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John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation Hardcover – September 30, 2014

4.1 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Kirkus Reviews, 8/1/14
“A cradle-to-grave biography of the U.S. Supreme Court’s longest-serving chief justice…Unger chooses to present all aspects of Marshall's life, including his military heroism and his extraordinary devotion to a chronically ill wife and their children…It is well-researched, and the author is skilled at portraying the characters and viewpoints of Marshall’s political friends and foes. Thomas Jefferson comes across as a stubborn, politically motivated and sometimes hypocritical man, and Unger employs the Marshall-Jefferson enmity effectively, adding tension to the narrative. A vigorous account of an influential American life.

New York Post, 7/17/14
“Read. Be proud of our country.”

Booklist, 9/15/14
“Unger offers a comprehensive account of Marshall’s life and career that provides interesting insights into his personal qualities and political sympathies…But Unger is at his best covering the history-altering judicial activities of the court under Marshall, especially as the court clashed with the executive power of the Jefferson and Jackson administration…A well-done tribute to the man who made the judiciary a truly coequal branch of the national government.”

American History, December 2014
“A rousing, eye-opening life and times of one of the most underappreciated figures in American history…As an account of the courtroom dramas in which Marshall was involved, the foreign and domestic intrigues, the clashes of temperamental geniuses, Unger’s book is unsurpassed.”

Roanoke Times, 9/28/14
“Unger is a masterful storyteller. As he unfolds Marshall’s personal life, his career at law and his service as chief justice, Unger also provides a concise tale of the birth of the United States as a unified country under the Constitution. This biography serves the dual purpose of explaining Marshall’s critical role in saving the nation from chaos while giving a concise account of the social and political forces at play during the nation’s salad days…In telling the story of Marshall, Unger provides keen insight into the very foundation of the United States of America and an excellent introduction to the United States Constitution and the Supreme Court, especially for those who want to know the story without having to read volumes of case law and sometimes arcane exegetical texts.”

Library Journal, 10/1/14
“Unger is very familiar with the founding fathers…His research is heavy on primary sources…Those interested in the founding fathers will appreciate this scholarly, accessible title.”

What Would the Founders Think?, 9/30/14
“Harlow Giles Unger follows John Marshall from his birth in 1755 to his death in 1835, but he does more than that. He shines a bright light on the men we call Founders…Unger’s biography is also a fascinating history of the turbulent times in which Marshall lived…This is an extensively researched biography of a man who is too little remembered today. It’s become a cliché to say that a book reads like a novel, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Unger is a superb writer.”

New York Journal of Books, 9/30/14
“Highly readable…Unger's rigorously researched book offers a window into the everyday life of 18th and 19th century North America…Unger's biography of John Marshall reveals how he saved the nation, but also democracy's fragility.”

Bookviews, November 2014
“One man who played an extraordinary role in defending the Constitution is finally given his rightful honors in Harlow Giles Unger’s book…A book that will give you a very different view of the men we hold in such great honor…A great book.”

InfoDad, 10/23/14
“Fascinating…A treat for scholars interested in early American history and an eye-opener for non-historians seeking insight into the unusual balance of powers within which the U.S. government functions.”

Taft Bulletin, Fall 2014
“Reveals how Virginia-born John Marshall emerged from the Revolutionary War’s bloodiest battlefields as a hero to become one of the nation’s most important Founding Fathers.”

SLUG Magazine, December 2014
“Whether you’re an avid consumer of American history or someone with a more casual opinion towards the stories that built our country, Unger’s book is surprisingly accessible…A great read for those who like their historical nonfiction presented with all the warts, cuts and bruises that are sometimes overlooked.”

San Francisco Book Review, 12/11/14
“An intense history of the struggles of our early government…It is written well, moves fast and is very informative.”

Choice, March 2015
“Unger is an excellent writer…This book…will prove to be informative, readable, and enjoyable…Belongs in the collections of all academic and public libraries.”

Lincoln Journal Star (NE), 3/1/15
“This new biography of Marshall tells us who he was and how he rose from the proverbial log cabin in Virginia to a leadership role that permits the author to call him ‘The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation.’”

