John Marshall: Definer of a Nation

By Jean Edward Smith

1,215 ratings - 4.11* vote

A New York Times Notable Book of 1996It was in tolling the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835 that the Liberty Bell cracked, never to ring again. An apt symbol of the man who shaped both court and country.Working from primary sources, Jean Edward Smith has drawn an elegant portrait of a remarkable man. Lawyer, jurist, scholars; soldier, comrade, friend; and, most

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Book details

Paperback, 736 pages
March 15th 1998 by Henry Holt and Co.

(first published November 15th 1996)

Original Title
John Marshall: Definer of a Nation
080505510X (ISBN13: 9780805055108)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


The Constitution of the United States was not born fully-formed and mature. All three branches of the federal government grew into their respective responsibilities and proper roles. In 1788 Alexander Hamilton wrote that “the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three branches.” This was undeniable true. The people of the United States owe a great debt to John Marshall for transforming the wobbly leg of the Constitutional stool into one that effectively checked executive and legislative powers and fostered the rule of law. Jean Edward Smith, with another excellent political biography, reveals the extent of that debt.

John Marshall was not our first Chief Justice, but he was the most significant. He took over a Supreme Court with no authority and little prestige. The court's decisions under his guidance cemented its role as a separate and equal branch of the U.S. government. The decisions were groundbreaking. In Marbury v. Madison the Marshall Court established the principle of judicial review – creating the basis for the Supreme Court's role as arbiter of the Constitution; McCullough v. Maryland authenticated the implied powers of Congress and confirmed the supremacy of federal actions under the Constitution; in Cohens v. Virginia the court refuted the compact theory of states' rights and cut the ground from under secessionist legal arguments decades before the Civil War; and with Dartmouth College v. Woodward it upheld the sanctity of contracts thereby strengthening free enterprise throughout the Union. These decisions made the court a powerful bulwark in the drive for national unity. When Marshall assumed the bench, the Supreme Court's role in America was ambiguous. When he died, still sitting as Chief Justice in 1835, that role was indelibly impressed into the fabric of American life. The Marshall Court sat in an era of contentious partisanship, but did so fairly, thoughtfully, articulately, and judiciously. Perhaps its greatest legacy was in drawing a stark line between the law and politics. Marshall knew politics – and kept his court out of them.

As with all of Jean Edward Smith's biographies, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation immerses the reader in the life and times of his subject, and does so in a manner scholarly and comprehensive (524 pages of text, 151 pages of Smith's typically illustrative footnotes, and 30 pages of bibliography), yet also entertaining. While most of the book is devoted to Marshall's career as Chief Justice, Smith does not neglect his combat experiences as a soldier during the Revolution, his years as the most prominent and successful lawyer in Virginia, a term as a Federalist member of the U.S. Congress, his exemplary performance as a peace commissioner in France during the notorious XYZ Affair, as well as service as Secretary of State under John Adams, and authorship of a five volume biography of George Washington. Any reader with interest in the early days of the American republic and the shaping of our government and institutions need look no further than John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. Jean Edward Smith earned Five Stars from me.

Bryan Alkire

Good biography. This is a reread from a few years ago. In many ways John Marshall was as important as the framers and first executives and legislators of the new emerging American republic. This biography covers both his personal life and his legal work. The organization is logical and the book keeps moving. I never felt that it bogged down anywhere. The writing is readable. At times it could get a bit repetitive when it described Marshall in the same terms several times throughout the text. But, otherwise, solid writing. The content is a good balance between the personal and professional life of the subject. Marshall’s personal life is discussed enough to give a sense of what he was like as a human being, and is professional life, while in-depth, isn’t overdone. This book continues to have the high opinion I had when I first read this biography.

So, I give this a 4. It’s a good solid biography of an important person in American history. It’s readable and it’s a good balance between the personal and professional lives of John Marshall. I recommend.

Steven Peterson

This is a definitive biography of the country's first important chief justice of the Supreme Court (with apologies to John Jay--the first). Marshall transformed the Court from an equivocal position among the three branches of government to a coequal branch, as per the Founding Fathers' preference.

The book makes several contributions: (a) it provides a good depiction of Marshall the person; (b) it gives the reader a sense of his effect on the American governmental system through his influence on the Supreme Court. A few words about each.

