Asked who the most influential Founding Father was, many younger Americans, still in the flush of “Hamilton”-mania, might nominate their new hero, rap lyrics and all. An older generation might stick with the steady stand-by, George Washington. A certain brainy subset – its standard-bearers being the unlikely duo of John F. Kennedy and Christopher Hitchens – would put forward Thomas Jefferson. And yet for two centuries, American historians and constitutional scholars have championed Jefferson’s cousin, John Marshall, whose term as the country’s fourth Chief Justice lasted from 1801 to 1835 and revolutionized the role and status of the nation’s highest court. This was the prominence Jean Edward Smith sought to bestow on Marshall in his magnificent 1996 biography “John Marshall: Definer of a Nation,” and it’s certainly the narrative through-line in Joel Richard Paul’s new book, Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times.
Paul is professor of constitutional and international law at the University of California Hastings Law School, and time and again, this is the standout strength of his book. He brings to Marshall’s career exactly the kind of perspective that a legal scholar can best provide – and that’s often needed, especially considering the sheer amount of legend that’s grown up around Marshall the legal titan.Some of that legend is entirely factual, of course. Marshall served as Chief Justice for 34 years and so thoroughly dominated its business that most of its rulings were unanimous, and many of those rulings have been quoted and referenced so many times since their original publication that they seem as much a part of American jurisprudence as the Constitution itself. Paul can be skeptical about those rulings, including the most famous ruling of them all, Marbury v. Madison; Paul rightly comments that “Marshall wove together his decision so artfully that few people noticed the flaws in its stitching” – noting that the Court actually had no jurisdiction to rule on the case, Paul calls the ruling “merely gratuitous and arguably improper.” This kind of skepticism is refreshing because it’s so rare; Marshall tends to prompt the same kind of hagiography that’s lavished on most of the Founding Fathers. And even as tough a biographer as Paul yields to the temptation – unfortunately, on the subject that least deserves it: slavery.