John Marshall: Patriot, Statesman, Chief Justice

Explore the character and constitutional legacy of John Marshall—the nation’s fourth chief justice—from the Virginia frontier all the way to the Supreme Court.

By National Constitution Center

In 2017, the National Constitution Center developed an exhibit in partnership with The John Marshall Foundation. The exhibit was then adapted to this online version.

Portrait of John Marshall (1830) by Chester HardingOriginal Source: Boston Athenaeum

John
Marshall: Patriot, Statesman, Chief Justice

The distinguished life of John Marshall parallels the American experiment in self-government. Coming of age with the new nation, Marshall fought for independence and formed a political outlook that influenced his later pursuits. John Marshall served his country in various capacities, from soldier to leading Virginia Federalist—all before taking his seat on the United States Supreme Court. With grace and humility, Marshall held office in all three branches of the federal government. However, his 34 years as chief justice represent his most visible and lasting contributions to the nation, as he promoted unanimity among the justices and built up the bipartisan legitimacy of the Supreme Court.

Section One: "Young Man of the Revolution" (2017) by National Constitution CenterNational Constitution Center

Young Man of the Revolution

Born in a log cabin, John Marshall grew up on the Virginia frontier as the oldest of 15 children. His father, who served as a colonial legislator and county justice of the peace, oversaw his early education in history, poetry, and law. At 19, John Marshall joined the militia, participating in the fight for American independence.

Washington and Lafayette inspecting the troops (1857) by Alonzo ChappelOriginal Source: From The New York Public Library

Learning from War

As an officer in the Continental Army, Marshall was appointed deputy judge advocate general. He assisted with court martial trials and administered military justice—all before becoming a lawyer. Influenced by these wartime experiences, he identified with the young nation and recognized the need for a new, more powerful government.

Regimental Muster Roll (1778)Original Source: U.S. National Archives

While serving in the Continental Army, Marshall was respected for his steady temper, wisdom, and fairness. His fellow soldiers often brought conflicts to him to resolve.

At the top of this muster roll, John Marshall is identified as a first lieutenant and acting judge advocate. He served as a legal adviser who oversaw matters of military justice.

Revolutionary War Uniform Buttons (1770s)Original Source: Valley Forge National Historical Park, National Park Service

These Continental Army buttons were uncovered at Valley Forge—where Marshall served alongside George Washington and Alexander Hamilton during the harsh winter of 1777-78. Together, they witnessed the shortcomings of a weak central government unable to provide military supplies or direction. All three emerged as leading Federalists in the 1790s, understanding the need for a stronger national government.

Pension Claim Filed by John Marshall (1833) by John MarshallOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives

Marshall’s wartime service entitled him to a military pension—his application for which is seen here. Congress had recently passed an act that significantly extended pension benefits for Revolutionary War veterans. In this handwritten claim, Marshall documented his service record, which included major battles such as Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth.

Autobiographical Letter (1827) by John MarshallOriginal Source: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

In this letter, Marshall reflected on his wartime experience, focusing on how it shaped his nationalistic outlook. While participating in the struggle for American independence, he observed the weaknesses of a government that relied on the states to implement national policies. He left the war fighting adamantly for a stronger, centralized government.

Section Two: "Influential Lawyer from Virginia" (2017) by National Constitution CenterNational Constitution Center

Influential Lawyer from Virginia

On military leave in 1780, Marshall traveled to Virginia’s College of William & Mary to attend law lectures. He received his law license after only three months of formal legal education and some informal training. Resigning from the military in 1781, he practiced law and served as a state legislator, dealing with issues such as tax collection.

Law Commonplace Book (ca. 1780) by John MarshallOriginal Source: William & Mary Libraries

While attending law lectures, Marshall collected legal information in this commonplace book. Entries include legal principles and descriptions of previously decided cases.

Law Commonplace Book (ca. 1780) by John MarshallOriginal Source: William & Mary Libraries

As he listened to lessons from George Wythe, the first American law professor, Marshall also doodled the name of his future wife, Polly, in his commonplace book.

Silhouette of John Marshall (1782/1835) by John Marshal, possibly after a silhouette done by William Henry BrownOriginal Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Rising in Prominence

John Marshall received recognition beyond Virginia while arguing the case Ware v. Hylton (1796) before the Supreme Court. This was the same year that Edmund Randolph, a leading Virginia lawyer who was elected governor, handed over his practice to Marshall. Earning respect as a lawyer, Marshall turned down federal appointments to maintain his busy law practice and support his family financially.