John Marshall as a person is an important issue, since, in some ways, it affected his performance as Chief Justice. He was an affable person. Less politicized than others in the Federalist political camp. By the mid-1790s, the country had begun to develop its political party system in a rather primitive way. The Federalists--the party of President George Washington (who despised the concept of political party) and of those who desired an energetic national government. Then, the Democrat-Republicans--the party of Jefferson and Madison, desiring a less powerful national government. Marshall was a Federalist, but not of the fire-breathing variety. He was more an accommodationist. One point: He and Jefferson were related but had a healthy dislike for one another. The volume does a very good job depicting Marshall as a person. And this was not unrelated to his performance as Chief Justice.

The book also does a fine job of describing his jurisprudence. It covers his role in such major cases as Marbury v. Madison, Ogden v. Gibbons, the Dartmouth case, McCulloch v. Maryland and so on. His impact on constitutional law is immense and the book details this nicely,

There is also tidbits about his self perception. Late in his career, he noted of himself: "Non sum qualis ernam" (if my memory is accurate)--"I am no longer who I was." I find the passage powerful in that it shows his understanding of where he was as opposed to where he had been in his powers, acuity, and so on.

All in all, a masterful biography of a major figure in American history.


If you have any interest in the early years of our nation and how it was formed, this is a must read.
This is also a biography of John Marshall, which fits hand in glove with how he was involved in the Revolutionary War, was involved in the formation of the constitution, and how his knowledge of the constitution and the division of responsibilities served him as our Chief Justice.

They talk about the tightrope that the Supreme Court walked since the constitution does not spell out exactly how the Supreme Court will operate - and John Marshall carved out the courts place in the USA. I know that some people today agree with Thomas Jefferson who worked hard to reduce the influence of the court. Did you know the blood connection between the 2 men? And which of these 2 men would be more lively at a dinner party?

I have an interest in the Supreme court and am interested in other books that you can recommend on the current courts. I read The Bretheran! Maybe more scholarly.


After reading this John Marshall may be my new favorite founding father. The man who shaped the Supreme Court was in turn shaped by his upbringing in the foothills of Shenandoah and his service in the Revolution. His devotion to his country and family was remarkable as well as the skill with which he got his fellow justices to work together despite differences in judicial opinion. As the title states, he did a lot to define the nation and he did so with the utmost sense of duty and integrity. The descriptions of him in his rumpled and simple clothing while loving a good party contrast with the gravity of duty he felt toward the bench. Aside from highlighting a somewhat forgotten founder, the book also provided great detail on how the country was shaped, what sentiment was really like at the times, and how things initially worked. Great read for history and biography lovers.

Jeremy Perron

When President John Adams utter the words "I believe I must nominate you" he committed--as Smith points out--the most important nomination since he had recommended that General Washington be made Commander-In-Chief of the American Army during the Revolutionary War. John Marshall is known as the `Great Chief Justice'. He was not the first but the fourth man to serve as Chief Justice of the United States; nevertheless it was he who would turn the Court into the institution it is today. John Marshall's accomplishment makes him probably the greatest public servant never to serve as president.

I have read and reviewed Professor Smith's biographies of Presidents Grant and Franklin Roosevelt. One of the things that Professor Smith does extremely well is his ability to cut through the myth of any particular individual and get straight to the substance of who they really were. Here, in his first attempt, Smith succeeds in getting to the man behind the myth.

Smith's Marshall is a Revolutionary solider whose nationalism is strengthened at Valley Forge along with men like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. He becomes a successful lawyer who finds himself thrust into public service. Often he is pressured to enter the arena by the man who he admired the most: George Washington. Marshall greatly admired Washington and after the death of the first President of the United States, Marshall became his biographer.

"In Marshall's opinion, the power of government derived from the express authority granted by the people. Unlike the British parliament, the American government was not sovereign, and when it acted in the economic sphere, it was bound by the same laws of contract as a private citizen. This view became law of the land in such leading decisions of the Marshall Court as Fletcher v. Peck and the Dartmouth College case. The holding in those cases reaffirmed the vested rights of property against governmental intrusion and helped set the stage for the growth of American capitalism." (p.108)

As the Chief Justice of the United States, Marshall laid down what was to be the foundation of American constitutional law. Smith shows that Marshall was helping to do that even before he was on the bench, his action concerning the Robbins case during his stay in Congress is a good preview of what he would do on the court. This book was written in 1996, I wish some Supreme Court justices had read this prior to the disaster that was Bush v. Gore.

