By Meika Downey, Education Coordinator, Preservation Virginia
September 17, 2021
Happy Constitution Day! On this day in Philadelphia in 1787, 39 of our founders signed the United States Constitution, the most radical governing document of the age. While American founders agreed the previous government under the Articles of Confederation needed replacing, the 70 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, held between May 14 and September 17, 1787, debated what form of government their new country should take, and how involved the government should be in the lives of its citizens.
In 1827, Chief Justice John Marshall asserted that the U.S. Constitution is “intended to endure for ages to come and subsequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.” To say that John Marshall was a fan of the Constitution would be an understatement. Marshall’s entire professional life revolved around this document and he revered it above all else. For the Chief Justice, the Constitution embodied that which he held most dear: a strong, central, federal government.
After developing his federalist political ideology as a Valley Forge soldier during the American Revolution, Marshall brought his passionate views for a federal government to the floor of Richmond Theater in June 1788 as a delegate to the Virginia Ratification debates of the proposed US Constitution. Representing Richmond and Henrico County, Marshall spoke fourth in order of federalists in the ratification hearing and was said to possess as strong of an understanding of the Constitution as James Madison, and that Marshall may have had a greater understanding of section 3 (the judiciary) than anybody. Up against many Anti-Federalists such as Patrick Henry, Marshall attempted to assuage their fears of a too-powerful federal government by asserting the idea of checks and balances. Marshall argued that an independent judiciary could practice judicial review and declare laws null and void, thus checking the power of the legislative and executive branches.
Additionally, the Anti-Federalists believed that without a Bill of Rights added to the Constitution, personal liberties would be in danger. Here, Marshall identified the best way to help Virginia pass the Constitution: by seeking a compromise with those who opposed it. Ultimately, the delegates to the Virginia Ratifying Convention had to balance the Federalists’ commitment to a unified country, with the Anti-Federalists’ devotion to personal liberty. A Bill of Rights could do this, and so, Marshall spearheaded efforts to add one to the Constitution. Satisfying the Anti-Federalists for the time being, Virginia became the 9th state in the union to ratify the Constitution in the United States.
Marshall’s relationship with and devotion to the Constitution evolved once he joined the US Supreme Court as the fourth Chief Justice at the end of John Adams’ term as President, in February 1801. John Marshall found his first three years on the bench defined by Adams’ “Midnight Appointments,” culminating in the landmark court case, Marbury v. Madison (1803). Arguably Marshall’s most important legal legacy, the Marbury decision did more than change Marshall’s relationship with the Constitution, but forever altered how the country and the federal government viewed the document, and also how they viewed the Judicial branch. In this court case, the constitutionality of a law came before John Marshall on the Supreme Court, and for the first time, the Chief Justice read the Constitution and declared a law unconstitutional. While many today consider such an action by a judge to be intrinsic, a judge’s ability to assert power and authority to interpret the Constitution and declare laws unconstitutional was not a given in America’s early years. Marshall established this precedent known as judicial review during Marbury v. Madison, which continues to form a cornerstone of our judiciary today. When the Framers drafted the Constitution in 1787, they deliberately did not define the authorities of the Supreme Court, deeming the Judiciary essentially powerless. After the Marbury decision, Chief Justice John Marshall expressed the supreme reality that “it is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is.”
A “creature of [our] will,” the Constitution, and likewise, judicial review, has continued to endure, as John Marshall surmised in 1827, and provided the framework by which we function as a society and a country. On this Constitution Day, we reflect on John Marshall’s contribution to forming our federal government and to his devotion to the US Constitution.