History of John Marshall

Our school’s namesake, Chief Justice John Marshall. Born on September 24, 1755 in Germantown, Virginia, he was the oldest of fifteen children. He lived in a rural, rustic area of Virginia on his parents’ farm. Marshall received very little formal education in his early years. However, after fighting in the Revolutionary War, he did attend William and Mary College in Virginia.

Marshall became a lawyer in 1781 and served in the Virginia Legislature. He was part of Virginia’s ratifying convention which adopted the Federal Constitution in 1788. Though President George Washington offered Marshall the position of Attorney General, he refused it. However, President John Adams appointed him Secretary of State in 1800. Marshall became the fourth Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court one year later. 

John Marshall was perhaps one of the most important figures in our country’s history. In the Washington Post on September 26, 2005, columnist George Will called Marshall “the most important American never to have been president.” He established the Supreme Court’s power to declare laws unconstitutional. Also, he clarified the relationship between the states and the national government by allowing the court to override a state’s opinion.

Arguably, Marshall’s most important contribution was helping to establish the U.S. Constitution as a legal document, one that is interpreted by the Courts and not by Congress. An example of this is Marshall’s 1832 ruling in Worcester v. Georgia. Congress had passed the “Indian Removal Act” and intended to remove the Cherokee from their land. When the Cherokee took their case to the Supreme Court, Marshall made the removal laws invalid by ruling that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation; they would have to agree to the removal by signing a treaty with the government. (Despite Marshall’s ruling, President Jackson still removed the Cherokee from their land without their consent, resulting in the “Trail of Tears.”)
After nearly 35 years as Chief Justice, Marshall died in 1835 at eighty years old. He died in Philadelphia. Quite poetically, to quote George Will again, “The Liberty Bell, while tolling his death, cracked. It has never rung since.” After 250 years, the evidence of John Marshall’s influence on our country is great, so we should be proud to remember him by our school’s name.