Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #14: John Marshall, Definer of a Nation
My fascination with American leadership extends beyond presidents to include the supporting cast of extraordinary people who have played key roles in shaping our nation from the beginning. Franklin is a great example, as are Hamilton, Clay, Webster, Seward, Anthony, Bryan, RFK, RBG, and many more. My particular area of greatest historic interest has always been the early days of the Republic, the 1790-1840 period when so much came to pass that embedded evangelical Protestantism and laissez-faire capitalism as strange bedfellows at the heart of our American ethos. When you juxtapose that class of creature with that time period, John Marshall is one of the first names that comes to mind.
I enjoy Smith's biography of Marshall because it gives us a picture of the man himself - brilliant but far from pedantic, flexible, visionary, a lover of good-natured argument and wine, a leader and consensus builder - but also the mammoth contributions he made to our Supreme Court. It was Marshall's leadership from 1801 to 1835 that created the modern court out of a vaguely defined and nearly overlooked appendage to the Constitution. Under his guidance the Court asserted itself as a third co-equal branch of the federal government by enshrining and defending judicial review of federal and state law. Other decisions established the Court's power as the ultimate appellate tribunal for state courts, and perhaps more importantly interpreted the commerce clause as a broad authority for Congressional supremacy over the states.
Also consider: before Marshall's tenure as Chief Justice, the Supreme Court would issue seriatim opinions - each justice would issue their own decision on a case, leaving no clear precedent or guidance. Marshall changed that to a single majority-rule opinion that endures to this day. Can you imagine a world where Mississippi could cite Alito's ruling on prayer in schools and Massachusetts could cite Sotomayor's ruling on campaign finance? That wouldn't be a mess at all.
Oh - he was essentially the one who acquitted Aaron Burr for treason in 1807. He also strongly opposed Andrew Jackson as a dangerous demagogue, so points for that. He wrote the first biography of an American president ever published with his Life of George Washington. He certainly wasn't perfect - like other Virginia aristocrats, he owned slaves, though he considered slavery an evil.
If not for Marshall, we might not have had a robust, authoritative, independent federal judiciary. We still have that, right? Right?