Page from Account Book (1793) by John MarshallOriginal Source: William & Mary Libraries

Recorded on this account page is Ware v. Hylton (1796), an early Supreme Court case in which Marshall earned national esteem. As he built a successful law practice in both state and federal courts, Marshall argued cases involving pre-war debt owed to British creditors. In Ware v. Hylton, the Court notably exercised a form of judicial review, ruling that a federal treaty superseded a state law.

Autobiographical Letter (1827) by John MarshallOriginal Source: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

In this letter, John Marshall recalled his time in the state legislature and its influence on his political outlook: “[S]tate politics convinced me that no safe and permanent remedy could be found but in a more efficient and better organized general government.” This experience inspired Marshall to support the Constitution.

The Federalist, First Edition (1788) by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John JayNational Constitution Center

These essays, which defended the proposed U.S. Constitution, proved a useful resource for Marshall. After the war, he served in the state legislature and witnessed a weak government unable to provide for the common defense and in danger of collapsing under the Articles of Confederation. Believing the Constitution established a much-needed, stronger central government, Marshall took up the cause for ratification.

Section Three: "Resolute Statesman" (2017) by National Constitution CenterNational Constitution Center

Resolute Statesman

While in the state assembly, John Marshall supported the new government that operated under the recently ratified Constitution. President Washington, long impressed by his fellow soldier and Federalist friend, convinced Marshall to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1798. Marshall won that election, and in 1800, John Adams appointed him as secretary of state.

British cartoon depicting the XYZ Affair (1798)Original Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Foreign Conflicts

In the 1790s, the nation was divided over relations with the warring Britain and France. Marshall defended Washington’s neutrality policy and the unpopular Jay Treaty, which sought to prevent war with Britain. International hostilities continued into John Adams’s administration. When France severed diplomatic ties, Adams sent three envoys, including John Marshall, to avoid war.

John Adams’s Appointment of Three Envoys to France (1797) by John AdamsOriginal Source: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

President Adams selected three men to negotiate with France and prevent war. His first choice was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the ambassador to France. He also selected Elbridge Gerry, a former congressman from Massachusetts, and John Marshall, a Virginia Federalist.

Traveling Desk Used during XYZ Affair (ca. 1790-1810)Original Source: Preservation Virginia's John Marshall House

John Marshall used this desk in France, writing reports to the U.S. government. He described how the French foreign minister declined to meet unless they paid a bribe. The Americans refused, resulting in a political firestorm known as the XYZ Affair.

Thomas Jefferson to John Marshall (1798) by Thomas JeffersonNational Constitution Center

In this letter, Jefferson regretted leaving Philadelphia early and missing a dinner that Congress planned in honor of Marshall, the national hero returning from France. Jefferson originally wrote that he was “lucky” to miss the occasion but then changed it to “un-lucky.” Although the two were distant cousins, their political differences caused deep distrust.

John Marshall's Spectacles and Inkwell (late 1700s-1830)Original Source: Preservation Virginia's John Marshall House

John Marshall used these spectacles and this inkwell while continuing to serve his country—writing legislation and overseeing the State Department.

After declining an appointment to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Marshall was elected to the House of Representatives as a voice for moderate Federalists. He briefly served in Congress before being appointed as secretary of state.

Section Four: "Transformation of the Federal Court System" (2017) by National Constitution CenterNational Constitution Center

Transformation of the Federal Court
System

Two months before the end of his term, President Adams nominated 45-year-old John Marshall as chief justice. He took his seat exactly one month before the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican who opposed the Federalists. In the face of Jeffersonian calls for states’ rights and a more limited federal government, Marshall sought to elevate the authority of the Supreme Court and defend the expansion of national authority.

John Marshall to Alexander Hamilton (1801) by John MarshallOriginal Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Alexander Hamilton Papers, 1708-1903

Responding to a letter from his Federalist friend Hamilton, Marshall lamented the tied election of 1800, which the House would decide. He endorsed Hamilton’s negative assessment of Aaron Burr but expressed his own deeply unfavorable opinion of Thomas Jefferson, his distant cousin and arch rival. “By weakening the office of President he will increase his personal power,” Marshall worried. By mid-February, the House elected Jefferson.

Nomination of John Marshall as Chief Justice (1801) by John AdamsOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives

Two months before leaving office, John Adams submitted this nomination of John Marshall as chief justice. Adams first offered the position to John Jay, the nation’s first chief justice, but Jay declined. He believed the Supreme Court would never have the energy, weight, or dignity it deserved. Adams then nominated Marshall, a moderate Federalist whom the Senate confirmed a week later.

