Kirkus Reviews QR Code
WITHOUT PRECEDENT by Joel Richard Paul Kirkus Star


Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times

by Joel Richard Paul

Pub Date: Feb. 20th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-59448-823-8
Publisher: Riverhead

A biography of the fourth and greatest chief justice of the United States.

John Marshall (1755-1835) was no patrician. The eldest of 15 children born to an impoverished Virginia farmer, he had only a few months of formal education but served as a foot soldier at Valley Forge, a commissioner to France during the XYZ Affair, secretary of state to John Adams, and finally chief justice, a post to which Adams appointed him to resist the partisans of incoming president Thomas Jefferson. As Paul (Constitutional and International Law/Univ. of California Hastings Law School; Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, 2008) notes, Marshall took over a court that "was regarded as nothing more than a constitutional afterthought [with]…few cases, little dignity, and no genuine authority." He bolstered the court's prestige by inventing the majority decision and produced more than 1,000 unanimous decisions during his tenure, a testimony to his skills of persuasion and compromise. Often employing a form of political judo, Marshall expanded the authority of his court and the central government by establishing fundamental constitutional principles like judicial review, taken for granted today but hotly contested in that era, to the impotent rage of his partisan opponents. In his conduct of the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr, Marshall infuriated Jefferson but arguably "did more to secure free expression and prevent tyranny than any other court in our history." Much of the story necessarily focuses on abstruse issues in constitutional law, but the author turns this potential narrative problem into a strength by emphasizing the politics and personal stories underlying the court's landmark cases. He cheerfully draws readers into the factual and legal complexities involved, employing an easygoing prose style that neither condescends nor bogs down in legalese. As much as Paul admires Marshall, he doesn't shrink from exposing holes in his reasoning, occasional ethically dodgy procedure, and a sometimes dismayingly amoral approach to the law.

A well-informed, perceptive, and absorbing biography of a titan of American history.