John Marshall and His Influence on the Judiciary

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES : A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

John Marshall laid the groundwork for a powerful federal court and used the judiciary as an ally to exercise control over the states. He was valiant enough to assert the powers of the courts and will be most remembered for his three major decisions that effectively choked the mad dog Jeffersonianism or the “revolution of 1800”, as Thomas Jefferson liked to call it. 

The portrait of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.
John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States from 1801 to 1835, laid the groundwork for a federal court. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

John Adams hastily signed commissions for several Federalist judges in the waning weeks of his presidency to keep the courts out of Jefferson’s claws. John Adams chose John Marshall as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in the last week of his presidency. Marshall was elected to the House of Representatives, a post he briefly held and then was appointed as the secretary of state under Adams.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Reaction of the Republicans and its Consequences

When the Republicans learnt about the judicial commissions, they were furious to the extent that Jefferson’s secretary of state James Madison even refused to deliver the signed commissions of these last-minute judges.

In response, one of these judges, William Marbury sued Madison as he was not being served his commission for justice, which was legal. Marbury requested the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus that would force Madison to deliver the commission.

John Marshall’s First Decision as the Chief Justice

The first decision of John Marshall was closely linked to his own appointment and the other judicial appointments. He thought it would be unwise to provoke the Jefferson administration and the Republicans into a skirmish over the judicial commissions. Instead, on February 24, 1803, he handed down a sugar-coated little bombshell as the ruling.

The portrait of William Marbury.
William Marbury requested the Supreme Court to issue the writ of mandamus, but John Marshall rejected his application.
(Image: Rembrandt Peale / Public domain)

While rejecting Marbury’s application to the Supreme Court on technical grounds, Marshall added that if Marbury had followed the proper procedure, then Madison’s refusal to deliver the commission would have been illegal.

He re-emphasized that the Supreme Court was a court of appeals and Marbury should have approached the courts at a different level.

The Marbury v. Madison case was significant because the Supreme Court for the first time declared the action of the executive as unconstitutional and established the supremacy of the top court over the actions of the Congress.

Thus, John Marshall laid the foundation for the idea that the principle of judicial review of federal legislation and executive action was under the Court’s grasp.

Learn more about The Jeffersonian Reaction.

The Conflict between Denny Martin and
David Hunter

The American revolutionaries had confiscated the Virginia lands of Denny Martin, the heir of a loyalist family. A portion of this land had been sold to David Hunter.

Martin sued Hunter in the Court of Appeals of Virginia as he thought it conflicted with the Jay Treaty, which granted protection to loyalist property. The treaty under the federal Constitution’s pledge was part of the supreme law of the land. When the state court upheld the law permitting confiscation, Martin approached the Supreme Court for relief.

Learn more about Creating the Constitution.

The New Power of the Federal Courts

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Martin and instructed the Virginia court to restore title of the property to Martin.

This case was instrumental in giving the federal courts the power to review decisions by the state court. The premise under which the ruling was pronounced by Justice Joseph Storey was that Virginia had surrendered the sovereignty of her courts to the United States upon ratifying the Constitution.

The state court thus had no authority to override the federal jurisdiction and the Jay Treaty was part of the supreme law of the land under the Constitution. Marshall’s court thus reversed a decision of the lower court of Virginia and established their authority over the state courts.

McCulloch v. Maryland

The legislature of Maryland attempted to break the power of the Bank of the United States by imposing a stamp tax on the banknotes issued by its Baltimore office in 1816. The Republican-dominated legislature of Maryland deliberately wanted to make the banknotes expensive so that people would cease to use them and thus diminish the financial power of banks.

However, the bank’s cashier, John McCulloch refused to pay the state tax on the grounds that the bank was under the jurisdiction of the federal government and hence, Maryland had no right to impose the tax.

When the matter went to the Maryland courts, the verdict was in Maryland’s favor and hence the Bank of the United States appealed to the Supreme Court.

Learn more about Hamilton’s Republic.

The Third Significant Ruling by Marshall’s Court

The photo shows the hand-written decision in the McCulloch v. Maryland case.
The hand-written copy of the significant ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland by Marshall’s court.
(Image: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/
doc.php?doc=21/Public domain)

In the Supreme Court, Maryland’s Attorney General, Luther Martin argued that the chartering of the bank exceeded the enumerated powers of the federal government under the Constitution and was therefore an unconstitutional entity.

Marshall’s court ruled in favor of the bank and demolished the pretended powers of the states to interfere on what qualified or did not qualify as constitutional powers.

Marshall reprimanded Martin for expecting the specification of every detail of the means of government in its Constitution when the Constitution was specifying its ends. Marshall wrote, “After all, we must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding, not a series of suggestions, not just a series of statutes which can be succeeded by other statutes as people wish. It is a Constitution, a foundational document.”

Each of the decisions of John Marshall and his courts left Jefferson and Madison fuming high and dry. And Marshall was undoubtedly more instrumental in elevating the status of the Supreme Court than any other person of his day.

Common Questions about John Marshall and His Influence on the Judiciary

Q: Why was John Marshall’s ruling in the Marbury v. Madison case significant?

John Marshall’s ruling in the Marbury v. Madison case was significant because the Supreme Court for the first time declared the action of the executive as unconstitutional and established the supremacy of the top court over the actions of the Congress.

Q: Why was Marshall’s court ruling in the case Martin vs Hunter important?

In the case Martin v. Hunter, Marshall’s court had passed an important ruling. The court had reversed a decision of the lower court of Virginia and established their authority over the state courts.


Q: What was John Marshall’s ruling in the McCulloch v. Maryland case?

John Marshall ruled in favor of the Bank of the United States and demolished the pretended powers of the states to interfere on what qualified or did not qualify as constitutional powers.

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