Chief Justice John Marshall: Biography & Overview

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

In this lesson we'll learn about John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court. Learn more about Marshall's life and his influence on American law, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Justice John Marshall

Marshall's Early Years

John Marshall's father decided early on that his son would be a lawyer. Never mind the fact that when Marshall was born on the Virginia frontier on September 24, 1755, there were no schools for miles around. Marshall's father knew a few influential Virginians, including a military man named George Washington, and they let Marshall borrows books from their personal libraries. Other than one year at the Campbell Academy, Marshall was educated at home.

Any plans for a law career were put on hold while Marshall served with distinction for five years in the Revolutionary War. When his military service came to an end in 1779, he enrolled in a 6-week law course at the College of William and Mary, which was the extent of his time in law school. Marshall passed the bar exam in 1780.

Marshall Enters Politics

Marshall was not independently wealthy like men such as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. If he did not work, he did not make money. That made him reluctant to enter politics because being a politician did not pay well. While he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782, his primary focus was his thriving law practice. However, Marshall was a nationalist and a firm believer in a strong central government.

When Daniel Shays led an armed revolt against what he believed were unfair tax policies by the Massachusetts government, Marshall spoke out. He saw the uprising as a threat against the nation. Yet, after serving for the Virginia Convention that ratified the Constitution in 1788, Marshall left politics and resumed concentrating on law.

The XYZ Affair

Marshall declined offers to serve as attorney general in 1795 and a minister to France in 1796, but President John Adams was able to convince him to be a minister to France in 1797. Tension was brewing with France because France wanted the U.S.'s help in capturing British ships and in getting Louisiana back from Spain. The U.S. just wanted to remain neutral. Adams sent Marshall, Charles Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry to Paris to see if they could negotiate an agreement.

They met with three French agents, who Americans referred to as X, Y, and Z. Negotiations fell apart when the Americans refused to give a $12 million loan to France and pay a $250,000 bribe to Prime Minister Talleyrand in exchange for meeting with him. By the time Marshall returned home, he was considered a hero for standing up to France.

Joining the Adams Administration

If John Adams had not been a persistent man, John Marshall may have never made it onto the Supreme Court. When Justice James Wilson died on September 13, 1798, Adams wanted Marshall to replace him. Marshall's conduct in the XYZ Affair had proven his integrity. However, Marshall declined.

He did run for the House of Representatives in 1799 and won. Still, the money he made representing Virginia in Congress was barely enough to pay his bills and his clients in his law practice were leaving him because he was gone so often. Marshall's career in politics was in doubt. Adams finally got his man when he fired Thomas Pickering and named Marshall secretary of state on May 12, 1800. Marshall agreed because the job paid well and he liked foreign policy. It only lasted a year, though, because Adams was not reelected.

Becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

When Adams asked John Jay to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he declined. Jay did not think the position carried enough authority. Adams chose Marshall instead and this time, there was no hesitation. Marshall became Chief Justice in 1801 and transformed the nation's highest court.

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