Review of “John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved The Union” by Harlow Giles Unger

Unger takes the interesting approach of illuminating the contributions of John Marshall to the protection and preservation of the Constitution by describing the many ways in which Thomas Jefferson sought to subvert it. This book will educate readers about the actual operations of the early republic, rather than the usual “patriotic” myths fed to students of history. Although revered as a “Founding Father,” Jefferson was in truth often interested more in advancing his own ideas and ambition than in honoring the Constitution.

cover_john_marshall

Marshall’s legacy as the 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was the assurance of “the integrity and eminence of the Constitution and the federal government.” Marshall, who was the longest serving Chief Justice in American history, signed over 1,180 decisions, writing 549 of them. As Unger shows:

In the course of his Supreme Court leadership Marshall stood at the center of the most riveting – and most important – courtroom dramas in the nation’s formative years. Case by case he defined, asserted, and when necessary, invented the authority he and the Court needed to render justice, stabilize the federal government, and preserve the Union and its Constitution.”

Because of Marshall’s efforts, the judiciary became an equal branch of the federal government. But it was not a predetermined outcome. When Jefferson didn’t get his way, he used every means at his disposal to try to vitiate the judiciary. To his chagrin, however, even when he appointed his own men to the bench, they became so impressed with Marshall’s erudition, devotion to the law, and integrity, that one by one, they became Marshall men instead of Jefferson men.

To this day, the decisions written or influenced by Marshall continue to shape the American polity. From his opinion in Marbury v. Madison, in which he established the independence of the federal judiciary, to his insistence in U.S. v. Burr that no one, not even the president, is above the law, Marshall made a lasting and positive imprint on the character of the country. And while Jefferson continued to insist, even when retired, that the federal and state governments represented two independent and equal sovereigns, Marshall, in McCulloch v. Maryland, set forth the precedent that state action may not impede valid constitutional exercises of power by the Federal government. The United States would be a radically different place had it not been for “the great,the good, the wise” John Marshall, as he was described by another famous and well-respected Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Story.

Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall

Discussion: One reason I like Unger very much as a historian is that he has always been able to avoid portraying the Founding Fathers in sepia tones with golden halos. He is not loathe to point out, for example, that Jefferson was a vicious man who operated sub rosa through lackeys to destroy the careers and lives of anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. He is not reluctant to provide evidence for how much of the Declaration of Independence was lifted by Jefferson from other writings, such as those of John Locke, or how pusillanimously Jefferson behaved when the fighting broke out in the American Revolution. He also takes Jefferson to task for his treasonous acts against President John Adams when Jefferson himself was serving as Vice President. (This includes the concealment of evidence by Jefferson that would exonerate Adams from charges of impeachment, a movement for which Jefferson was leading the chorus.) And he doesn’t hesitate to speak of Jefferson’s bribes to members of the press to calumniate his opponents; his threats to start a Civil War if he were not elected in 1800; his blatant disdain of the Constitution when it got in the way of what he wanted to do; and his attempts to emasculate the judiciary so that it could not rule against any of his decisions.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Jefferson largely escapes such a close look at his behavior because of the need for the American narrative to show him as a great man, who joined other great men to create a great nation. Even the recent DNA evidence of Jefferson’s long-time affair with Sally Hemings has been downplayed, and those who acknowledge it are quick to point out Jefferson’s long-standing relationship with her, as if his alleged monogamy would make up for his taking up with a fifteen-year old girl when he was forty-six, a girl who was in his care as a slave, unable not to do his bidding. The entire time she was his mistress, she continued to serve as his slave, in addition to being pregnant almost continuously when he was in town. She was not even freed by his will when he died. But collective memory serves to establish moral, political, and social lessons, and to help form an understanding of who we are as a people. Truth can often fall by the wayside.

Unger, however, has a respect for facts.

He also has a keen eye for those early figures in our history who displayed more character, more nuance, more courage, and more loyalty to the aims of the young country. One of those was John Marshall. This well-written story will keep your attention from beginning to end. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2014

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