This Day in History, September 24, 1755: The Birth of John Marshall

By: Eliana Lindenberg  |  September 19, 2019
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By Eliana Lindenberg, Staff Writer

September 24th is an important date for the history of the Supreme Court of the United States. Historically, this day led us to our modern definition of the Court, its powers, and how it functions. 

Before America as a nation even came into existence, a key figure in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States was born: John Marshall. Marshall participated in the American Revolution alongside his father, first as a lieutenant, then eventually as a captain. He served under George Washington for three years in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. 

After finishing his military service, Marshall pursued a career in law. For the next 15 years, Marshall was an active participant in law and politics. He was still an active participant in the highly contested fight for the ratification of the Constitution. Following ratification, Marshall declined to serve as Attorney General under George Washington, was a member of the unsuccessful commission to France which resulted in the infamous XYZ Affair (under President John Adams), and declined to succeed James Wilson on the Supreme Court. After a short term in Congress, Marshall declined several cabinet positions which President Adams offered him, but then finally agreed to become Adams’ Secretary of State.

Towards the end of Adams’ presidency, after he had already lost the election for reappointment, then-Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth died. President Adams then nominated Marshall who was confirmed by Congress. 

In the following 34 years of Marshall’s service as Chief Justice — the longest term of any Chief Justice– the very foundations of the Court and the Nation itself would be defined. Marshall led the Court away from the traditional English practice of each justice reading their own opinion, instead beginning the practice of submitting one opinion on behalf of the entire Court. For a young country and government, this was crucial to the legal confidence of the nation. With so many opinions, it seemed as though neither the Court nor the Law itself really had authority. Marshall gave the Court and the Law confidence in itself to help better define the young government. 

Furthermore, Chief Justice Marshall also decided the most important case in the Supreme Court’s history, Marbury v Madison. The decision in this case clearly defined the Court’s power to invalidate any federal law enacted that directly contradicts the Constitution. Specifically for this case, judicial review was born. Not only does the Supreme Court decide the cases brought to it, but it also has the responsibility to ensure that acts of government conform to and follow the Constitution. 

Thirty years later, Marshall stayed true to his ruling in Marbury v Madison. During Andrew Jackson’s presidency, Marshall insisted that Georgia laws that appeared to allow for the seizure of Cherokee lands went against federal treaties. This infuriated Jackson, who famously responded, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” 

Later, when South Carolina claimed it could nullify federal laws within the state, Jackson then cited the authority of the Supreme Court that John Marshall had defined in order to counter. 

John Marshall died in Philadelphia on July 6, 1853. The Liberty Bell was rung for his funeral procession. According to legend, this is when the bell cracked, never to be rung again — even though no newspaper verified the story at the time. 

Like the Liberty Bell’s iconic crack, John Marshall’s rulings have helped to define the American image. He gave over 1,000 decisions and wrote more than 500 opinions. His rulings have shaped the Supreme Court into the institution it is today, as well as helped shape America herself into what she is today. 

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