When the Court Became Supreme

In his review of Joel Richard Paul’s book Without Precedent, Kyle Sammin juxtaposes John Marshall’s and Thomas Jefferson’s upbringings, showing the men’s notable similarities alongside their significant differences. He shows how their eventual conflict culminated in Marbury vs. Madison and the codification judicial review. 


The Conflict That Shaped Our Constitutional Order

By Kyle Sammin
From National Review

A new biography explores the long-running rivalry between the Federalist chief justice John Marshall and his Democratic–Republican second cousin, President Thomas Jefferson.

In the American republic’s early days, a seat on the United States Supreme Court was not the coveted plum that it is today. The first three chief justices each served for an average of less than four years, and associate justices were also likely to leave the Court while still in the prime of their working lives. The reason? The Court had limited jurisdiction, heard few cases, and did not pay particularly well. For a talented lawyer, private practice or political office was usually preferable to a judicial backwater convened in an unused committee room in the basement of the Capitol.

In Without Precedent, law professor Joel Richard Paul tells the story of John Marshall, the man who changed all that. Appointed to the court by the last Federalist president in the waning days of his administration, Marshall was seated at a time of his Jeffersonian opponents’ ascendance. He would spend the next 34 years leading a Court that became much closer to a co-equal branch of government than any of the Founders had anticipated. In doing so, Marshall imposed a Federalist vision on often-reluctant Democratic–Republican political branches, cementing his own vision of what the United States should become: one nation, rather than a confederation of disparate sovereignties.

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