John Marshall

September 24, 1755 – July 6,1835

The life of John Marshall, founder of the modern American judiciary and longest serving Chief Justice of the United States, parallels the unfolding of the American experiment in self-government. Coming of age with the new nation, Marshall fought for independence, then served in all three branches of the federal government. During his thirty-four years as Chief Justice, Marshall made his most lasting contributions to the nation by developing the Court into what it is today—a co-equal branch of the federal government with powers to check and balance those of the executive and legislative divisions. John Marshall’s body of work strengthened a fragile early Republic, was later foundational to civil rights, and continues to uphold the Supreme Court’s authority to judge the constitutionality of state laws, acts of Congress, and those of the President.


In 1775, 19-year-old John Marshall joined his father as a Culpeper Minuteman; the following year, he transitioned to a militia within George Washington’s Continental Army.


In the 1790s, the nation was divided over its relations with warring Britain and France, and international hostilities continued into the Adams administration. When France severed diplomatic ties, John Adams, in search of peace, sent John Marshall as one of three envoys to Paris.


The framers of the U.S. Constitution spent little time defining the judicial branch. Unlike articles outlining the legislative and executive branches, Article III of the Constitution is short and lacks specificity about how a judicial branch should function. John Marshall would deduce and unveil the powers of the Court that the framers envisioned.


John Marshall was born in a cabin at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in what is now Fauquier County, Virginia. The oldest of fifteen children, Marshall was the son of Mary Randolph Keith and Thomas Marshall. Thomas, a close friend of George Washington, was a surveyor for Lord Fairfax.


John Marshall, like most of Virginia’s middle and upper classes at the turn of the 19th century, inhabited a world inextricably linked to and dependent upon the institution of slavery. While he left behind little evidence that would allow contemporary historians to fully understand his personal views on slavery, the limited information below can help us understand how Marshall interacted with a society that depended on enslaved labor to function.

Chief Justice Marshall (1755-1835) oil on canvas by Chester Harding


John Marshall Freedom Cases 

The Legacy of Chief Justice John Marshall, Cleveland Marshall Law School

Charles F. Hobson’s review of Supreme Injustice by Paul Finkelman