Published Humanitas, Volume XXIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2010

Throughout the first decade of the American republic, competing claims regarding the proper interpretation of the Constitution and the application of its principles were confined primarily to the executive branch and Congress. The Supreme Court remained, for the most part, uninvolved in the resolution of constitutional questions concerning the scope of authority of the new government. The year 1801 marked the beginning of a dramatic turnabout in the role of the Court in national affairs. Thomas Jefferson, having promised to undertake a “revolution in the principles” of government, took office as the third president of the young nation. Although the legislative and executive branches of government came under the control of Jefferson’s Republican party in the election of 1800, the federal judiciary remained a bulwark of the rival Federalist party. At the head of this relatively untested third branch of government was Jefferson’s distant cousin and fellow Virginian, John Marshall. Marshall had been appointed Chief Justice of the United States by John Adams in February 1801 in one of his last acts as president. Adams, with the help of the lame-duck Federalist Congress, bolstered Marshall’s standing within the judiciary by creating several new federal court positions and filling them with party loyalists.

Clear and irreconcilable differences in the political and constitutional philosophies of Jefferson and Marshall sparked heated debate over such monumental issues as the use of judicial review
over acts of Congress and the development of the doctrine of “implied powers.” With the rise of judicial authority under Marshall’s leadership, the judiciary was inexorably drawn into the political fray. Political considerations were paramount in determining the tactics employed by both leaders in their efforts to define the proper role of the judiciary in a balanced government and the role of the national government itself within the federal system. Today, more than two centuries after the struggle over constitutional interpretation began with the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison, the debates between Jefferson and Marshall remain strikingly relevant. It is worthwhile to revisit these debates not only to shed light on the underlying factors that forged their views, but also to address the propensity of modern writers to labor under some misconceptions of what Marshall and Jefferson stood for in their day and how their legacies should be measured against today’s standards.

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