Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type



As chief justice of the United States for thirty-five years, John Marshall molded the Supreme Court into a co-equal branch of government. His efforts to fashion a powerful and independent federal court often ran counter to popular sentiment in his home state of Virginia. There, Marshall’s ideological and political opponent, Thomas Jefferson, dominated the political landscape. The adversarial narrative of Marshall and Jefferson’s national political battles is the subject of much scholarship. Rarely considered, however, is the common legal culture from which they both emerged. Understanding the personalities and the decisions that populated Virginia’s legal culture from the American Revolution through the age of the Marshall court provides a deeper understanding not only of Marshall and his motivations, but also of how he continued to shape the legal and political environment of Virginia -his lifelong home - and how, in turn, that culture continued to influence him even after he abandoned local affairs for the national stage. If the Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800 produced a Virginia dynasty of leadership, John Marshall can be considered a part of it. When he took on the role that defined his place in American history, he had spent more than half his life as a Virginian attorney and popularly elected local politician. Yet he was more than just a Virginian who became a nationalist, leaving the politics and legal culture of his home state behind. The Marshall court retained a Virginian cast, and this explains many aspects of how the chief justice negotiated the boundaries between republican political economy and republican law. What emerges is a story of an intertwined legal and political culture, infused with classical republican idealism by the American Revolution, whose optimistic principles were sorely tested in the courts of the early republic. And as local figures failed to effectively address the significant legal contradiction of slavery, the responsibility fell to a federal government dominated largely by Virginians – Marshall included – who were consistent in their failure to prevent the transition from republic to democracy and in their inability to solve the sectional dilemma that ultimately led to Civil War.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Isenberg, Nancy



Included in

History Commons