Marbury v. Madison and the Marshall Court

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In what ways did John Marshall’s nationalistic vision contribute to the growth and development of the Supreme Court but also to the economic and political growth/expansion of the new nation?

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As an arch-Federalist, Chief Justice Marshall believed that the United States should have a strong, centralized government to meet the challenges of the new nation, both internal and external. And he saw the Supreme Court as having a very important part to play in such an expansive vision of government.

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As an arch-Federalist, Chief Justice Marshall believed that the United States should have a strong, centralized government to meet the challenges of the new nation, both internal and external. And he saw the Supreme Court as having a very important part to play in such an expansive vision of government.

Prior to the landmark ruling in Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Supreme Court was very much the junior partner of the three branches of government. But thanks to the Court's arrogation of the power of judicial review, all that changed dramatically. From now on, the Court would be a major player on the American political scene.

In his 34 years as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Marshall significantly widened the scope of the Federal government, thus allowing for the encroachment of responsibilities previously thought to be the exclusive preserve of individual states.

In McCullough v. Maryland (1816), Marshall prevented the state of Maryland from "destroying" a national bank through the power of taxation. Like the good Federalist he was, Marshall fervently believed that a national bank was an essential component of America's future prosperity and that it would facilitate the development of the United States as a modern industrialized economy able to compete on the international stage. If states such as Maryland could put a brake on such development by imposing taxes on a national bank then, the Federalists believed, that would hold back the country's economic development.

In his capacity as Chief Justice, Marshall, using the greater power and prestige which had redounded to the Court under his watch, greatly increased the power of the Federal government to shape the future political and economic direction of the United States. And the country has been living with his legacy, for good or ill, ever since.

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Marshall contributed to national development in the United States by consistently ruling, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in favor of a expansive view of the powers of the federal government under the Constitution. Marshall entered the Supreme Court at a time when the powers of the federal government had not yet been established through precedent and general acceptance. While the Constitution was the "supreme law of the land," there was little agreement about how powers would be shared between the states and the federal government. There were also questions about the extent to which Congress could expand on the powers literally granted to it in the Constitution. Marshall, in a series of landmark decisions spanning over three decades, gave clear answers to these questions, even if he did not totally resolve them. In McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), for example, he ruled that state governments could not tax branches of the Bank of the United States within their borders, upholding the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. He also ruled that the Congress had the implied power to create a national bank, which had been a controversy dating to its first charter during the Washington administration. In Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), he held that only the federal government had the power to regulate interstate commerce. Each of these decisions involved expanding the powers of the national government and promoting a nationalistic vision. They must be understood as part of a deliberate program to strengthen the federal government of the new nation.

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John Marshall was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1801 to 1835.  During that time, the Court handed down a number of decisions that increased its own power and/or which led to the growth of the new country.

First of all, we should understand what it means to say that Marshall had a “nationalistic” vision.  This does not mean that he believed in the superiority of the United States over other countries.  Instead, it means that he believed that the US should be one nation, united under a strong national government.  This is in contrast to people who thought that the US should be made up more of separate states loosely connected to one another.

Now let us look at three of Marshall’s decisions that reflected a nationalist point of view.  First is the decision in Marbury v. Madison.  In this case, the Supreme Court took for itself the power of judicial review.  This gave it the ability to say whether laws passed by the Congress were constitutional and to strike down laws that were not.  (We should also note that the Marshall Court took the right to strike down state laws in the decision in Fletcher v. Peck, thus giving itself and the national government more power.)  The second decision is McCulloch v. Maryland.  In this case, the Supreme Court held that the state of Maryland had no right to tax the Bank of the United States.  It also ruled that the Congress had the right to make essentially any laws that it deemed necessary.  Congress did not, the Court said, have to stick to the powers expressly given to it in the Constitution.  This helped to build the country politically, giving it a Congress that could do many things rather than limiting it to having a weak Congress.  Finally, there was the case of Gibbons v. Ogden.  In this case, the Court made it clear that only the US government (and not the states) could regulate interstate commerce.  This was instrumental in creating a strong national economy as well as a strong national government.

In these ways and others, Marshall handed down decisions that increased the power of the national government and the Supreme Court and which helped the country grow politically and economically.

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