John Marshall grew up in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the first of fifteen children born to Thomas and Mary Randolph Keith Marshall. He fought in the Revolutionary War, becoming a captain, and spending the winter with General Washington at Valley Forge. While on leave from military service, Marshall briefly attended William & Mary’s new law school under the instruction of George Wythe.
During the Revolution, state governments dominated the national government, putting their interests above the country’s and failing to sustain the American army. After the war, Marshall believed that the fledgling republic must develop a strong central government for the United States to survive and thrive.
Marshall had an early career in elective and appointive politics. He also became a practicing lawyer. Upon President John Adams’s second request that he join the United States Supreme Court, and against the strong wishes of his wife and his own desire to continue practicing law in Richmond, Marshall reluctantly agreed to serve.
Marshall served as Chief Justice of the United States from 1801-1835. With his leadership, the Supreme Court established the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution when it conflicts with federal law, the primacy of federal law when it conflicts with state or local law, and the authority of the federal courts to strike down as unconstitutional such conflicting laws. Marshall also read the Constitution generously when fixing the bounds of federal authority.
Marshall transformed the federal judiciary from a weak, inconsequential third branch of the federal government into an important force. Marshall was also vital in creating a strong national government. His efforts went against the competing ambitions of the various states and many Americans’ inclination to interpret the Constitution in ways that favored states’ rights over national authority.
His 1819 decision in McCulloch v. Maryland vindicated federal over state power. Many in the South saw McCulloch as a means for Congress to limit or end slavery in the future. Infuriated, they vilified Marshall and the Court.
Marshall feared slavery would split his state and country. After Nat Turner’s Rebellion, he sought to have free Black men and women removed from the Commonwealth. He seized on the hopelessly flawed American Colonization Society as a way to remove Black people from the country as a whole.
During his life, Marshall benefited from slavery. At various times, he and his sons probably enslaved upwards of 300 people. According to his biographer R. Kent Newmyer, “Domestic slaves played an important role in the daily life of the Marshall family, and slaves, some of whom he rented, also . . . worked Marshall’s various farms.”
Marshall did not use his position on the Supreme Court to undermine slavery, instead protecting property rights as then embedded in statutory and common law. According to legal historian Paul Finkelman, “Marshall never wrote an opinion supporting freedom for a Black person, and he was silent in the six cases supporting Black liberty that came before the Court toward the end of his career, when he could no longer control the Court.” Marshall also did not champion Native American rights, though he affirmed federal over state authority regarding their rights.
Marshall Family Bible
The Marshall Family Bible is on display at William & Mary's Wolf Law Library
Material in the Special Collections Research Center
- "John Marshall" in SCRC Manuscripts & Archives Collection Guides
References and Further Reading
- Finkelman, Paul. Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation's Highest Court. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018. (Call Number: KF4545.S5 F567 2018)
- Finkelman, Paul. "America's 'Great Chief Justice' Was an Unrepentant Slaveholder." The Atlantic, June 15, 2001. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/06/chief-justice-john-ma….
- Hobson, Charles F. "Review Essay: Paul Finkelman's Supreme Injustice: Slavery in the Nation's Highest Court." Journal of Supreme Court History 43, no. 3 (2018): 361-381.
- Johnson, Herbert A., Charles T. Cullen, Nancy G. Harris, Charles F. Hobson, eds. The Papers of John Marshall. 12 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1974-2015. (Call Number: E302 .M365 v.1-v.10)
- Mason, Frances Norton. My Dearest Polly: Letters of Chief Justice John Marshall to His Wife, With Their Background, Political and Domestic, 1779-1831. Richmond: Garrett & Massie, 1961. (Call Number: E302.6 .M4 M33)
- Newmyer, R. Kent. John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. (Call Number: KF8745.M3 N49 2001)
- Oliver, Andrew, The Portraits of John Marshall. Charlottesville: Institute of Early American History and Culture, University Press of Virginia, 1977. (Call Number: E302.6 .M4 O44 1977)
- Rhodes, Irwin S. The Papers of John Marshall, A Descriptive Calendar. 2 vols. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, . (Call Number: KF213 .M3 R5 v.1-v.2.)