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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

John Marshall

A Great Podcast on John Marshal

Discuss the development of the Federal court system and show how John Marshall played a key role in its development and contributed to strengthening and defining "federalism" in the United States by examining his significant rulings: Madison v. Marbury, McCulloch v. Maryland, and Dartmouth College v. Woodward

Chief Justice John Marshall, By Henry Inman - Virginia Memory, Public Domain,

In order to fulfill the demands of the Constitution for a Federal court system we must first understand how Congress passed the Judiciary Act of September 24,1789. The Judiciary Act created a Supreme Court staffed by a chief justice and five associate justices, three circuit courts with two supreme court justices on each circuit court, and 13 district courts authorized to review the decisions of the state courts. It also created the office of Attorney General as well as all other miscellaneous office necessary run the new government. Most important of all, the Judiciary Act provided for the principle of

judicial review There are two types of judicial review:


(1) reviewing the Constitution and federal legislation using a loose or strict interpretation and Through his judicial interpretations he helped cement the nation together by spelling out the procedure by which the federal courts could review states laws and state court decisions involving powers and duties delegated by the Constitution to the federal government.

(2)reviewing state laws and court decisions involving powers and duties delegated by the Constitution to the federal government.


Although the Judiciary Act created the principle of judicial review it was up to John Marshall, as a Federalist and the nation's fourth Chief Justice, to put it to use. Marshall's significance lies in the fact that he gets people to start thinking nationally as a result of his 34 years as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Also, Marshall's use of a loose interpretation reviewing the Constitution kept the states from over ruling federal laws Marshall's contribution can best be evaluated by a review of some of his most important court decisions:

An example of reviewing the Constitution and federal legislation is the case of Marbury vs. Madison. An appointment made by John Adams in 1801 presented Marshall with a historic opportunity to establish the principle of judicial review. When William Marbury, whom President

Adams had named a justice of the peace for the District of Columbia, learned that his commission was being denied him by the new Secretary of State, James Madison, (Madison was appointed by the new President Thomas Jefferson) he sued for its delivery.


In the election of 1800, therefore, the Republicans defeated Adams in a bitter and complicated presidential race. During the election, one Federalist newspaper article predicted that a Republican victory would fill America with “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest.” A Republican newspaper, on the other hand, flung sexual slurs against President Adams, saying he had “neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Both sides predicted disaster and possibly war if the other should win.


In the end, the contest came down to a tie between two Republicans, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Aaron Burr of New York, who each had 73 electoral votes. (Adams had 65.) Burr was supposed to be a candidate for vice president, not president, but under the Constitution’s original rules, a tie-breaking vote had to take place in the House of Representatives. It was controlled by Federalists bitter at Jefferson. House members voted dozens of times without breaking the tie. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Thomas Jefferson emerged victorious.


Republicans believed they had saved the United States from grave danger. An assembly of Republicans in New York City called the election a “bloodless revolution.” They thought of their victory as a revolution in part because the Constitution (and eighteenth-century political theory) made no provision for political parties. The Republicans thought they were fighting to rescue the country from an aristocratic takeover, not just taking part in a normal constitutional process.


n his first inaugural address, however, Thomas Jefferson offered an olive branch to the Federalists. He pledged to follow the will of the American majority, whom he believed were Republicans, but to respect the rights of the Federalist minority. And his election set an important precedent. Adams accepted his electoral defeat and left the White House peacefully. “The revolution of 1800,” Jefferson would write years later, did for American principles what the Revolution of 1776 had done for its structure. But this time, the revolution was accomplished not “by the sword” but “by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people.”Four years later, when the Twelfth Amendment changed the rules for presidential elections to prevent future deadlocks, it was designed to accommodate the way political parties worked.


Despite Adams’s and Jefferson’s attempts to tame party politics, though, the tension between federal power and the liberties of states and individuals would exist long into the nineteenth century. And while Jefferson’s administration attempted to decrease federal influence, Chief Justice John Marshall, an Adams appointee, worked to increase the authority of the Supreme Court. These competing agendas clashed most famously in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, which Marshall used to establish a major precedent.

The Marbury case seemed insignificant at first. The night before leaving office in early 1801, Adams had appointed several men to serve as justices of the peace in Washington, D.C. By making these “midnight appointments,” Adams had sought to put Federalists into vacant positions at the last minute. Upon taking office, however, Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, had refused to deliver the federal commissions to the men Adams had appointed. Several of the appointees, including William Marbury, sued the government, and the case was argued before the Supreme Court.


Marshall used Marbury’s case to make a clever ruling. On the issue of the commissions, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Jefferson administration. But Chief Justice Marshall went further in his decision, ruling that the Supreme Court reserved the right to decide whether an act of Congress violated the Constitution. In other words, the court assumed the power of judicial review. This was a major (and lasting) blow to the Republican agenda, especially after 1810, when the Supreme Court extended judicial review to state laws. Jefferson was particularly frustrated by the decision, arguing that the power of judicial review “would make the Judiciary a despotic branch.”


Marshall knew that Jefferson or Madison would hardly spring forward to enforce a writ to deliver the commission to his fellow Federalist Marbury. He therefore dismissed Marbury's suit to avoid a direct political showdown but at the same time he won a political victory by stating that part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 on which Marbury tried to base his appeal was unconstitutional. Marshall said the act that attempted to assign to the Supreme Court powers that the Constitution had not foreseen. In this self-denying opinion, Marshall greatly magnified the authority of the Supreme Court establishing JUDICIAL REVIEW.

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, via White House Historical Association

Examples of judicial review of state laws and state court decisions involving powers and duties delegated by the Constitution to the federal government are: McCulloch v. Maryland and Dartmouth College v. Woodward both in 1819 --AND both of these cases bolstered the power of the federal government at the expense of the states.

McCulloch v. Maryland, 1803

The state of Maryland had attempted to impede operation of a branch of the Second Bank of the United States by imposing a tax on all notes of banks not chartered in Maryland. Though the law, by its language, was generally applicable to all banks not chartered in Maryland, the Second Bank of the United States was the only out-of-state bank then existing in Maryland, and the law was recognized in the court's opinion as having specifically targeted the U.S. Bank. The Court invoked the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution, which allowed the Federal government to pass laws not expressly provided for in the Constitution's list of express powers, provided those laws are in useful furtherance of the express powers of Congress under the Constitution:

  • 1. Precedent: the First National Bank already existed in Philadelphia (first opened in 1817)
  • 2. Sovereignty: rests with the people not the states.
  • 3. Supremacy Clause: Congress gets to interpret the Constitution. The states action may not impede valid constitutional exercises of power by the Federal government.
  • 4. Implied Powers: Constitution grants to Congress implied powers or the elastic clause for implementing the Constitution's express powers, in order to create a functional national government.  

Dartmouth College vs. Woodward both (1819)

A similar example was the Dartmouth College v. Woodward case in which Marshall and the Court invalidated state laws conflicting

with the federal Constitution and protected property rights against popular pressures.


The college had been granted a charter by King George III in 1769, but the state legislature of New Hampshire had seen fit to change it. Dartmouth appealed the case. The case arose when the president of Dartmouth College was deposed by its trustees, leading to the New Hampshire legislature attempting to force the college to become a public institution and thereby place the ability to appoint trustees in the hands of the governor. TheSupreme Court upheld the sanctity of the original charter of the college, which predated the creation of the State. The decision settled the nature of public versus private charters and resulted in the rise of the American business corporation and the free American enterprise system. In this sense his nationalism was the most enduring of the era. He supported a strong federal government and helped to mold a stable, nationally uniform environment for business and thus ranks as one of the foremost creators of our existing national government.