Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

John Marshall (1800-1801): Secretary of State

John Marshall was born September 24, 1755, in Fauquier County, Virginia, which at that time was still a relatively unsettled area with few schools. Consequently, as a young man, Marshall received much of his education from his father. He volunteered for the 11th Regiment of Virginia when the Revolutionary War broke out and fought in the battles at Germantown, Brandywine, Monmouth and Stony Point. It was during the war, when he occasionally served as a deputy judge advocate, that Marshall developed an interest in law. He also developed a great admiration for George Washington and later wrote a five-volume biography of him. He returned home in 1779 and briefly schooled at the College of William and Mary. The next year, he was admitted to the Virginia bar.

In 1782, he was elected to the Virginia Assembly and served in various posts of state government for a number of years. During this time he also maintained a successful law practice and argued the case of Ware v. Hylton before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1796. President George Washington offered him the post of Attorney General and U.S. minister to France, but Marshall declined them both. During the presidency of John Adams, he accepted a post as one of three commissioners sent to France to negotiate a resolution to ongoing difficulties in U.S.-Franco relations. Upon their arrival, the French negotiators immediately demanded a substantial bribe, which the U.S. commissioners refused to pay. They left the country, and the event, known as the XYZ Affair, nearly brought the two countries to war. President Adams's diplomacy averted war, but the event significantly enhanced Marshall's national profile.

In 1799, Marshall successfully ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The next year, he reluctantly accepted President Adams's request to serve as secretary of state; the Senate confirmed him on May 13, 1800. Marshall's tenure as secretary lasted only until early the next year, as Adams declined to run for reelection in 1800. The primary focus of his time in the office was relations with France. He helped negotiate the Convention of 1800 (also known as the Treaty of Mortefontaine), which put an end to skirmishes between the two countries that had been ongoing in the Caribbean since the XYZ incident.

Shortly before he was to leave office, Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth informed President Adams that he would be leaving his post. Adams initially wanted to select John Jay for the post, but Jay declined, and the President turned to Marshall. The Senate confirmed Marshall as Chief Justice on February 4, 1801, although he remained secretary of state until Adams left office a month later.

Prior to his elevation to the post, the Supreme Court was a weak and widely disparaged institution. Marshall almost immediately dominated the institution. Over the course of his lengthy tenure, he dramatically reshaped both the court itself and its larger role in the government. Under Marshall's leadership, the Court was elevated to a coequal branch of government. One of Marshall's important early decisions was to end the Court's practice of issuing separate opinions on decisions by various justices. Marshall initiated the Court's practice of striving for united majority opinions, still practiced today. During the Marshall years, the Chief Justice wrote 519 of 1,100 opinions issued by the court. He dissented on only eight occasions.

The most famous decision of the Marshall court was Marbury v. Madison (1803). The case revolved around a dispute concerning the undelivered commission of a federal judge appointed by President Adams and the refusal of the Jefferson administration to deliver it. Ironically, it was Marshall who had failed to deliver the commission when he was still serving in the Adams administration. The Judiciary Act of 1789 authorized the Court to compel Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the commission, but Marshall ruled that to do so would be an unconstitutional exercise of power on the Court's part. Marshall thought Madison should deliver the commission, but he declared that the Court could not compel him to do so, despite the Judiciary Act. If it were to do so, the Court would be acting outside its constitutionally mandated role as an appellate court. Therefore, the portion of the Judiciary Act which authorized the Court to issue the order was unconstitutional and therefore void. The Court's assertion of its authority to declare an act of the legislature void on constitutional grounds was a pivotal step in the Court's development. This power, known as judicial review, was the basis for much of the Court's subsequent growth in authority.

The Marshall Court was also committed to protecting private property and the inviolability of contracts. In the cases of Fletcher v. Peck (1810) and Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), the Court simultaneously defended contractual obligations and asserted its right to overturn unconstitutional legislative acts. In McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Court defended the "implied powers" clause and a flexible interpretation of the federal government's power to fulfill its constitutional mandate. Another important case of the Marshall years was Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), which concerned a dispute over competing commercial licenses issued by the state of New York and the U.S. Congress. The Court ruled in favor of the holder of the congressionally issued license and in doing so gave Congress stronger control over interstate commerce.

Marshall remained on the Court until he passed away on July 6, 1835, shortly before his 80th birthday. He was buried in Shockoe Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

A concise summary of the important cases decided during the Marshall years is difficult because of the great number of them and the shear breadth of their scope. Marshall presided over the Court for thirty-four years and during that period, the voice of the Court and that of Marshall were sometimes indistinguishable. Marshall's views on the role of both Court and federal government were thoroughly enshrined in U.S. law by the end of his tenure. Marshall may be properly regarded alongside the Founding Fathers as one of the principal figures in U.S. history, for in his decisions lie many of the now fundamental precepts of American law and government which continue to shape the country to this day.