Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times

Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times

The remarkable story of John Marshall who, as chief justice, statesman, and diplomat, shaped the foundation of the United States.No member of America's Founding Generation had a greater impact on the Constitution and the Supreme Court than John Marshall, and no one did more to preserve the delicate unity of the fledgling United States. From the nation's founding in 1776 an...

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Title:Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times
Author:Joel Richard Paul
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Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times Reviews

  • Andrienne

    This is a page turner. I love history but unfortunately most books are told like a textbook-matter-of-fact and dry. This one is a marvelously written account with a flowing narrative of Marshall’s ascent as a frontiersman to one of the longest-serving Chief Justice. This is a book I can give away to history buffs-there’s still plenty to figure out about this great man.

    I would definitely purchase the hardcover when it comes out.

    Advance print copy provided by the publisher.

  • Jon

    "Without Precedent" is such a clever title for a book on the longest sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. John Marshall's impact on the court and more importantly our country cannot be understated.

    There are several themes to this book, for the purpose of this review I will focus on three of them.

    First, John Marshall, a cousin to Thomas Jefferson, and also a Virginia, was in many important ways a lifelong antagonist to Thomas Jefferson.

    Second, without a doubt John Marshall is one of the mo

    "Without Precedent" is such a clever title for a book on the longest sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. John Marshall's impact on the court and more importantly our country cannot be understated.

    There are several themes to this book, for the purpose of this review I will focus on three of them.

    First, John Marshall, a cousin to Thomas Jefferson, and also a Virginia, was in many important ways a lifelong antagonist to Thomas Jefferson.

    Second, without a doubt John Marshall is one of the most influential American Founders in his role as Chief Justice.

    Third, throughout his life Marshall remained dedicated to his wife Polly and his family.

    Jefferson and his cousin John Marshall were both Virginians.....and that's about where the similarities end. Marshall was a soldier during the Revolutionary War and suffered through Valley Forge and was engaged in combat. Jefferson, never was a soldier and as governor during the Revolutionary War infamously, did little to defend Virginia from the British and when the British came to Richmond he fled on horseback.

    Jefferson was born wealthy and had just about every opportunity given to him. Marshall was the oldest of several children whose family was not wealthy. Jefferson didn't initially support the Constitution, but was in France writing different people different positions of his on the Constitution. Marshall, was part of the ratifying convention in Virginia.

    Marshall was a Federalist and huge admirer of George Washington, Jefferson was the founder or co-founder of the Republican / Democratic party which was the opposition party to the Federalists.

    Jefferson was in favor of supporting France against the English. Marshall supported Washington's efforts to remain neutral.

    Jefferson died deeply in debt and lived his life above his means. Marshall became a lawyer and saved money and invested well, never having to rely on the government to bail him out like Jefferson. Rather he supported his ill wife and his 10 children well.

    Jefferson owned numerous slaves. Marshall opposed slavery (yet still owned a few slaves....).

    Marshall as Chief Justice and Jefferson as POTUS were adversaries..... Just a few of the cases where they were in conflict. Marbury v. Madison and The Treason trial of Aaron Burr are two examples of the conflict and in each one Marshall handed Jefferson a victory. In Marbury the win was that Marbury's commission to be a Justice of the Peace was indeed no good. In the treason trial Marshall found, to Jefferson's ire, that the prosecution had not proven Burr committed an overt act in the supposed conspiracy. The jury found Aaron Burr not guilty. The author points out that had Burr been convicted and hanged, it would have forever tainted Jefferson's legacy as the evidence of Burr's guilt was not there....

    Second -- John Marshall was appointed Chief Justice by John Adams almost by accident it seems. Previous to Marshall taking the bench as Chief Justice, there had already been 3 different chief justices. John Marshall unified the court. He wrote opinions and sought to get everyone on the same page / opinion. He was engaging and warm. It was almost funny to read about how through intellect and charisma Marshall one over almost all the judges that Jefferson tried to appoint to the court to oppose Marshall. In the end, most of the judges joined his opinions.

