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Trace the influence and ideas of the Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and the importance of the doctrine of judicial review as manifested in Marbury v. Madison (1803).


Plaque on the Wall of the Supreme Court Building
Plaque on the Wall of the Supreme Court Building

Topics on the Page
John Marshall and the Supreme Court
Marbury v. Madison
Cohens v. Virginia
McCulloch v. Maryland
Gibbons v. Ogden
Cases Involving Native Americans
  • Worcester v. Georgia
  • Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia
Other Cases


Focus Question: What made Supreme Court Justice John Marshall and the Marbury v. Madison case so important?


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John Marshall and the Supreme Court


external image Quill_and_ink.pngJohn Marshall was born in Fauquier, Virginia. He was not born to a rich family and received little formal education. He fought in the American Revolutionary War and studied law briefly from1779–80 before setting up a practice and getting elected to the Virginia legislature in 1782.

Female_Rose.pngThat same year he married Mary Willis Amberafter a brief courtship.

Marshall was an advocate of the Federalists' position on the need for a strong centralized government, one that was supreme over the states. In 1795, he was asked by President George Washington to become the US Attorney General, but he declined because of his financial problems. As a Virginian Federalist, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1800, but left when President John Adams appointed him chief justice of the US Supreme Court (1801–35).[1]

During his 34 years on the court, the ‘Marshall court’ profoundly shaped the law and government of the US by testing and defining the powers of the newly adopted US Constitution. Marshall made the Supreme Court a place of honor, for prior to Marshall’s appointment, most judges worked to be on the state supreme court.[2]

Perhaps his most important decision (although he had many) was Marbury v. Madison in 1803, in which he laid down the notion of ‘judicial review’
  • Judicial Review holds that that federal courts had the final say in deciding whether congressional legislation was constitutional. This gave the judicial branch of the federal government the final say on the constitutionality of laws passed by congress.
John_Marshall.jpg
John Marshall

    • In various other decisions over the years, Marshall enforced his view of a supreme federal government over the states and their legislatures, such as McCulloch v. Maryland.
      • Presiding over the treason trial of Aaron Burr in 1807, he went out of his way to attack the anti-Federalist positions of President Thomas Jefferson.
        • Due to this and other reasons, Marshall was often the focus of political controversy. Autocratic in his supremacy of the court, it was he who imposed the custom of issuing a single majority opinion.[3]

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia cracked when ringing for his funeral.

John Marshall was appointed US Chief Justice in 1801 to 1835 in which he radically changed the power of this governmental position. It was said that the Judiciary Branch was failed on its purpose. Marshall help the Chief Justice position become the sole mouthpiece of the court. Most of Marshall's opinions of the constitution are what changed this branch of government. Marshall made the US Chief of Justice equal to the power of the President in the Executive Branch of government.


lesson_plan_icon.jpgProject for Students on Marshall's Legacy


The Marbury v. Madison Case (1803)

William Marbury
William Marbury

  • "In Marbury v. Madison, which was decided two years after his elevation to the bench, he decided that it was the duty of the court to disregard any act of Congress, and, therefore, a fortiori any act of a legislature of one of the states, which the court thought contrary to the Federal Constitution."[5]

primary_sources.PNGMarshall's Opinion in Marbury v. Madison

See also, Judiciary Act of 1789 for more on the development of judicial power

lesson_plan_icon.jpg Sample Lesson Plans:

Multimedia.pngMarbury v. Madison on PBS

Multimedia.pngMarbury v. Madison

timeline2_rus.svg.pngTimeline of Marbury V. Madison

The Cohens v. Virginia Case (1821)


  • "In Cohens v. Virginia, in spite of the contention of Thomas Jefferson and the then prevalent school of political thought that it was contrary to the Constitution for a person to bring one of the states of the United States, though only as an appellee, into a court of justice, he held that Congress could lawfully pass an act which permitted a person who was convicted in a state court, to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, if he alleged that the state act under which he was convicted conflicted with the Federal Constitution or with an act of Congress."[6]

primary_sources.PNGMarshall's Opinion in Cohens v. Virginia

The McCulloch v. Maryland Case (1819)


  • "In McCulloch v. Maryland, though admitting that the Federal government is one of delegated powers and cannot exercise any power not expressly given in the Constitution, he laid down the rule that Congress in the exercise of a delegated power has a wide latitude in the choice of means, not being confined in its choice of means to those which must be used if the power is to be exercised at all."[7]

  • "The decision in McCulloch v. Maryland, by leaving Congress unhampered in the choice of means to execute its delegated powers, made it possible for the Federal government to accomplish the ends of its existence. "Let the end be legitimate", said Marshall in the course of its opinion, "let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional."[9]

primary_sources.PNGMarshall's Opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland

The Gibbons v. Ogden Case (1824)


  • "In Gibbons v. Ogden, he held that when the power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce was conferred by the Constitution on the Federal government, the word "commerce" included not only the exchange of commodities, but the means by which interstate and foreign intercourse was carried on, and therefore that Congress had the power to license vessels to carry goods and passengers between the states, and an act of one of the states making a regulation which interfered with such regulation of Congress was, pro tanto, of no effect. It will be seen that in the first two cases he established the Supreme Court as the final interpreter of the Constitution."[8]

  • "If the decision in McCulloch v. Maryland gave vigor to all Federal power, the decision in Gibbons v. Ogden, by giving the Federal government control over the means by which interstate and foreign commerce is carried on, preserved the material prosperity of the country. The decision recognizes what the framers of the Constitution recognized, namely that the United States is an economic union, and that business which is national should be under national, not state, control."[10]
Multimedia.pngGibbons V. Ogden Case Summary
primary_sources.PNGMarshall's Opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden

Cases Involving Native Americans


Worcester v. Georgia (1832)

Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia (1832)

Other Cases


Fletcher v. Peck (1810)


primary_sources.PNGJustice Johnson's Concurring Opinion

Works Cited:
[1] (2007). John Marshall. Retrieved April 11, 2007, from U.S. Supreme Court Media Web site: http://www.oyez.org/justices/john_marshall/
[2] Dixon, R (2006). John Marshall (1755-1835). Retrieved April 11, 2007, from From Revolution to Reconstruction Web site: http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/B/jmarshall/marsh.htm
[3] (1803). Marbury v. Madison (1803). Retrieved April 11, 2007, from usinfo.state.gov Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/facts/democrac/9.htm
[4] (2007). John Marshall. Retrieved April 11, 2007, from ushistory.org Web site: http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/served/marshall.html

[5-10] http://www.nndb.com/people/979/000049832/