The End of the Marshall Era

Last Federalist Standing on the Supreme Court

By 1830, John Marshall was the only Federalist left on the Supreme Court.  Four Democratic-Republican Presidents (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams) and one Democratic President (Jackson) had reshaped the court’s personnel significantly. Those presidents disagreed with Marshall about Congress’s powers under the Constitution, the relationship between the national government and the states, and the extent to which the Constitution protects vested economic rights from legislative regulation. They anticipated that their appointees would bring a different constitutional perspective to the court, and they were correct.  Marshall in his later years had a choice: he could moderate his previously sweeping statements about national power, property rights, and constitutional limitations on the states for the sake of maintaining institutional unity.  Or he could express his own views forcefully through dissents in constitutional cases with which he disagreed.  Marshall generally chose the course of moderation.  He dissented in only one constitutional case during his entire career on the court, towards the end of his service.  The case was Ogden v. Saunders (1827). 

Ogden and Saunders had entered into a contract in 1806.  When Saunders attempted to collect the debt owed to him under the contract, Ogden claimed that his obligation to Saunders had been discharged when Ogden declared bankruptcy under a New York state bankruptcy law.  Saunders contended both that the New York statute violated Article I, section 10, of the Constitution, which prohibits states from impairing the obligation of contracts, and that Congress has exclusive power to make laws regarding bankruptcies under Article I, section 8.

The court’s majority rejected Saunders’ argument, concluding that contract rights are not absolute and that states generally have concurrent power with Congress over bankruptcy law.  Marshall’s dissent repeated his view that Congress has exclusive power to establish uniform bankruptcy laws and that the prohibition against state impairment of the obligation of contracts in Article I, Section 10, is “complete and total.”  Ogden proved to be Marshall’s last opportunity to summarize his general principles of constitutional interpretation:

To say that the intention of the instrument must prevail; that this intention must be collected from its words; that its words are to be understood in that sense in which they are generally used by those for whom the instrument was intended; that its provisions are neither to be restricted into insignificance, nor extended to objects not comprehended in them, nor contemplated by its framers; — is to repeat what has been already said more at large, and is all that can be necessary.