    Marshall authored numerous important legal opinions. Today he is remembered for several constitutional opinions, but there were so many others at the time that we probably more important at the time than the constitutional ones. He truly solved legal and economical challenges for the young Republic. Constitutionally speaking -- Marbury v. Madison (judicial review), McCulloch v. Maryland (necessary and proper and "we must never forget it is a constitution we are expanding), Cohens v. Virginia (supremacy clause), and Gibbons v. Ogden (commerce clause) to name a few.

    There were a slough of cases involving prize ships. Ships captured or lost to the Americans, English, French, and at times other nations. Often these cases had serious political ramification. Marshall often looked to international law to solve these puzzles. He was / became a respected expert in international law, something that he is not recognized for today.

    Marshall invented / set precedent on how the federal government worked with the tribes. His opinions were generally supportive of the tribes. In one, Worcester v. Georgia Marshall ruled in favor of the Cherokee and then President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the ruling.....

    Marshall's opinions were insightful and supportive of creating the legal framework for a young, growing nation. His opinions had a great impact on keeping the country together.

    Finally, in his person life I was touched about his life-long devotion to his wife Polly. Polly was very young when they married and spent most of her married life mentally unstable. Nevertheless, Marshall doted on her and worried about her health and happiness all of his life. In death, he would often walk to her grave and visit her.

    While I highly enjoyed this book, I will admit that if you don't have an interest in early American history this book might not be for you.

  • Leo

    Well told story of a storied life which made significant contributions to our government and has, and continues to, make significant impacts in our lives as Americans. The book is well worth your time if you are interested in most all subjects revolving around the revolutionary war time period.

  • Diana

    When I think about Founding Fathers, I usually only think about the Presidents plus Benjamin Franklin. It turns out John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from John Adams through Andrew Jackson (34 years--the record for Chief Justices) is as important as any of them in the forming of our nation.

    This is the second book I have listened to about Marshall, and it far outshines the other (What Kind of Nation by James F Simon). First of all, it covers much more of Marshall's biography, prov

    When I think about Founding Fathers, I usually only think about the Presidents plus Benjamin Franklin. It turns out John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from John Adams through Andrew Jackson (34 years--the record for Chief Justices) is as important as any of them in the forming of our nation.

    This is the second book I have listened to about Marshall, and it far outshines the other (What Kind of Nation by James F Simon). First of all, it covers much more of Marshall's biography, providing more personal context for his political life. Second, Paul couches his statement and especially his judgments in historical fact and context, sharing the common narratives, both pro and con, about each topic he discusses. Third, Paul goes as far back as necessary to fully contextualize each important case or event he discusses so that the listener can understand the how we got here, what it means and where it leads us of each of the momentous decisions Marshall wrote. So I learned as much, well, more actually, about law as I did about Marshall himself.

    Definitely worth listening to. Fascinating history that has implications up through today.

  • Jean

    This is a major new biography of John Marshall (1755-1835). Marshall was President John Adams’ Secretary of State. As he was going out of office, Adams appointed John Marshall as the Chief of the Supreme Court. Even though Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice, he was the one that transformed the Court into its current role and one of the key balances of power in the government. Paul covers Marshall’s early life and reveals him as a man. Of course, he also goes into depth discussing his role on

    This is a major new biography of John Marshall (1755-1835). Marshall was President John Adams’ Secretary of State. As he was going out of office, Adams appointed John Marshall as the Chief of the Supreme Court. Even though Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice, he was the one that transformed the Court into its current role and one of the key balances of power in the government. Paul covers Marshall’s early life and reveals him as a man. Of course, he also goes into depth discussing his role on the Supreme Court. Marshall was the longest serving Chief Justice. More than any other biography of Marshall, Paul goes into detail about Marshall the man.

    The book is well written and meticulously researched. Paul attempts to be unbiased as far as Marshall is concerned but not so for President Thomas Jefferson. The book is easy to read with a flowing narrative. Paul’s writing style makes complex legal cases easy to understand for the layman. I found this to be one of the best biographies on Marshall that I have read to date. If one is interested in the Supreme Court, this is a must-read book.