John Marshall to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney on Jefferson’s Inauguration (page 1) (1801) by John MarshallOriginal Source: Charleston Library Society

While writing this letter, Marshall paused to administer the oath to the incoming president, whose inauguration marked the first peaceful transfer of power between opposing political parties. With reservation, he hoped President Jefferson would unite the country rather than punish his political enemies.

John Marshall to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney on Jefferson’s Inauguration (page 3) (1801) by John MarshallOriginal Source: Charleston Library Society

At 4 o'clock, after swearing in Jefferson as president, Marshall continued this letter to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

Article III of the U.S. Constitution (1787)Original Source: U.S. National Archives

A Closer Look at Article III

In three brief sections, Article III of the Constitution vests judicial power in the courts, establishes the jurisdiction of the federal courts, and defines treason.

Article III provides little direction to the Supreme Court—the only court specifically established by the Constitution. While justices would serve for life (pending retirement or impeachment), the full extent of the Court’s power had yet to be determined. Without identifying job qualifications or the number of justices, Article III provides room for the Supreme Court to adjust over time. The Constitution allows Congress to change the size of the Court, which has ranged from six to 10 justices. Also, it is now expected—but not required—that Supreme Court nominees hold law degrees and have legal backgrounds.

U.S. Capitol building (1800) by William Russell BirchOriginal Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Elevating the Supreme Court

Chief Justice Marshall worked successfully to establish consensus among the justices, building up the legitimacy of the Court’s decisions and its interpretations of the Constitution. His leadership, along with early decisions such as Marbury v. Madison (1803), transformed the federal judiciary. It placed the Court on an equal footing with Congress and the president while asserting the authority of all three branches to interpret the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson’s Criticism of Judicial Supremacy (1819) by Thomas JeffersonOriginal Source: American Philosophical Society Library

Writing to his political ally, Judge Spencer Roane from Virginia, Jefferson rejected the claim that the Supreme Court was the sole and final decider on constitutional law. Although Marshall never asserted this position in Marbury v. Madison (1803), Jefferson inferred it from McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). Jefferson worried this would turn the Constitution into “a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary which they may twist and shape into any form they please.”

The Life of George Washington (1805) by John MarshallNational Constitution Center

During his early years as chief justice, John Marshall wrote this official biography of George Washington at the request of Washington’s nephew. Although he felt unprepared for the task, Marshall recognized the importance of sharing Washington’s distinguished example with future generations. This copy was handed down from father to son in the Marshall family line.

Section Five: "The Golden Age of the Marshall Court" (2017) by National Constitution CenterNational Constitution Center

The Golden Age of the Marshall Court

Over 34 years, John Marshall guided the Supreme Court while it continued to grow as an institution. While recognizing broad congressional power, he helped to establish an independent and unanimous judiciary with the power to enforce constitutional restraints on the federal government and the states. The Marshall Court established precedents that still exist today.

During his tenure, Marshall wrote 619 Supreme Court opinions and contributed to thousands of decisions. He dissented only once in a constitutional case decided by the Supreme Court.

Justices seated in the chamber of the House of Representatives (ca. 1822)National Constitution Center

Guiding the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court continued to face external threats from Congress and the states—including legislative attempts to curtail its jurisdiction—but Marshall maintained internal cohesion. During his tenure, the composition of the Court greatly changed, with many appointments made by presidents who held different views than the chief justice. However, his leadership kept the Court on a steady, nonpartisan path, earning it respect as an institution.

James Madison’s Reaction to McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) by James MadisonOriginal Source: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

In this letter, former President Madison criticized the McCulloch v. Maryland decision; he believed the Court too broadly applied the Necessary and Proper Clause. The Court unanimously found the national bank constitutional, ruling that Congress has the power to establish a federal bank that states cannot tax. Marshall, facing harsh criticism, wrote pseudonymous newspaper essays to defend the decision.

John Marshall to Joseph Story regarding Cohens v. Virginia (1821) by John MarshallOriginal Source: Massachusetts Historical Society

Marshall composed this letter to Justice Joseph Story after being criticized by Madison for the Cohens v. Virginia decision. Writing to his friend and colleague, Marshall shared his vision for the Court: “The harmony of the bench will, I hope & pray, never be disturbed.” In its unanimous decision in Cohens, the Supreme Court affirmed its authority over state courts on matters involving federal law.

