The End of the Marshall Era

John Marshall’s Legacy

When Marshall died in 1835, the Supreme Court was no longer an institution of questionable significance and power in American politics.  It had successfully claimed the power of judicial review.  It had placed an interpretive stamp on the Constitution that recognized extensive national legislative powers, protected vested property rights, and generally subordinated state powers to national powers when the two came into conflict.  It had abandoned the seriatim method of announcing opinions, and it commonly issued unanimous or nearly unanimous opinions of the court.  Indeed, not until Thomas Jefferson wrote a series of letters to his appointee William Johnson urging him to dissent in all constitutional cases, did the court begin to issue opinions with an occasional written dissent.

The Changing Face of America

During Marshall’s tenure, the country alsochanged significantly.  The Federalist Party fell into disarray after it lost popular support because of its opposition to the War of 1812.  The party’s emphasis on a strong national government promoting private commercial rights could not withstand the forces of populism associated with Jacksonian democracy.  The country had also more than doubled in size, adding immense geographic territories acquired from France, Spain, and Mexico.  Its population had more than tripled. Confrontations with American Indians had led to their being “removed” to reservations to make more land available for predominately white settlers.  Great sectional divides had emerged over slavery, sparked both by moral opposition and advances in technology.  The cotton gin, for example, dramatically sped up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber.  That in turn increased the demand for cotton.  Southern plantation owners needed more land and claimed that they needed more slaves to meet that demand.  All these changes had political consequences and raised questions about constitutional interpretation.

Marshall’s successor, Roger Taney, disagreed with Marshall on fundamental questions about the meaning of the United States Constitution and the nature of the union it had created.  However, Taney and his colleagues never questioned the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review or its status as a major player in the momentous decisions the country was facing.