John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court

In This Review

John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court
By Richard Brookhiser
Basic Books, 2018
336 pp.

It is thanks to John Marshall’s work as the fourth chief justice of the United States that the constitutional doctrines of the Federalist Party, which espoused strong judicial power and the supremacy of the national government over the states, formed the foundation of the American state. As Brookhiser shows in this brisk biography, Marshall’s success was partly due to the power of his legal reasoning and partly to his brilliant management of the men who served with him on the Supreme Court. Marshall doesn’t offer much grist for a biographer; he led a quietly respectable private life and was as marmoreal in his public persona as George Washington. Few surviving papers reveal much of the inner man. Brookhiser does his best with this unpromising material, but Marshall would doubtless be pleased that it is his ideas that dominate this biography, not his quarrels, debts, ambitions, or amours. The greatest blot on Marshall’s record, as Brookhiser notes, was his failure to confront the horrors of slavery. Washington freed his slaves when he died, in 1799. Marshall, who died in 1835, left his in bondage.

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