BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, March 2018
When John Marshall was appointed as the fourth chief justice of the United States by President John Adams, the Supreme Court had few cases, no genuine authority and met in the basement of the U.S. Capitol. But from 1801 to 1835, the court transformed under Marshall’s leadership, issuing more than 1,000 mostly unanimous decisions, with half of them written by Marshall himself.
The oldest of 15 children, Marshall grew up in a cabin on the Virginia frontier, and his formal education consisted of just one year of grammar school and six weeks of law school. But this lack of schooling did not hinder his ascent: His service in the American Revolution, during which he impressed George Washington; his reputation as an outstanding attorney; his diplomatic mission to France during which he successfully worked to avert war; and his service as Adams’ secretary of state led to his appointment as one of the most influential chief justices in American history.
Joel Richard Paul, a professor of constitutional and international law, compellingly details the path that brought Marshall to the Supreme Court and how he was able to achieve so much while there in the absorbing and aptly titled Without Precedent. Paul sees Marshall as a master of self-invention who “played many parts so well because he was at heart a master actor . . . his gift for illusion transformed not only himself but the Court, the Constitution, and the nation as well.”
Marshall was a Federalist, yet all of the justices selected during his 34-year tenure were not of his party. However, Marshall was not an ideologue, and emphasized moderation, pragmatism and compromise, while regularly employing his rare gift for friendship to reach consensus. As chief justice, Marshall was able to establish an independent judiciary system and assured the supremacy of the federal Constitution.
Highlights of the book include Paul’s illuminating discussions of major court decisions; Marshall’s devotion to his beloved wife, Polly, who was ill for most of their married lives; Marshall’s long-running differences with his cousin Thomas Jefferson; and his friendship with Jefferson’s ally, James Madison. This engrossing account of a key figure in our early history makes for excellent reading.