"Marshall was drawing a distinction between legal issues and political questions. Not everything that arises under the Constitution involves a legal issue. Some matters are political. And the courts are empowered to render decisions on legal issues only. They have no authority to decide political questions. These are the province of the executive and the legislature. Three years later in the great case of Marbury v. Madison, Marshall employed that distinction to establish the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution in matters of law. While explicitly recognizing that political questions might raise constitutional issues, Marshall stated that these questions were ultimately the responsibility of the president and Congress. The distinction that Marshall drew has become one of the cornerstones of American constitutional law. In the case of the Vietnam war for example, important constitutional questions were raised about war powers, but these were political questions not legal ones. Federal courts consistently declined to entertain suits testing the war's constitutionality, citing the distinction first articulated by Marshall in his speech on the Robbins case."(p.261)

One of the myths that Smith shoots down is with the rivalry and hatred between him and President Jefferson. Smith does not say the rivalry did not exist but he shows that this developed as time went on; each side built up reasons not to like the other. A major part of myth that Smith breaks down is Jefferson's reasons for not liking the famous Marbury v. Madison decision, not because of the decision's ultimate result but rather minor technicalities with it.

"It was judicial tour de force. Marshall had converted a no-win situation into a massive victory. The authority of the Supreme Court to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional was now the law of the land. Typically, Marshall's decision paid heed to the claims raised on both sides of the case. The High Federalists were awarded the nominal prize of hearing that Marbury was entitled to his commission, and the Republicans gained a victory with the dismissal of the rule to show cause. But the real winner was the Supreme Court an, some might say, the Constitution itself.

The legal precedent for judicial review, that unique American doctrine that permits the Supreme Court to declare acts of Congress and the executive unconstitutional, traces the holding in Marbury v. Madison. Marshall did not say that the Supreme Court was the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution. He did not say that the authority to interpret the Constitution rested exclusively with the Court, and he certainly did not endorse grandiose schemes that envisaged the Supreme Court as a board of review sitting in judgment of each act of Congress to determine its constitutionality. He simply stated that the Constitution was law, and that as a judicial matter, it could be interpreted by the Court in cases that came before it." (p.323-4)

Marshall would also lay down what would be the bane of the South's argument of the nature of the Union with important decisions that reinforced the position of the Federal Government over the states.

"Marshall returned to Washington in early February for the 1810 term of the Court, a term that, with possible exception to 1803, would prove to be the most important during his tenure as chief justice. In 1803, in Marbury v. Madison the Court had established its authority to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. In 1810, in another landmark case, Fletcher v. Peck, it would assert its authority to strike down state laws repugnant to the Constitution." (p.388)

Probably the decision that most affected the nation as a whole, was the restatement of national supremacy that would become the bedrock of Constitutional law, John C. Calhoun be damned.

"The Court's decision in McCulloch v. Maryland is a ringing restatement of national supremacy. Marshall's eloquent phrases have been invoked repeatedly by later generations of jurists and legislators to justify the expansion of national authority at the expense of the states. At the time, however, Marshall could not have envisioned the modern federal government with its greatly augmented powers to regulate the economy and promote social welfare. His decision was a defensive one. In 1819 the Court was concerned with preserving the Union against the powerful centrifugal forces that constantly threatened its dissolution. McCulloch did not so much expand federal sovereignty as restrict state sovereignty. As one scholar has written, the Court's intention was to enable the federal government to exercise its powers effectively and to prevent state encroachments upon its legitimate operations." (p.445)

The final chapter deals with the Chief Justice's last years. He dies waiting for President Andrew Jackson to get done being president so that he can retire as the Chief Justice. Marshall does not make it; Jackson is elected to a second term defeating Marshall's favorite Henry Clay. Although President Jackson did not make any Supreme Court appointments that Marshall did not like, he clashed directly with Jackson on the rights of Native Americans. However popular support was not on the aboriginal people's side. The Court stood powerless to stop what would become the trail of tears.

"The Supreme Court was on record. The Indian laws passed by the state of Georgia were unconstitutional. `The Court has done its duty,' Story wrote, `let the nation now do theirs.' But the nation was unwilling. Georgia again ignored the Court; Worcester and Butler remained in prison; and President Jackson is reported to have said, `Well, John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.' Jackson probably did not say that, and at that point the president had no responsibility for enforcing the judgment. The degree issued by the Supreme Court merely instructed Georgia to reverse its decision and release the missionaries. The Court adjourned shortly thereafter, which meant that the decree could not be enforced until the 1833 term and that the state would not be in defiance until then." (p.518)

Like the other two books I read by Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation is a great read. It is the book you want to read if you want to know about one of our most important figures in American jurisprudence, John Marshall.


