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John Marshall

Great Chief Justice

In his long service on the bench, Marshall raised the Supreme Court from an anomalous position in the federal scheme to power and majesty, and he molded the Constitution by the breadth and wisdom of his interpretation; he eminently deserves the appellation the Great Chief Justice. He dominated the court equally by his personality and his ability, and his achievements were made in spite of strong disagreements with Jefferson and later Presidents.

A loyal Federalist, Marshall saw in the Constitution the instrument of national unity and federal power and the guarantee of the security of private property. He made incontrovertible the previously uncertain right of the Supreme Court to review federal and state laws and to pronounce final judgment on their constitutionality. He viewed the Constitution on the one hand as a precise document setting forth specific powers and on the other hand as a living instrument that should be broadly interpreted so as to give the federal government the means to act effectively within its limited sphere (see McCulloch v. Maryland).

His opinion in the Dartmouth College Case was the most famous of those that dealt with the constitutional requirement of the inviolability of contract, another favorite theme with Marshall. His interpretation of the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution, most notably in Gibbons v. Ogden, made it a powerful extension of federal power at the expense of the states. In general Marshall opposed states' rights doctrines, and there were many criticisms advanced against him and against the increasing prestige of the Supreme Court.

The sometimes undignified quarrel with Jefferson (which had one of its earliest expressions in Marbury v. Madison) reached a high point in the trial (1807) of Aaron Burr for treason. Marshall presided as circuit judge and interpreted the clause in the Constitution requiring proof of an "overt act" for conviction of treason so that Burr escaped conviction because he had engaged only in a conspiracy. Marshall's difficulties with President Jackson reached their peak when Marshall declared against Georgia in the matter of expelling the Cherokee, a decision that the state flouted.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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