court justice.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” He is available for tutoring, talks and workshops on American history. Email him at

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