Biography of William Marbury

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

You may have heard of the landmark court case Marbury v. Madison, but what do you know about the man behind this judicial circus? In this lesson, you will learn about the life and times of William Marbury, a man who inadvertently shaped history.

Who was William Marbury?

While William Marbury is best known for his role in the epic 1803 Supreme Court ruling, Marbury's role in American history began much earlier. Born on November 7, 1762, William Marbury was a son of a well-known family. Marbury's grandfather, Francis, arrived in the colonies looking for opportunity and fortune. Francis Marbury found just that in Charles County, Maryland. Unfortunately, the family's good luck ran out. After years of farming tobacco, the soil was ruined, and their plantation began to fail.

Luckily for William Marbury, he was able to get by on his charming personality, drive for power, and his good family name. Born just over a decade before the start of the American Revolution, Marbury's family were colonists through-and-through. At the end of the war, Marbury's career began to take off, beginning with the position of Deputy Tax Collector in Annapolis, Maryland. Over the course of the next ten years, Marbury maneuvered and positioned himself in Maryland's most elite social circles, rubbing elbows with the rich and famous like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams.

Portrait of William Marbury
William Marbury

Choosing the Federalist Side

Always thinking about image and how to get ahead in life, Marbury kept his political beliefs relatively quiet for most of the 1780's. At the time, the United States was still operating under the Articles of Confederation, a very ineffective and messy system of government that lasted less than a decade. When it came time to draft the Constitution, America's Founding Fathers fell into two camps...federalists and anti-federalists. The federalists believed the United States needed a stronger central government; meanwhile, the anti-federalists favored states' rights.

At the time, this was a huge debate that caused political divisiveness in America. In 1791, it was time for William Marbury to pick a side. He announced himself as a federalist and took advantage of the awesome things his federalist friends had to offer, including working as an agent of the state of Maryland. Despite his humble beginnings, Marbury made quite the name for himself as well as a large fortune. As a result, he became an important part of Georgetown society and played a role in the banking industry in Washington, DC.

Marbury v. Madison

Despite his impressive achievements working for the state of Maryland and making tons of money, Marbury is remembered for something entirely unrelated. William Marbury was a federalist. Thanks to his close political connections and friendships, he ran in the same circle as President John Adams, a staunch federalist. In 1801, the federalists lost the presidential election to the anti-federalist Thomas Jefferson. Adams, angry with the outcome, decided to undermine the anti-federalists. Before leaving office, Adams passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 that expanded the number of judgeship positions to be placed in the six Federal Circuits. Before leaving his presidential post, Adams was allowed to appoint dozens of judges to these positions. Most of them were his friends, AND they were federalists.

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