Monday, January 21, 2019

Books: John Marshall

Anyone who thinks the partisan struggles over the Supreme Court are a recent development should read Richard Brookhiser's John Marshall. The biography is an interesting portrait of John Marshall's life and 34-year tenure as Chief Justice, and it illustrates how the political winds buffeting the early Republic - and the Court - were just as intense as those blowing today.

The book starts with Marshall's military and diplomatic service, including the deprivation he suffered at Valley Forge and his unwavering admiration for General Washington. These experiences heavily influenced Marshall's preference for a strong national government that could properly provide for an army, putting him into regular conflict with Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. The Court thus became the stage for bitter partisan strife, including the only impeachment trial of a sitting Justice and several court-packing Judiciary Acts.

Although Brookhiser is not a lawyer, the book ably covers the ins and outs of the early Court's major cases, including Marbury, McCulloch, and Gibbons. It turns out that the politicization of the Court is nothing new, and the book's discussion of these landmark opinions fills in the partisan backstory missing from the average constitutional law textbook (for instance, many of these were "test cases," the kind that people would bring today). Above all, Brookhiser credits Justice Marshall's gregarious civility and intellectual rigor with making the Court the institution it is today.


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