President Adams’s Gift to the Nation: Chief Justice John Marshall
On Jan. 20, 1801, in the waning days of a lame duck administration, President John Adams committed one of the most significant acts in American history when he nominated his Secretary of State, John Marshall, to be the next chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice Marshall began his tenure on Feb. 4 and served until he died on July 6, 1835. During those 34 years his Court handing down over 1,000 decisions, of which Marshall wrote 519 himself, completely redefining the role of the Supreme Court and the system of “checks and balances” under which the American government operates. John Adams later wrote: “My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life.”
The first major case of Marshall’s career as chief justice, and one of the most significant, was Marbury v. Madison, a ruling on Feb. 24, 1803, in which the Supreme Court actually declined the greater power Congress bestowed upon it. The Court’s opinion, written by Marshall, said the Judiciary Act of 1789, expanding the Court’s original jurisdiction, was invalid because it violated the U.S. Constitution. It was the first time the Court had ruled that a law was unconstitutional, creating for the Court its most important role: judicial review, i.e., the power to invalidate an act or order of the legislative or executive branches of the government by finding it unconstitutional, thereby cementing the “checks and balances” principle controlling the three branches of the government.
On the historic day President Adams nominated John Marshall, the Alexandria Advertiser and Commercial Intelligencer (Alexandria, Virginia) printed this notice, on Jan. 20, 1801:
The President has nominated John Marshall, now Secretary of State, Chief Justice of the United States.
Marshall’s confirmation was announced in this notice printed by the Washington Federalist (Georgetown, District of Columbia) on Jan. 29, 1801:
The nomination of John Marshall, Esq. as Chief Justice of the United States, has been confirmed by the Senate of the United States, nem. con.
The opening of the Marshall Court, and the beginning of his long and influential career as chief justice, was announced in this notice printed by the Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland) on Feb. 6, 1801:
On Wednesday last the Supreme Court formed a quorum in a room appropriated for their sitting in the Capitol. The honorable John Marshall, late secretary of state, produced the diploma of his appointment as chief justice. The usual oaths upon that occasion were administered to him.
The Marshall Court’s first major case, Marbury v. Madison, establishing the concept of judicial review, was reported in this article printed by the Washington Federalist (Georgetown, District of Columbia) on Feb. 25, 1803:
Washington, Feb. 24, 1803.
The Chief Justice this day declared the opinion of the Court, at great length, on the motion of Mr. C. Lee, for a rule to shew cause why a mandamus should not issue to compel James Madison, Secretary of State of the United States, to deliver to William Marbury, and others, their commissions of the peace, for the district of Columbia.
The case had been argued this term by Mr. Lee with great ability, on the part of Marbury and others—no cause was shewn.
The evidence, arguments of Counsel, and the opinion of the Court, will be published in a report of this term, preparing for the press.
The questions considered by the Court in delivering their opinions, are—
1st. Has the applicant a right to the commission he demands?
2d. If he has a right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of his country afford him a remedy?
3dly. If they do afford him a remedy, is it by a mandamus issuing from this Court?
On the first point it was the opinion of the Court, that such right did exist: 2dly, That he was entitled to a remedy—but on the third question, it was determined that the act of Congress giving the power to the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus in such a case, was unconstitutional, and consequently void. The rule therefore was dismissed.
Time does not permit at present a more full account of the opinion of the Court—which considered each point at great length, and with great ability. Besides, it would be too much to hazard a report of the opinion from notes. As soon, however, as a copy can be obtained from the Reporter, this interesting and highly important opinion shall be given at length.
For more information, visit the John Marshall Foundation website.