John Marshall (1755-1835), Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, proponent of judicial review, and captain in the Third Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army, was born on the Virginia frontier in a log cabin. His paternal ancestors were not of noble ancestry, but were hard working; his grandfather, John of the Forest, developed a small plot of second-rate land in Westmoreland County, amassing a small fortune of £730. John Marshall’s father, Thomas, settled in the frontier now known as Fauquier County, scarcely 50 miles from what would become Washington D.C. Thomas, a land surveyor, had wanted a plot of land that would be more productive than that of his father. John Marshall’s mother was a descendant of the prominent Randolph family. However, the elite family considered the affairs of his grandmother scandalous and regarded her branch of the family as lesser.
Living on the frontier, the opportunities for education were limited, but Thomas Marshall taught his son an elementary education, relying on his own knowledge and that of his ever-expanding library.  He sent John to be formally educated at Cambelltown Academy, a small boarding school in Westmoreland County run by the Reverend Campbell.  After one year at the school, John returned home. There, his father hired him a private tutor, a young Anglican priest named James Thomson. While Marshall had developed a solid foundation in knowledge under the guidance of his father and Campbell, it was Thomson who refined Marshall’s already scholarly instincts. After his year with Thomson, Marshall had “a solid mastery of Latin grammar” and an affection for the classics.
Marshall and his father joined the revolutionary cause in 1775 as part of the Culpepper Minutemen The following year, he joined the Continental Army as a lieutenant in the Third Virginia Regiment. Marshall fought at Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and wintered at Valley Forge. In 1779, he returned to Virginia, and was mustered out of service in 1781. In 1780, Marshall began taking classes at the College of William & Mary, attending lectures by George Wythe based on Blackstone’s Commentaries, Matthew Bacon’s New Abridgment of the Law and the Acts of the Assembly Now in Force in the Colony of Virginia. Marshall’s notebook indicates his keen interest in the law, with 175 carefully written and organized pages.  His notebook also reveals an interest in Mary Ambler; the girl he would eventually marry and for whom he abruptly terminated his formal legal studies.  In addition to his careful notes, her name appears throughout the notebook. Scholars dispute the amount of time Marshall spent at William & Mary, but it was likely no more than a few months before he left for Richmond, following his beloved Mary.  Thus, the great chief justice’s formal education came to a close.
In 1780, Marshall was admitted to the bar and his career quickly gathered momentum. In 1782, Marshall was elected to the state Assembly and the following year he married Mary Ambler and started a solo practice.  He built up a reputation for being an exceptional lawyer, despite his simple appearance.  Marshall promoted constitutional reform in the Virginia Assembly in 1787, being an active and highly vocal proponent of Federalism. The Federalists tried to engage Marshall in several political positions several times before succeeding in making him Secretary of State in 1800. Marshall turned down Washington’s offer to make him attorney general in 1795, and Adam’s 1798 nomination to make him a justice on the Supreme Court and his 1800 request for him to serve as secretary of war. Despite these rejections, Marshall remained a very active, but moderate federalist; he was elected to Congress in 1798, a position he ran for only on the insistence of George Washington.
Despite his influence as a Virginia statesman, Congressman, and Secretary of State, it was his work on the Supreme Court for which he is most remembered. In the words of President James Garfield, “Marshall found the Constitution paper and made it power. He found a skeleton and clothed it with flesh and blood.” As chief justice, Marshall’s vast knowledge and experience molded the jurisprudence of the young nation; his “spider-like capacity” of “rapidly absorbing material suited to the immediate occasion and then spinning it out in his own silk” was greatly needed in a young nation with little precedent upon which to interpret its laws. In Marshall’s thirty-four years on the court, he influenced many key cases, including Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, Fletcher v. Peck, Cohens v. Virginia, and Gibbons v. Ogden.
The final case heard by Justice Marshall was Mitchel v. United States Shortly thereafter, Marshall died, serving as Chief Justice until his final day in 1835. He remains the longest serving Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, holding the office for over thirty-four years.
- Edward S. Corwin, "John Marshall" in vol. VI, part 2 of Dictionary of American Biography ed. Dumas Malone(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 315.
- Leonard Baker, John Marshall: a Life in Law (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1974), 6.
- Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 23.
- Ibid. 24-25
- Baker, John Marshall: a Life in Law, 12.
- R. Kent Newmyer, John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 7.
- Baker, John Marshall: a Life in Law, 26.
- Ibid. 39
- Corwin, "John Marshall," 317.
- Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, 80.
- W. Edwin Hemphill, "George Wythe, America’s First Law Professor and the teacher of Jefferson, Marshall, and Clay" (master’s thesis, Emory University, 1933), 73.
- Ibid. 74
- Ibid. 76
- Corwin, "John Marshall," 315.
- Baker, John Marshall: a Life in Law, 77.
- Corwin, "John Marshall," 318.
- Ibid. 319
- Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, 280.
- Corwin, "John Marshall," 318.
- Ibid. 322
- Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, 522.