Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

John Marshall,
the Expounder of the Constitution

John marshall, one of the greatest among the great Virginians of the early days of this country, won his fame in a field in which there is not much of incident to relate, that of the Supreme Court of the United States, of which he was Chief Justice for the last thirty-four years of his life. The greatest of all our Chief Justices, he is known as the ablest expounder of the Constitution, and this noble State paper owes its acceptation very largely to the wise and luminous decisions of John Marshall.

Born in Germantown (now Midland), Virginia, on the 24th of September, 1755, Marshall spent a life of considerable activity before he reached the bench of the Supreme Court, and there are many things of interest to be told of him during the first half of his life.

In figure John Marshall was not striking or commanding. Tall and thin and usually erect, he often took very awkward attitudes. His face, swarthy in hue, with low forehead, black hair, and twinkling eyes, was not handsome, though kindly in expression. His voice was dry and hard in tone, and his manner of speech plain and forcible, but devoid of the graces of oratory. Often, indeed, he was embarrassed in speech. Yet the sound sense, lucid reasoning, and fine powers of argument of his speeches gave him command over his audiences, and were especially telling in his court decisions, in which wisdom rather than oratory is demanded.

This will serve to introduce the great figure of John Marshall to our readers. In his younger days he was one of the most spirited of patriots, and served as a soldier throughout the Revolutionary War, winning distinction by his courage and ability. In seeking for the early life of the great Chief Justice, we should scarcely look for him as a dashing lieutenant of volunteers, yet that is the way Marshall began at the age of twenty-one.

He became Captain Marshall in 1777, and fought boldly and gallantly in many campaigns. He was present at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, was at Valley Forge during the terrible winter spent there, and by his patience and liveliness helped to give spirit to his fellow officers amid its hardships and sufferings. He took part with General Wayne in the daring assault on Stony Point, and served gallantly in various other actions.

Near the end of the war, while he was out of the army for a time, Marshall attended a course of lectures on law and philosophy at William and Mary College. He had never been to college, having been taught at home by his father, and this was his first introduction to the law. But his keen mind and quick judgment enabled him readily to take it in. During the war he had often aided as an arbitrator to settle disputes among the men; and he now took up seriously the study of law. Before the war ended he was admitted to the bar.

Marshall quickly showed that he had now fallen into his true vocation. In a brief time he gained the reputation of being a promising young barrister, and a year of legal practice raised him to the position of one of the leaders of the Virginia bar. His elevation had been phenomenally rapid, but was a natural consequence of the great ability lie displayed.

He became a member of the Legislature of Virginia in 1782, and there, too, quickly made his mark. It was apparent to the members that they had a man of no common powers among them. There was work enough then for men of ability to do. The State needed reorganizing, and Marshall took an active part in the work. In doing so he came into close relations with Patrick Henry and other leaders of the day, and impressed them strongly with the commanding qualities of his mind.

But his first great opportunity to make his force felt came in 1788, when the Constitution was before the Virginia Convention for adoption. In its support, next to James Madison, he was the leading advocate. Patrick Henry opposed it with all his wonderful eloquence, making pyrotechnic orations that his audiences listened to with wonder and delight. Marshall, on the contrary, had no eloquence to offer. He simply talked, but reason and argument formed the basis of his talk, and his words had a convincing influence upon his hearers. The Constitution was adopted, and he shared with Madison the chief honor in the result.

A still greater display of his power was made in 1794, when Jay's treaty with Great Britain was under discussion, and was bitterly opposed in all parts of the country. Marshall made so able a speech in its support that the influence of it was felt as far away as Europe, and when, the next year, he was sent on a special mission to France, he was received there as a statesman of great distinction.

In 1799 he was elected to Congress, and there strongly defended President Adams for giving up Thomas Nash, whom Great Britain claimed as a fugitive from justice. Marshall's speech on this subject was marvellously able in its exposition of international law, and settled decisively the status of such questions.

In 1800 he became Secretary of State in President Adams's Cabinet, and on the 31st of January, 1801, was appointed by the President to the office in which he was to gain a fame unsurpassed in this country, that of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. This was a life position, in which he remained for the remaining thirty-four years of his stay upon earth. The profound knowledge, wisdom, and judgment which Marshall displayed in this high office gave him rank as the ablest of all who have filled it. He interpreted the Constitution upon just and liberal principles, his writings and arguments being of the greatest value to the courts of the nation. Its legal machinery was not yet running very smoothly, and the true significance of the Constitution, as applied to actual questions, was little understood.

Marshall interpreted it in many famous cases, one of the most important being the trial of Aaron Burr, late Vice-President of the United States, for high treason. Here the Chief Justice presided, and in many points stood against the opinions of the leading lawyers of the day. Time has proved that he was right, and that his decisions were "a sound, even-handed administration of the law."

Judge Story, referring to some of his famous decisions, praises him in the highest terms as a just and luminous expounder of the Constitution, and says: "If all others of the Chief Justice's judicial arguments had perished, his luminous judgments on these occasions would have given an enviable immortality to his name."

Aside from his legal standing, he was distinguished for his benevolence, modesty, urbanity, and simplicity. His one contribution to literature is a "Life of George Washington," in five volumes, which is highly esteemed. His home was in Richmond, Virginia, but he died in Philadelphia, having gone there for medical advice, on the 6th of July, 1835.