A Founding Father, Less Famous

If his name is mentioned in a history book, he’s often overshadowed by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and perhaps even John Jay. Certainly, his image would be much more clear if he was the subject of a Broadway musical, and indeed, an enterprising composer and storytelling would find a great deal of strong raw material in Without Precedent, an extraordinarily compelling biography of Chief Justice Joh Marshall written with clarity and impact by a University of California law professor, John Richard Paul.

9780525533276He wasn’t a rich man, and he wasn’t a well-educated man. “Marshall grew up in a two-room log cabin shared with fourteen siblings on the hardscrabble frontier of Virginia. His only formal education consisted of one year of grammar school and six weeks of law school.” And yet–this is the part that would make a terrific Broadway musical, or perhaps even an opera–Marshall becomes a military officer, influential attorney of local and then national renown, a diplomat to France, a congressman, U.S. Secretary of State, the biographer of George Washington, and eventually, the first really effective chief justice of the new United States of America (John Jay was the first, but the high court was just beginning to take shape; he was followed by one short-termer whose nomination went unapproved, and another, who was also operating in the early days of our judicial system).

As Chief Justice, Marshall kept his justices close (they all lived together), and ran a most agreeable, remarkably non-contentious court through friendship and a model of positive social interaction.  This congenial group firmly established the Supreme Court as the arbiter of laws in the young nation, a way of working that continues today.”From 1801 to 1835, the Court issued more than one thousand decisions–nearly all unanimous–and about half that number were written by Marshall. No other chief justice comes close to that record, and no Supreme Court before or since has issued even a majority of its decisions unanimously. Marshall was not President John Adams’ first choice for the job.

The tale begins in the dark days of the American Revolution, when our forces were hopelessly untrained, unfed and unable to perform as the fighting force necessary to gain independence. Marshall was twenty one years old, and remarkably upbeat given the pathetic circumstances. That’s what caught the eye of the new military leader from Prussia, Baron von Steuben, and soon after, Lafayette, Washington and Hamilton, too. He already knew Jefferson, a family relation (from the wealthy side of the family), who makes his first appearance in the Marshall story while ineffectively running Virginia as its governor (Jefferson does not do well in this book; the author is critical of his distracted approach to public service).

Marshall becomes a small town lawyer–at the time, Richmond Town (now Richmond) had recently become the state capital, but it was an exceedingly small place. He marries well, and becomes a member of the House of Delegates, a Virginia legislative body. He is the model social networker, joining every significant organization, building his reputation by inviting people to his home (which doubled as his law office) for relaxed dinners. He lived in that house for a long time–decades, in fact–in part because his beloved wife Polly struggled with health issues for much of her adult life.

There is so much story to tell, and this essay can do little more than introduce the man, the book and the author with the strongest possible encouragement to read up on John Marshall. I’ve read a lot of books about American history, founding fathers, and the early nation to identify when a new volume is unique and valuable. This one wins on both counts because the material is so central to the development of the nation and our approach to governance, and because the stories told are not the same stories that appear in dozens of other books about the founders. Instead, this seems to be fresh, or, at least, generally unfamiliar or, at least, new to me. It’s helpful that the biographer’s keen interest in providing a clear picture of Justice Marshall is equal to my own curiosity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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