    Joel Richard Paul is a Professor of International Economic Law and Constitutional Law at the University of California Hastings Law School in San Francisco, California.

    I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is just over seventeen hours. Fred Sanders does a good job narrating the book. Sanders is a stage and film actor as well as an audiobook narrator.

  • David Eppenstein

    I do not imagine many biographies of John Marshall bother much with anything beyond his tenure on the Supreme Court since that is where Marshall's mark on our history was made. This book reveals the error in any such effort. While a good deal of attention is paid to the cases Marshall used to establish the independence and necessity of the third branch of government this author devotes nearly half of his book to what got Marshall to the Court and what made him the man that was suited to the task

    I do not imagine many biographies of John Marshall bother much with anything beyond his tenure on the Supreme Court since that is where Marshall's mark on our history was made. This book reveals the error in any such effort. While a good deal of attention is paid to the cases Marshall used to establish the independence and necessity of the third branch of government this author devotes nearly half of his book to what got Marshall to the Court and what made him the man that was suited to the task set before him.

    To begin with there is repeated mention of the conflicts Marshall had with his cousin Thomas Jefferson and it is clear that this author does not particularly care for our third president, an opinion I share with the author. I consider Jefferson our first sleazy president and this author provides even more reasons for me to hold this opinion. I thought I knew enough from other readings but Prof. Paul supplies even more. He starts with the family basis for the animosity between these two esteemed relatives. It seems that a female forebear of Marshall fell out of favor with her father who disinherited her and the inheritance that would have made Marshall's life comparable in comfort to Jefferson's went to TJ's branch of the family and was enjoyed by TJ. Marshall was born in a log cabin the oldest of 15 children and they were poor as dirt. Nevertheless, Marshall made something of himself and did it the hard way while his cousin TJ never had to work a day in his life or struggle for anything. That Marshall didn't become some sort of twisted bitter and ambitious person is a tribute to the man's character. In fact, at the end of the book the author compares the character and lives of these two men in a fairly objective manner and the result is not surprising.

    In addition to revealing more of the important aspects of Marshall's personal development as well as the direction of his career the book also supplies detail about our history that I have not found in any other history that I've read. The book trace Marshall's career through the events of our history in which Marshall was a participant. These events are among the minor events that appear in every U.S. history but never in any depth. Marshall was one of delegates sent to France by Adams to negotiate a settlement with France over the Quasi-War. As a result of that Marshall was directly involved in the infamous XYZ Affair and for the first time we have a history that names who X,Y, and Z actually were and what exactly they did. Much to his dismay this affair made Marshall a national celebrity when all he wanted to do was go home to his nearly invalid wife and return to his law practice. Unfortunately Marshall's sense of duty and his loyalty and devotion to the men that steered his career to advantage made this impossible. He was repeatedly pulled back into the national political scene by Washington and then by Adams with the end result being his appointment as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

    Surprisingly, a bit more than half the book is devoted to the cases that insured Marshall's place in our history. What is surprising is that the author is a law professor and this portion of the book is not mind-numbingly boring. To the contrary, the professor lays out these cases in a way that even a layman will appreciate. In each case the author gives the backstory along with some conjecture of what may have been going on behind the scenes even suggesting that Marshall may have suborned perjury in the Marbury case. The author also then identifies the issue of the case and the decision and what the rationale for the decision may have been. He also examines the political implications of the decisions. What the author also credits Marshall for is his ability to build consensus among the justices to achieve an astonishing number of unanimous decisions among justices with dissimilar personalities, backgrounds, and politics. In sum, this is probably one of the best biographies I have ever read and definitely worth reading if you're interested in our history.

