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This Day in History: John Marshall, the Liberty Bell, & a life well lived

On this day in 1835, city bells toll as a funeral procession for Chief Justice John Marshall makes its way down Philadelphia streets. Some reports say that the Liberty Bell cracked on that day, although the story has never been proven.

Marshall was one of the nation’s early Chief Justices, and his tenure established the Court as we think of it today. But do you know the rest of this Patriot’s story?

The future Chief Justice grew up in Virginia, where George Washington had helped his father to find work as a surveyor. Marshall was raised in a family that valued learning, hard work, and pursuit of opportunity. Although his father began life modestly, he ended life as one of the largest landowners in Virginia. Marshall grew up watching and internalizing these values.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Marshall was an early supporter of the Patriot cause. He served in the Virginia state militia and the Continental Army during the Revolution. He was at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. He wintered with Washington at Valley Forge. When his enlistment was up, he wanted to continue, but the Virginia legislature was slow to raise additional troops. So he enrolled in a series of law courses at the College of William and Mary. After he was admitted to the bar, he tried (again) to return to military service. But he was still an officer with no men to command! He decided to resign and to court the woman who would become his wife.

“I had formed a strong attachment to the young lady whom I afterwards married,” he later wrote, “and, as we had more officers than soldiers, thought I might without violating the duty I owed my country, pay some attention to my future prospects in life.”

During the course of the next few decades, Marshall would work as a lawyer, serve in the Virginia legislature, and advocate for ratification of the U.S. Constitution. He was an ambassador to France during the so-called XYZ Affair. At the urging of Washington, he ran for Congress and was elected. He was a Secretary of State for John Adams. Finally, he was appointed to the Supreme Court, just as Adams was leaving office.

That final appointment is what he is best known for today.

One landmark case that came before his Court was the case of Marbury v. Madison. That case deserves its own post. Marshall had personal knowledge of the events in question, because they occurred while he was Secretary of State. Would modern rules require him to recuse himself? Nevertheless, the court’s ruling in that case established the concept of “judicial review.”

In other words, the Court has the power to say if a law is unconstitutional. “It is emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is,” Marshall concluded.

He wasn’t necessarily wrong. Should the Court look the other way if it sees a blatant constitutional violation? On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson later made an interesting observation. He noted that the “constitution, on this hypothesis is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they please.”

Either way, Marshall certainly made his mark. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes concluded that “if American law were to be represented by a single figure, sceptic and worshipper alike would agree without dispute that the figure could be but one alone, and that one John Marshall.”

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