A brief biography of a legendary chief justice.
When John Marshall (1755-1835) was sworn in as chief justice in 1801, writes National Review senior editor and biographer Brookhiser (Founders' Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, 2014, etc.), the Supreme Court met in a small committee room of the U.S. Capitol under the House of Representatives, a strong indication that the judiciary was the weakest of the three branches of the federal government. Yet before his death more than three decades later, “he and the Court he led had…laid down principles of laws and politics that still apply.” The oldest of 15 children, Marshall had only two years of formal schooling; his true education came with his service under George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Marshall thought Washington was “the greatest Man on earth” and used Washington’s selfless patriotism as a guide for the rest of his life. Following the war, Marshall established a law practice and served as a Virginia ratifying convention delegate, congressman, diplomat, and secretary of state. His lengthy tenure as chief justice was marked by vigorous defenses of the sanctity of contracts (Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 1819), the supremacy of the federal judiciary (Marbury v. Madison, 1803), and the protection of federal institutions from state interference (McCulloch v. Maryland, 1819). Yet more important than the individual decisions, notes Brookhiser, were the “dignity” that Marshall gave to the Supreme Court and his defense of the Constitution “as the people’s supreme act.” As for the man himself, Marshall was an affable sort who enjoyed his madeira and was devoted to his long-suffering wife, Polly. The author also provides absorbing character sketches of several of Marshall’s all-but-forgotten legal contemporaries, including Luther Martin, William Pinkney, and Samuel Chase.
Brookhiser’s book may be overshadowed by Joel Richard Paul’s recently published Without Precedent, a lengthy and well-received study of Marshall’s life and times. Nevertheless, those looking for a concise, informative, and at times entertaining biography of our nation’s fourth chief justice would do well to read this one.