  • Matt

    In my years of reading American history, I have always found biographies of the Founding Fathers of greatest interest to me. Not only were these men full of grit and determination in the face of their British oppressors, but their decisions proved to be some of the most important for the new America, many of which are still held firmly in the political system today. While the Fathers worked to create the central document of rules and limitations—The U.S. Constitution—this was only part of the ru

    In my years of reading American history, I have always found biographies of the Founding Fathers of greatest interest to me. Not only were these men full of grit and determination in the face of their British oppressors, but their decisions proved to be some of the most important for the new America, many of which are still held firmly in the political system today. While the Fathers worked to create the central document of rules and limitations—The U.S. Constitution—this was only part of the rules that would govern the country for over two centuries. Joel Richard Paul effectively argues throughout this tome that the Rule of Law was central to a strong republic and no man helped shape that legal tenet more than John Marshall, soldier, politician, diplomat, and long-serving Chief of the United States Supreme Court. Paul’s detailed biography not only helps the reader better understand early America, but also its growth through important legal and political decisions that came from the Court. Not only was Marshall an essential part of early American jurisprudence, but his ability to create conformity amongst the Justices of the Court proved not only that he was persuasive in his positions, but also worked to show the American public that the law can—and should—supersede political divisions. Paul’s thoroughness in presenting much of Marshall’s life serves not only to educate the reader, but help provide a better understanding of America’s early steps toward being a country based on an enshrined set of laws.

    Paul spends the first half of the book laying the groundwork for the great legal career of John Marshall. Unlike some more modern men, those who would one day be given the moniker Founding Fathers seemed to have many important positions in colonial America. After laying some of the groundwork of Marshall’s ancestry—where the reader discovers that Marshall and Thomas Jefferson were second cousins—the narrative turns to a brief discussion of the Revolutionary War, where Marshall served in the Continental Army under General Washington. Marshall may not have been a war hero in the most conventional sense, but his understanding of the political goings-on and the legal ramifications of the colonies’ desire to secede would prove valuable in the years to come. Working to help craft some aspects of the constitutional documents, Marshall used some of his legal abilities to ensure that the new Republic would not be left on shaky ground. Proving himself not only to be a sharp legal mind, Marshall was sent to France to help broker deals to solidify American allies while Britain was still seen as the enemy to much of the European countries. While stationed there, Marshall developed some strong social friendships, which Paul posits may have been his way of forgetting the family he left back in America. Marshall’s persuasive ways were not able to cement long-lasting agreements with France, but did help earn him his first formal position in the new American Government. John Adams, who followed Washington to the position of President of the United States offered Marshall the coveted position of Secretary of State. This Cabinet post in its original form held more prestige than it does today, equating to a quasi-presidential role for America on the world stage. With open animosity still present with Britain and a yet to be buttonholed France, Marshall utilised his abilities to strengthen America’s position on the world scene amongst the European superpowers. During this time, America began to show some early signs of strain within its own borders. Divisions between key Founding Fathers saw two political parties emerge: the Federalists and the Republicans. While both labeled as right-of-centre by the author, Federalists held strong traditional views with the country as a whole serving as the base unit of decision making, while Republicans sought ongoing change for Americans and saw the state as the political unit in this new country. Clashes would ensue and vilification of those on the other side of the divide proved to be a regular game. As Adams saw his presidential power waning with the constant attacks by Thomas Jefferson, he chose to offer Marshall one of the most powerful positions possible, that of Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Marshall waffled for a time, as the Court was seen as a weak body on which no man wanted to serve for long. That said, there was the chance to shape the Court and interpret many of the new laws being drafted and implemented by the state and federal governments. Marshall did acquiesce, taking the position in hopes that he could make something of it. How little he knew of what was to come in the decades that followed.