About the Author

An acclaimed historian, Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He is the author of more than twenty books, including ten biographies of America's Founding Fathers and three histories of the early republic.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (September 30, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306822202
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306822209
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #470,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. A Magill VINE VOICE on September 16, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Biography is an art with no shortage of pitfalls. A writer can be overly critical of their topic or, just as bad, worshipful. Warping details to suit a particular narrative goal is bad; lazily getting facts wrong is worse. Such a list of problems comes to mind while reading Harlow Giles Unger’s “John Marshall: The Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Who Transformed the Young Republic.” In this volume the author makes each and every one of these mistakes.

From the very first, Unger’s praise for Marshall dashes past merely admiring to rank idolatry. No saint was ever so saintly. As a soldier, Marshall is endlessly valiant. In friendship, he is perfectly loyal. In matters of law, he is flawlessly just. Did Marshall suffer from e a single deficiency in character or judgment? Unger’s biography answers with a resounding no. Indeed, in the generation of visionary giants who birthed the Republic, for Unger “Marshall was at heart an ordinary man, but a straight thinking one, governed solely by logic and a love of justice – undeterred by flattery or verbal ornamentation unrelated to the matter at hand.” Given that Marshall was among the ablest and most persuasive politicians of his time -- famously as Chief Justice able to charm to his side every new justice appointed specifically to break his hold on the near unanimous court -- such descriptions hardly do him justice.

Worse still, in his effort to beatify John Marshall, Unger feels the need to turn his political opponents into mustache-twisting villains, characters better suited to a comic strip. One may not like Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, there is much to dislike about the third president. Still, it would be understatement to describe him merely as complex. Unger’s Jefferson, however, is instead simple.
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Format: Hardcover
I found myself gradually warming up to this biography of the "great chief justice," and while it serves as a good, basic intro to Marshall's life and accomplishments, it does manifest some substantial shortcoming. Marshall is a great figure to write about since he was involved in the Revolutionary War, the administrations of Washington and Adams, early American diplomatic initiatives (especially with the French), the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention, and in making the Supreme Court the powerful nationalizing branch of the government. So one of the important contributions of the book is that it constitutes a basic history of the revolutionary and early national periods, not penetrating too deeply but more skimming on the surface of events. One of the real strong points of the book is its discussion of how treacherous and dangerous the French were to the young American nation. The author has written an entire book on this topic, so he can address this topic adroitly and in detail.

The major negative aspect of the book is the author's continual vendetta against Jefferson (in virtually every chapter). TJ may have committed "treason"; he lacked architectural skills; manifested irrational bitterness; sought to destroy the federal judiciary (somewhat true);"blatantly violated the Constitution" as president; pulled all sorts of dirty tricks against political opponents; had a "lust for power"; overdid his prosecution of Aaron Burr; and had disdain for law and the right to trial by jury. A lot of these points have been argued over by historians for generations; and certainly though I admire TJ, I am the first to admit he could act the rascal on occasion (and very well cover his tracks).
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Format: Hardcover
I received a prerelease e-copy of this book through NetGalley (publication date September 30, 2014) with the expectation that I will post a review on their site and others (my blog, Goodreads, Facebook, Google +, LinkedIn, Twitter, Amazon, etc.).

I requested this book as I have an interest in early American history and have not read anything about John Marshall specifically. This is the first book by Harlow Giles Unger that I have read.

The following is my brief synopsis of the book:

John Marshall is a saint that could almost walk on water with no negative characteristics.
Thomas Jefferson is the reincarnation of Lucifer with no redeeming characteristics.
Other major players of that time period fall somewhere in between depending upon the author's opinon of them.
I admit that I was very disappointed in this book. If I hadn't committed to writing a review, I would not have finished it. The author is extremely opinonated, frequently overlooks facts to fit his view and has a tendency to wander far afield from the subject of the book.

It is not until the second half of the book that John Marshall surfaces as the main character and then it is frequently given an once over lightly review of the court's decisions that impacted the future direction of the nation.

If you are interested in a biography of John Marshall, that is thorough and objective, I recommend Jean Edward Smith's that I have on my to-read list after researching for a good biography after reading this one.
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