JOHN MARSHALL by Harlow Giles Unger


The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation
Email this review


A cradle-to-grave biography of the U.S. Supreme Court's longest-serving chief justice.

Independent scholar Unger (John Quincy Adams, 2012, etc.) treats the influential John Marshall (1755-1835) as a hero. He was a distinguished officer and an effective state leader in Virginia before studying law and being appointed to the Supreme Court at the beginning of the 19th century. Marshall would serve as chief justice for 35 years (a record tenure), establish the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and write decisions that solidified the primacy of the federal government over often resentful state governments. During Marshall's tenure on the court, the justices handed down nearly 1,200 rulings; Marshall served as the lead writer for more than 500 of those. His opinion in Marbury v. Madison (1803) set a precedent, never enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, that the Supreme Court possessed the power to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. Since the court employed no police force, concern arose that its unpopular rulings would be ignored or would at least be unenforceable. Through his authoritative demeanor and easy way with his colleagues and others, Marshall exuded credibility, which in turn encouraged U.S. presidents to send federal troops if needed to enforce rulings. Unger chooses to present all aspects of Marshall's life, including his military heroism and his extraordinary devotion to a chronically ill wife and their children. As a result, Marshall's Supreme Court appointment does not occur until halfway through the biography. Though the narrative sometimes veers toward hagiography, it is well-researched, and the author is skilled at portraying the characters and viewpoints of Marshall's political friends and foes. Thomas Jefferson comes across as a stubborn, politically motivated and sometimes hypocritical man, and Unger employs the Marshall-Jefferson enmity effectively, adding tension to the narrative.

A vigorous account of an influential American life.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-306-82220-9
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Da Capo
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2014


NonfictionFIRST FOUNDING FATHER by Harlow Giles Unger
by Harlow Giles Unger
NonfictionHENRY CLAY by Harlow Giles Unger
by Harlow Giles Unger
NonfictionMR. PRESIDENT by Harlow Giles Unger
by Harlow Giles Unger
NonfictionAMERICAN TEMPEST by Harlow Giles Unger
by Harlow Giles Unger


NonfictionTHE SUPREME COURT by Jeffrey Rosen
by Jeffrey Rosen
NonfictionWITHOUT PRECEDENT by Joel Richard Paul
by Joel Richard Paul
NonfictionJOHN MARSHALL by Jean Edward Smith
by Jean Edward Smith