    Marshall seemed to come into his own after his appointment to the Supreme Court, even though he was hesitant to accept the role from the outset. Marshall saw the work as difficult and taxing, but also was able to utilise his sharp mind to interpret laws effectively, laying the groundwork for major legal decisions, some of which still hold firm. Paul has aptly named this biography, for many of the decisions that Marshall made (or others on the Court wrote) were without any form of precedent—the idea of a previous court ruling that could be used as the foundation of a judicial decision—thereby allowing (forcing?) the Court to forge into new territory. Paul does delve into a small discussion of the perspective that Marshall had for the Court, an active or interpretative judicial branch, which was substantiated by the comments of others. Some saw Marshall leading the Court to read things into laws or the US Constitution that may not have been present, thereby creating new laws or unintended interpretations. Others argued that Marshall simply followed what was in the law and forced the lawmakers to be bound by what they had passed in their legislative assemblies. Either way, Paul argues effectively that Marshall saw the Constitution has a ‘living tree’ or always evolving, which may help the reader and historians better understand some of his interpretations of legal matters. Through the latter portion of the biography, Paul develops the narrative of Marshall as head of the Court, deciding many important cases that would help shape the young Republic, including: states rights, private land rights, legal entitlement of the Indigenous (read: Indian at the time) population, slavery, and the limits of Executive Power. Numerous cases are listed throughout the narrative, some with great backstories, to help the reader better understand those cases that made their way before the Court and how Marshall sought to interpret them. Interspersed within the cases, Paul develops the historical setting and changes of presidents, some of whom admired Marshall’s work while others sought to vilify him. Marshall remained on the Court for over thirty years and, while holding the judicial and executive branches of government apart, could be seen to inject the odd comment into the goings-on that shaped America. One aspect that historians and biographers can only ponder and not substantiate is the number of unanimous decisions that came from the Court. Marshall may have started with numerous other Federalist justices, but that number waned the longer he remained on the Court. However, the staggering amount of unanimous decisions seemed to continue. As an aside for those who are not aware, discussions of the US Supreme Court justices when they meet in conference to decide cases are neither public nor are they documented for historical review. Therefore, it is all a mystery as to how Marshall might have developed so many strong-minded legal scholars to come together on hundreds of cases. When Marshall could no longer ignore his health concerns, he was forced to leave the Court, having served his country for decades. As with many men of the time, his decline was swift and he left an indelible mark on American history. As Paul effectively argues, no matter one’s political stripe, the country mourned the loss of John Marshall, who served as the compass for the Union leading up to some of the most tumultuous times that would befall the immature Republic.

    Joel Richard Paul provides a thorough and educational biography of John Marshall, permitting the reader to better understand this man who shaped early America through his dedication and attention to detail. Paul develops a strong and chronological narrative that permits the reader to see just how varied Marshall’s life came to be and how he put his all into every job he was assigned. As with many other biographies of the Founding Fathers, change was ever-present and the evolution of the country occurred with each decision made. Marshall found himself in the middle of most of it, be it as a soldier, diplomat, cabinet secretary, and Supreme Court Justice. His ideas sought not only to shape the new country, but also proved useful in helping to build a foundation of a country that was seeking to differentiate itself from its past colonial oppressors (the British). Paul offers some great detail in his narrative, but also leaves many aspects of the story open for interpretation or future exploration. It is apparent that a detailed analysis of Marshall’s legal decisions could take up an entire volume, as could fleshing out more of the early years that Marshall lived, before he emerged on the battlefield for the Continental Army. Of interest to some will be Paul’s exploration in the latter portion of the final chapter of the lives of the two cousins, Marshall and Thomas Jefferson. How diametrically opposed the two men could be, yet how quintessential they were to the advancement of the Republic. Paul has done a wonderful job here and leaves the reader wanting more, which tends to happen for those who love the era and enjoy a variety of perspectives. Highly recommended for those with the patience to delve into this biography, which mixes politics, history, and legal matters in equal measure.

    Kudos, Mr. Paul, for such a wonderful piece of work. I can only hope that I locate some of your other work soon to better understand other topics that you have taken the time to synthesise.

