Virginia lawyer William Wirt once likened John Marshall’s style of reasoning to a sunrise. When Marshall explained his opinions, wrote Wirt, the “eloquence” consisted not of rhetorical flourishes but of the “easy gradations” by which he moved toward his conclusions:
every sentence is progressive; every idea sheds new light on the subject . . . the dawn advances in easy but unremitting peace; the subject opens gradually on the view; until, rising in high relief, all its native colors and proportions, the argument is consummated by the conviction of the delighted [reader].1
Others emphasized the “simplicity” of Marshall’s easygoing nature—including even such political opponents as Thomas Jefferson, who complained that Marshall’s “lax lounging manners” made him “popular with the bulk of the people.”2
His down-to-earth style and skill at dispassionate reasoning served him well during his three and a half decades on the federal bench. As chief justice of the United States from 1801 to 1835, Marshall presided over scores of lawsuits that established critical precedents on a vast array of constitutional issues, decisions that set the terms of legal debate for generations to follow. Because his writings took the form of judicial opinions, his work is not as widely read as that of other founding-era figures such as Jefferson or James Madison. Yet his intellectual legacy is, in some ways, more profound and more enduring, particularly in defending the Constitution’s most important attribute—its creation of an ingenious legal structure known as “dual sovereignty”—in principled terms, even when heated political debates distracted some of his contemporaries from the importance of this singular innovation.
A New Constitutional Principle
Born in Virginia in 1755, Marshall was a generation younger than George Washington, the man he idolized and of whom he wrote a five-volume biography. During the Revolution, Marshall served in the infantry, seeing action at Brandywine, Norfolk, and elsewhere, and attaining the rank of captain. During a furlough from the army in 1779, he began studying law under George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who had tutored Jefferson years before. Wythe was one of the state’s most prominent attorneys, and, like most legal thinkers of that period, was steeped in the natural law ideas of philosophers such as John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Samuel von Pufendorf, as well as the common law system inherited from Great Britain. The tension between these two systems of thought would form the background for many of the most contentious controversies of Marshall’s career. . . .