Supreme Court Decree in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) by Supreme Court of the United StatesOriginal Source: U.S. National Archives

The celebrated decision in Gibbons v. Ogden, recorded here in the minutes of the Supreme Court, established a lasting precedent for congressional power. The case involved a New York law that issued a monopoly to certain steamboat operators, preventing others from using the waters. The Court articulated principles recognizing broad congressional authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Andrew Jackson Peace Medal (1829)Original Source: Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

Native Americans received so-called peace medals as symbols of friendship from the government—like this one with President Jackson’s likeness. When Georgia broke peace treaties, the Court heard cases concerning the treatment and rights of Native Americans. The Cherokee Nation cases resulted in conflicting rulings from the Marshall Court, which Jackson criticized and refused to enforce.

Section Six: "The Man and the Myth" (2017) by National Constitution CenterNational Constitution Center

The Man and the Myth

John Marshall played a critical role in the history of the young nation—from his wartime service to his time on the bench. Uninterested in focusing the spotlight on himself, he became intertwined with the institutions and the people with whom he served. Marshall emerges from the past as an almost mythical figure—with lifetime achievements that go beyond what appears to be humanly possible.

John Marshall's Hair, 1835, Original Source: Preservation Virginia's John Marshall House
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Early Americans routinely saved locks of hair—like this sample of John Marshall’s. Although a strange custom by today’s standards, Marshall’s future wife Polly responded to his marriage proposal by sending a lock of her hair, which she wore in a locket throughout their marriage. When his wife died, Marshall then wore the necklace for the rest of his life.

John Marshall’s Bladder Stones and Surgical Instrument, early 1800s, Original Source: The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
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As evidenced by these bladder stones, John Marshall was quite human. Such tangible reminders—including the instrument that removed the stones nearly two centuries ago—emphasize Marshall’s mortality. In 1831, at the age of 76, he traveled to Philadelphia for surgery to remove the stones. He returned four years later with a liver ailment but died while awaiting treatment.

Portrait of John Marshall (1831) by Henry InmanNational Constitution Center

The Philadelphia Bar Association commissioned this portrait, which was painted when Marshall was in town for surgery to remove bladder stones. The portrait captures the chief justice in his later years. Marshall liked it so much that he purchased a reproduction for one of his daughters, who then passed it on to her daughters.

Resolutions Passed by the Philadelphia Bar (1835) by Philadelphia Bar AssociationNational Constitution Center

In the wake of Marshall’s death, the Philadelphia Bar gathered to pass these series of resolutions honoring his life, character, and service to the country. Representatives from the bar participated in his funeral procession—when the Liberty Bell rang in his honor—and accompanied his body on its trip home to Richmond.

Letter of Condolence to Marshall Family (1835) by Philadelphia Bar AssociationNational Constitution Center

Marshall’s death in Philadelphia prompted an outpouring of honor and praise, as shown by this letter written two days after his passing. Sent to the Marshall family on behalf of the Philadelphia Bar, the letter captures the grief and affection felt by the legal community: “[T]here is at the bottom of our hearts, that which pen cannot express.”

Schoolbook Reader with Tale of John Marshall (first page) (1852)Original Source: Library Company of Philadelphia

Later generations used Marshall’s life to teach schoolchildren about character—as shown by this schoolbook tale. “The Dandy and his Turkey” illustrates Marshall’s humility after he is mistaken for a servant and helps a young man carry home a turkey from the market.

Schoolbook Reader with Tale of John Marshall (second page) (1852)Original Source: Library Company of Philadelphia

Over the course of this schoolbook tale, the chief justice shows his grace and cordiality, taking no offense at being mistaken for a common man.

Bronze Bust of John Marshall, Richard Stravitz, 1992, Original Source: Virginia Historical Society
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This bust depicts John Marshall as chief justice. The original bust was commissioned by the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. This copy belongs to the Virginia Historical Society, whose first president was John Marshall.

Dinner menu from John Marshall Day (1901)Original Source: From The New York Public Library

Crafting a Legacy

For a record 34 years, John Marshall served as chief justice until his death in 1835. Nearly two centuries later, his constitutional legacy lives on in our federal judicial system, and his extensive accomplishments continue to inspire today.

Credits: Story

In 2017, the National Constitution Center developed this exhibit in partnership with The John Marshall Foundation.

The Foundation would like to recognize and thank the following contributors for their involvement with this exhibit:

Kevin C. Walsh, Exhibition Curator

Lead Sponsors:
Bank of America
Cozen O’Connor
Pepper Hamilton LLP
The Philadelphia Contributionship

Sponsors:
Pennsylvania Bar Association
Pennsylvania Commission on Judicial Independence

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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