Judicial Nationalism and the Marshall Court

John Marshall

The Marshall Court strengthened the role of the federal government through the doctrine of National Supremacy & defined its role as final arbiter in all appellate cases.

John Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, serving from 1801 until his death in 1835. The Marshall Court coincided with the early years of the American Republic and helped to define the scope of the federal judiciary, a movement often called Judicial Nationalism. Marshall’s view of nationalism, broad construction of the Constitution, property rights, and the supremacy of the federal government versus the concept of “states’ rights” strengthened the role of the national government and more particularly the appellate function of the high court. In 1861 President Lincoln turned to Marshall’s decisions highlighting national supremacy and national sovereignty to develop the legal eloquence needed in order to answer a secessionist South.

Defining the Role of the Supreme Court in the Early 19th Century

Marshall’s contention that one function of the court was to determine the constitutionality of federal laws began with the landmark decision resulting from Marbury v Madison (1803). This decision enunciated the doctrine of Judicial Review. The court’s power to assess the constitutionality of laws passed by the state legislatures began with Marshall’s decision in Fletcher v Peck (1810), also known as the Yazoo Land Company case. In this decision, the Marshall Court voided a Georgia law on the basis of the contract clause in the Constitution.

In the 1819 case Dartmouth College v Woodward the Marshall Court upheld the legality of a charter, issued to the college in 1769 by King George III, based on the contract clause. In this case, the New Hampshire state court upheld the contention of the state legislature and several college trustees to abrogate the original charter and bring the institution under public control. The Supreme Court reversed this decision.

Two Virginia cases rounded out the Supreme Court’s role as the final arbiter in legal appeals. In Martin v Hunter’s Lessee (1816) the high court declared that state court decisions can be appealed to the Supreme Court. While admitting the existence of concurrent jurisdiction, the court strongly affirmed that this did not prohibit a final appeal. Finally, in Cohens v Virginia (1821) John Marshall declared that states did not have to agree to an appeal to the high court because they were no longer sovereign. This case helped define the doctrine of National Supremacy.

National Supremacy Trumps Dual Federalism According to Chief Justice John Marshall

McCulloch v Maryland (1819) is the most important case demonstrating the doctrine of National Supremacy. In this case, the Marshall Court upheld the constitutionality of Hamilton’s National Bank and declared that states could not tax an agency of the federal government. This case clearly demonstrated that under the Constitution the states held no individual sovereignty; constitutional power, according to Marshall, was derived from the people and not sovereign states.

The 1824 “steamboat” case Gibbons v Ogden defined the role of the federal legislature to regulate inter-state commerce. Marshall defined “commerce” broadly as “intercourse” and not just “traffic.” This gave Congress the right to regulate commerce as it relates to nations, states, and even Native American treaties.

The Emergence of a Strong Third Branch Impacts Constitutional Checks and Balances

Historian Alfred Kelly has written that Marshall’s most important contribution to American History was his view that the “Constitution was an ordinance of the American people and not a compact of sovereign states.” In addition, the Marshall Court defined the appellate functions of the Supreme Court but always in terms of constitutional prerogatives. As he declared in the McCulloch case, whenever the laws of the state conflict with federal or national laws, the latter must prevail.


  1. Robert A. Burt, The Constitution in Conflict (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992)
  2. Charles F. Hobson, The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law (University Press of Kansas, 2000)
  3. Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins & Development, 5th Ed (W. W. Norton & Company, 1976)
  4. R. Kent Newmyer, John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court (Louisiana State University Press, 2007)
  5. Page Smith, The Shaping of America: A People’s History of the Young Republic, Vol. 3 (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980)