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Who is John Marshall?

Many important Supreme Court rulings were handed down by John Marshall.
John Marshall issued rulings giving the federal government more power than is expressly defined in the U.S. Constitution.
John Marshall joined the Culpeper Minutemen when the American Revolutionary War began.
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  • Written By: Jessica Hobby
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 June 2014
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John Marshall, born in 1755 in Fauquier County, Virginia, is best known as the longest serving Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. From 1801 until his death in 1835, John Marshall was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He handed down numerous important decisions, which gave the federal government more power than what was explicitly defined in the Constitution of the United States of America. Decisions handed down by Marshall on Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland, are considered to be two of the most influential from Marshall’s time presiding over the Supreme Court.

While coming of age in Virginia, John Marshall had very little formal education. In his early childhood, he was primarily taught by his father and a Scottish tutor. At the age of fourteen, he attended a classical academy in Westmoreland County, Virginia, where he studied with James Monroe, who would later become the fifth president of the United States. After only a year, he returned home to resume working for Reverend James Thompson, who he also studied with.

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When the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, John Marshall joined the Culpeper Minutemen and fought in many of the battles. Eventually he found himself at Valley Forge, in the winter of 1777-1778, where he fought under George Washington as a captain. A staunch Federalist, Marshall had a great deal of respect for Washington after fighting with him in the war. Marshall published a five volume biography on Washington during his early years as appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by then U.S. President John Adams.

After fighting in the war, Marshall returned to Virginia to study law. Shortly after admission to the bar in 1780, John Marshall fought in the army until 1781. He then resigned his commission so he was able to open his own practice, which thrived as he became known as one of the leading attorneys in America. Marshall married and resided with his wife and six children in Richmond.

John Marshall served on the Virginia House of Delegates, on the Virginia General Assembly and as Virginia’s delegate at the Constitutional Convention. His beliefs were on the same line as Alexander Hamilton’s and he fought for ratification of the Constitution against, his cousin’s, Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. One of the principals he defended the most was Article III of the Constitution which called for a Federal judiciary. Initially serving as John Adam’s Secretary of State in 1800, Adams appointed John Marshall as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in early 1801.

Marshall handed down many important Supreme Court decisions, however, the two that are most referred to are Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland. These landmark Constitutional cases substantially increased the power of the national government. In Marbury v. Madison, Marshall gave the Supreme Court the power of judicial review. In McCulloch v. Maryland, Marshall granted Congress the implied powers of the Constitution to give them the ability to institute the express powers in the Constitution. Additionally, the opinion on this case stated that state powers could not exceed federal powers, when the national government was acting constitutionally.

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