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  • David Dunlap

    Well-done portrait of the life and work of the 4th Chief Justice of the United States, the longest-serving (to date) and arguably the most influential. Paul is especially helpful in explaining the reasons for the friction between Marshall and his cousin Thomas Jefferson. He also brings out the crucial role Marshall played in the development of the Bill of Rights, suggesting that he, no less than James Madison, deserves to be thought of as their 'Father.' Marshall is shown a devoted husband (alth

    Well-done portrait of the life and work of the 4th Chief Justice of the United States, the longest-serving (to date) and arguably the most influential. Paul is especially helpful in explaining the reasons for the friction between Marshall and his cousin Thomas Jefferson. He also brings out the crucial role Marshall played in the development of the Bill of Rights, suggesting that he, no less than James Madison, deserves to be thought of as their 'Father.' Marshall is shown a devoted husband (although Paul suggests he may not have been entirely faithful to his sickly wife Polly, he does not draw any conclusions on the matter), an unassuming man (sometimes greeting visitors at his front door with broom and dustpan) with a fine sense of humor and a love for children and games, and, perhaps most importantly, sufficiently charismatic and so dedicated to consensus that a surprising number of decisions from the Marshall Court were unanimous (as well as written by the CJ himself). (Given the contentious political atmosphere at the time, this is a remarkable achievement!) As a professor of constitutional and international law, the author is perfectly qualified to demonstrate the importance of many of Marshall's decisions -- and is not averse to pointing out places in which he was inconsistent, manufacturing principles out of whole cloth, even (in one instance) perhaps to the point of suborning perjury to obtain his desired result. (In fact, Paul is perhaps too good, too thorough, in his legal analysis: I sometimes found myself bogged down in the latter half of the book. Hence my 'deduction' of one, perhaps even two stars in my rating.) Marshall's practicality is constantly contrasted with Jefferson's more idealistic point of view (as Paul points out, "No Marshall biography can avoid taking sides in their conflicted relationship."). It is a measure of Paul's success that he makes a strong case, clearly coming down on the side of Marshall...and manages to persuade his readers (at least *this* one!) to do so as well.

  • Bruce

    Joel Richard Paul has written an interesting account of the life of our fourth Chief Justice and the man

    who made the federal judiciary the power that it is. If John Marshall had not been in that position

    from 1801 to 1835 who knows what the federal courts would be like and what power they might have.

    Certainly less if his critics had their way.

    It's a readable book that even non-legal scholars might understand as the cases of the Marshall

    court like Marbury vs. Madison, Fletcher vs. Peck, Gibbons

    Joel Richard Paul has written an interesting account of the life of our fourth Chief Justice and the man

    who made the federal judiciary the power that it is. If John Marshall had not been in that position

    from 1801 to 1835 who knows what the federal courts would be like and what power they might have.

    Certainly less if his critics had their way.

    It's a readable book that even non-legal scholars might understand as the cases of the Marshall

    court like Marbury vs. Madison, Fletcher vs. Peck, Gibbons vs. Ogden are laid out so the lay man can

    understand the issues. Marshall's considerable career as trial attorney in Virginia as well as his

    contributions as a Representative in Congress and second Secretary of State in the John Adams administration are also discussed throughly.

    Unfortunately the book is written from the point of view that with Marshall and his bitter rival

    Thomas Jefferson who was a distant cousin it comes off as a personal spat. It got good and personal at times and it's written like Marshall good, Jefferson bad. Both had their strengths and

    weaknesses and both made contributions that have lasted to our American history and jurisprudence.

    The seminal event of Marshall's life was his Revolutionary war service. Marshall was at Valley

    Forge and he formed a lasting attachment to his commander in chief George Washington. He was

    the first Washington biographer, one of the few in their state of Virginia to stick with Washington

    and the Federalists as most of the state went with Jefferson and his Democrat-Republicans.

    Marshall never forget while he was at Valley Forge and fought in many of the battles Jefferson lived

    pretty good in Philadelphia while writing the Declaration of Independence and as Governor of Virginia fled in the nick of time from Monticello from British redcoats. I think some have been

    pretty rough on Tom, it wasn't his finest hour. But would they have wanted him to be captured

    and almost certainly hung if he had been? Still a lot of his critics took that as a good excuse for

    snickering.

    Although the narrative is a bit too personal this is still a fine account of the life of John Marshall.

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