This is a first-rate scholarly account of one of if not the most important Supreme Court justice in American history.

Having re-read Gore Vidal's Burr , I was especially interested in Marshall's relationships with Jefferson, Hamilton, and Burr. Here, again, it is Thomas Jefferson who draws the author's greatest ire and who was one of the people that Marshall despised the most. Marshal personally presided over Jefferson's trumped up trial against Burr. Marshall didn't like Burr much, given his deadly duel with Hamilton, but he believed that Jefferson was the actual threat to the Constitutional government proposed in 1787.

Thomas Jefferson was not simply a slave-owner (and hypocrite), but he was a staunch defender of the expansion of slavery to the Louisiana Territory and defended the right of states to nullify federal actions and even secede from the Union. Jefferson was a well-known critic and abuser of civil liberties and denied the propriety of an independent judiciary.

I suppose that we should always honor Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence; let his statues stand. As a person, politician, and president, however, Jefferson deserves the contempt of friends of liberty and rule of law.


It appears that Smith has written a well-balanced biography of Marshall, looking at the many facts of his long history. The book is well researched into both his legal development and personal life. Smith has also set out to correct misinformation and errors of prior biographies of Marshall. Despite playing a prominent role in the early history of this country, Marshall has remained a surprisingly elusive subject for historians.
Jean Edward Smith in “John Marshall: Definer of a Nation” does not offer fresh insights into Marshall’s constitutional philosophy. Instead, Smith devotes nearly half the book to Marshall’s prejudicial career. Thus Smith discusses in detail Marshall’s family background, legal education, marriage to Polly Ambler. The author also describes Marshall’s success with his Richman legal practice, acquisition of large land tracts and early forages into Virginia politics. Smith demonstrates that Marshall enjoyed a superior instruction in the law by the standards of the era. Beside reading the law, he attended the first law classes at William and Mary College. Smith goes into depth about Marshall’s service in the Revolutionary Army. The wartime experience convinced Marshall of the need for effective national government. Smith obtained the rank of General in the Virginia Militia.
The latter half of the book covers Marshall’s time as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Smith also covers the other members of the court and how they worked together most often producing a unanimous decisions. The author discusses the death and appointments of new justices and how they did or did not affect the relationship between members of the court. Many of the routines Marshall established about the operation of the Court and the Justices work assignments are still in effect today. Smith does a good job of explaining how Marshall set out to strengthen the Supreme Court as an institution. Marshall moved to reduce partisan influence of and on the court.
Jean Edward Smith is the John Marshall Professor of Political Science at Marshall University. He won the 2008 Francis Parkman prize for “FDR” (2007) biography. I read this as an e-book on my Kindle app for my iPad. If you are interested in early U.S. history or history of the Supreme Court you will enjoy this easy to read book.

Mark Fitzpatrick

Read for a graduate-level American Political Thought course. I must say, I was quite entertained by this biography. Smith does an excellent job outlining the political and cultural atmosphere during the revolutionary and Founding Generation within the context of Marshall's biography. Smith also does an excellent job breaking down Marshall's philosophy on federalism and how it related to the time and to other prominent Founding Generation figures. Court cases are given excellent details along with Marshall's military and early political career. Smith was able to make an interesting, page-turning work that not only gives the reader insight on Marshall personally, but also the early republican years for the country. "Definer of a Nation" is an apt title as Smith shows how Marshall was extremely influential in the judicial and societal framework for the federal government and the public/private sphere.


John Marshall is a lesser known Founding Father. He shouldn't be, because he is to the Supreme Court what George Washington is to the Presidency. The author, Jean Smith, gives the reader a complete picture of John Marshall the man, but focuses on Marshall's term as Chief Justice of the court. Mr. Smith outlines the facts of the major cases decided by the Marshall court. Further, the author explains how these cases established the importance, reach, and character of the court. As Mr. Smith explains, the Supreme Court we see today is largely the result of John Marshall. Mr. Smith is an able historian and biographer and his writing style makes reading a pleasurable trip through time. I have read Mr. Smith's book on U.S, Grant and look forward to reading his other writings.