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John Marshall: Definer of a Nation Hardcover – November 15, 1996

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (November 15, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080501389X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805013894
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.1 x 2.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #835,695 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

It's taken for granted today that the Supreme Court has final say on how the Constitution is interpreted, but this principle--hotly debated in the republic's early years -- was established by John Marshall (1755-1835), the fourth Chief Justice. Historian Smith's definitive biography, detailed and lucid, is a model of scholarly writing for the general public. The author claims our admiration for the justice and sparks affection for the man: warm, gregarious, fond of drink, a Federalist with the common touch, a seasoned political infighter who remained on good terms with his opponents.

From Publishers Weekly

The most famous chief justice of the U. S. has been dead for 161 years, but his life and work continue to fascinate legal scholars, political scientists and biographers. Smith, a University of Toronto political scientist, is the most recent devotee. His endnotes and bibliography mention at least a dozen previous books about Marshall. It would be helpful to the lay reader if Smith explained why he believed another book, especially such a massive one, was needed. Like the recently published The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law by Charles F. Hobson (Forecasts, July 29), Smith's version of the life is both respectful and a revision of the revisionism. He acknowledges his debt to Hobson, editor of the Marshall papers, just as Hobson alerted readers to Smith's upcoming tome. While Hobson focused on Marshall's mind, Smith focuses on the externals of Marshall's life. This is essentially a chronological account of a life lived fully. There are few flourishes?for example, Marshall's death is handled matter-of-factly in two pages. The 151 pages of endnotes are frequently livelier, more interpretive and more informative than the matching portions of the text. The pedestrian nature of the text stems mainly from Smith's decision to let Marshall speak for himself. The biography is almost devoid of interpretation and speculation. Sound scholarship, yes; lively lifetelling, only occasionally.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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One of the best biographies I've ever read.
Adam Rackis
The Great Chief Justice by Charles Hobson is a biography of John Marshall focused almost entirely on Marshall's judicial career and Supreme Court decisions.
Leonard J. Wilson
This book is very easy to read and covers large amounts of information in a concise manner.
Lehigh History Student

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Richard Harrold on March 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I am neither a historian nor an academic. But I am a journalist who covers the courts, and I have frequently heard attorneys mutter this or that about the "infamous" Marbury v. Madison decision. I bought the book after visiting the Supreme Court and read it immediately upon my return. Smith's narrative is well paced. And the historic content is not presented like a textbook or even a well-written academic tome. Rather, it reads like a biography should, telling the tale based on letters and other memorabilia and done so without excessive interpretation. While I was aware of Marshall's significant place in history in terms of Marbury v. Madison, I had no idea of his key roles in other events that shaped our nation. If you like history but don't like academic minutia, you will love this book as I have.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Howard Schulman on August 31, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What a book and what a topic for a non-lawyer, early American history buff. I actually feel smarter now!

Seriously, Jean Edward Smith does a great job of pulling a tremendous amount of primary source material into a seamlessly integrated biography on US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. In large part, because of all the primary source quotes, the book reads slowly, but without videos, photographs, and voice recordings, that's the best way to learn about historical figures from that era. Smith's own writing, research, and overall understanding of the material and ability to convey that to the reader is excellent.

I was not aware that John Marshall was so involved in Virginia politics after the War and was asked multiple times by fellow Virginian George Washington to take on major positions, only to be rebuffed. He was so highly admired even before he entered the Supreme Court. So, the first 300 pages cover Marshall's career leading up to his nomination. The next 200+ pages cover his tenure on the Supreme Court.

What is really nice, though, about the way Smith handles the biography, is that he constantly brings back recurring theme's in Marshall's life, whether it is Marshall's ability to get along with people from either side of the aisle and his remarkable affability and love of Madeira wine, or his plain old good judgment and belief in the supremacy of the Union, or his dedication to his job and the country and his ability to strengthen the Supreme Court by striving for unanimous decisions and collegiality among the individual Supreme Court justices.

And obviously, Smith does a good job of putting the importance of Marshall's decisions in perspective in his time and today.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By R. Price on January 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
John Marshall is primarily remembered as the great chief justice who handed down many of the decisions that defined the constitutional structure, which law students read every year and judges are still dealing with nearly two centuries later. But in his wonderful biography, Smith shows the full picture of Marshall and his significant influence prior to his chief justiceship. Marshall was a soldier during the Revolution who later entered Virginia politics somewhat unwillingly. He was a well respected lawyer who eventually earned a sizable fortune, unlike most of his contemporaries who inherited theirs. Smith provides all of this in a clear and detailed manner. Also, he avoids one of the great problems that biographers of the founding era have: the extreme focus many place upon private lives of these men while limiting coverage of their public acts. Smith explains Marshall's private life without obsessing on it unnecessarily.

Of course, most purchasers of this book are looking for information on Marshall's years on the bench and his impact upon the Constitution. All of the cases one would expect are dealt with in a thorough manner: Marbury, McCullough, Martin, Gibbons. The best part is of this book is that Smith goes beyond these great cases and provides detail on earlier caselaw that demonstrates Marshall's, and the Court's, commitment to nationalistic constitutional interpretations well before the seminal cases. This defeats criticism that claims Marshall had no support for his arguments, a criticism that develops from his habit of not citing to precedent. Particularly, some of the early unknown cases dealt with interesting issues of the war power and international law.

Smith's biography is detailed and compelling, I couldn't put it down.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By T. Graczewski VINE VOICE on May 8, 2006
Format: Paperback
I don't think that there are any major monuments to John Marshall in the United States. He is nowhere to be found on the Mall in Washington, his face isn't carved into any mountains, and his image doesn't grace any form of national currency. Yet, if one were challenged to make a short list of individual Americans who had the greatest influence on the structure of our government and whose actions have reverberated down to our every day life, John Marshall would have to be on it.

For all intents and purposes, John Marshall defined the role of the Supreme Court in American government. As biographer Jean Edward Smith notes, when Marshall was suddenly appointed by John Adams to replace Oliver Ellsworth as Chief Justice in 1800, "he assumed leadership of a court that enjoyed little prestige and even less authority." When he died 36 years later he left a Court that was a bastion of stability, unity and respect in government and whose reputation was the highest in the land.

Although the majority of the book focuses quite naturally on Marshall's storied career as Chief Justice, Smith does highlight the long and varied service he gave to his country before joining the Court in 1801. Marshall was a valiant officer in the American Revolution, present at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown and Yorktown, and suffered the privations of Valley Forge (where he bunked with James Monroe). He became a celebrity when his tough stance against Talleyrand in the XYZ Affair became public knowledge in America in 1798 and he served in Congress and then briefly as Secretary of State in the administration of John Adams, where Marshall was a rare friend and political soul mate to the tortured Yankee president.
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