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We must never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding… John Marshall


Lenin used to say that whenever someone spoke of culture he reached for his revolver and the same statement applies to people who speak of the “spirit” of things. Whenever you hear the word “spirit” invoked you may be sure that the argument will be long on conjecture and short on fact. This is the case of people reasoning that John Marshall was a Federalist ergo John Marshall was in favor of a strong central government and opposed to the rights of the states.

In the first place the Federalist were in favor of a strong central government to the extent that it meant a strong currency and an alliance with Great Britain. Their members were the remnants of the “aristocracy” in the colonies and they were essentially gone – at least from public life – within a generation of the Revolution as the Americans built their own meritocracy.

John Marshall interestingly stands astride the two generations and knew the founding arguments as well as any man. If someone tells you he wanted the federal government to be supreme counter with his words, No political dreamer was ever wild enough to think of breaking down the lines which separate the States, and of compounding the American people into one common mass.

Indeed his major decision was to give the courts the right of judicial review because he knew, The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the Constitution is written, and the most odious power they had was, the power to tax is the power to destroy, which meant that, in a free government almost all other rights would become worthless if the government possessed power over the private fortune of every citizen.

Perhaps his greatest wisdom was in knowing the limits of government – local, state or national – when he wrote specifically of the federal government, the Constitution is not a panacea for every blot upon the public welfare, nor should this Court, ordained as a judicial body, be thought of as a general haven for reform movements. This book is a comprehensive record of his life and although it may have a bias towards the “spirit” of federalism it is well enough written that the intelligent reader will be able to discern that the founding federalist were the same fellows who participated in the Boston tea party!


John Marshall : definer of a nation New York : H. Holt & Co., 1996 Jean Edward Smith Judges United States Biography, Marshall, John, 1755-1835 Hardcover. 1st. ed., later printing. xi, 736 p. : ill. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 677-707) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG   

It 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, whose life reads like an early history of the United States in this excellent job of recounting the details of Marshall’s life without missing the dramatic sweep of the history it encompassed.

Working from primary sources, Smith has drawn an elegant portrait of a remarkable man. Lawyer, jurist, scholars; soldier, comrade, friend; and, most especially, lover of fine Madeira, good food, and animated table talk: the Marshall who emerges from these pages is noteworthy for his very human qualities as for his piercing intellect, and, perhaps most extraordinary, for his talents as a leader of men and a molder of consensus. A man of many parts John Marshall did much for his country, and John Marshall: Definer of a Nation demonstrates this on every page.


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