As the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall wanted to bring America’s state courts firmly to heel. Although Marshall was far from being a legal theorist on the order of, say, James Wilson, he had seen enough of the shenanigans of state legislatures to have no hesitation in using the federal judiciary to save the republic from Jacobin Republicanism.
Overturning Virginia’s Decision
The Reverend Denny Martin was the heir of the Fairfax family, whose massive holdings on the Northern Neck of Virginia had been confiscated by the state of Virginia from Lord Thomas Fairfax in 1777. Portions were sold to a land speculator, David Hunter, in 1789, who in turn moved to eject Martin’s tenants.
Martin himself had never actually set foot in America. Since both the Treaty of Paris and the Jay Treaty of 1794 required ending the confiscations of Loyalist property, Martin won the first round of his suit in the Virginia district court in 1794. In 1796, he received an out-of-court settlement with an investors’ consortium, including John Marshall, and the consortium purchased title to Martin’s property.
But Spencer Roane, Patrick Henry’s son-in-law and the most ardent Jeffersonian judge on the Virginia Court of Appeals, was determined to make the case a test of federal judicial authority. Roane insisted that the Fairfax properties did not fall under the treaty protections. Assuming that a state court had the authority to review federal treaties, he reversed the 1794 ruling and the out-of-court settlement.
The consortium turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the Virginia decision in a decision delegated by Marshall to Joseph Story. But Spencer Roane refused to recognize the validity of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in a state matter, and so, one more time, the case went back to the Supreme Court as Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, even though by this time Martin was dead and Hunter had sold out.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Slapping America’s State Courts
This time, Story, acting largely as Marshall’s mouthpiece, delivered a decisive slap to state judicial authority. “It has been argued that such appellate jurisdiction over state courts is inconsistent with the genius of our governments and the spirit of the constitution,” Story wrote. “We cannot yield to the force of this reasoning. It is a mistake” to think that “the constitution was not designed to operate upon the states.”
On the contrary, “the courts of the United States can, without question, revise the proceedings of the executive and legislative authorities of the states, and if they are found to be contrary to the constitution, may declare them to be of no legal validity.”
Once again, the Marshall Court had placed the federal government’s authority, and you might say the ghost of Alexander Hamilton, over that of any of their rivals or critics. But in no case did Marshall come more decisively to the defense of Hamilton’s agenda than in McCulloch v. Maryland.
Learn more about Alexander Hamilton’s reports.
Challenging the Bank of the United States
The McCulloch v. Maryland case offered a direct and unambiguous challenge to Hamilton’s creation, the Bank of the United States, and the federal government’s power to have established it in the first place as an exercise of the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause.
In 1816, the Bank of the United States, which operated branches in nine American cities, opened a branch in Baltimore without bothering to apply to the Maryland legislature for a corporate charter. There seemed to be no reason for the Bank of the United States to need a state charter as a federal entity. But the Maryland legislature, teeming with Jeffersonians, thought otherwise.
On February 18, 1818, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill to limit the issuance of the Bank’s paper notes to no bills other than “5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, and 1,000 dollars,” and to have a Maryland revenue stamp fixed to each—as though the state of Maryland could exercise authority over a federal entity.
The chief cashier of the Bank’s Baltimore branch, James William McCulloch, refused to purchase the stamps and was promptly sued by the state of Maryland. McCulloch, in turn, appealed to the federal courts, and Marshall began hearing the case on February 22, 1819.
Nine Vital Days in Judicial History
It may have been the single greatest assembly of legal talent in one spot that American courts had ever seen. Not only were Marshall and Joseph Story on the bench, but George Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington as well; and old Luther Martin, representing the state of Maryland, and William Wirt and Daniel Webster as counsel for McCulloch and the bank.
McCulloch v. Maryland was argued for nine days. Luther Martin piled an immense ramp of anti-Federalist arguments against the bank and how the bank had exceeded the federal government’s enumerated powers under the Constitution.
Learn more about John Marshall’s court.
Marshall’s Marvelous Counter-Arguments
But Marshall, with equal skill, proceeded in his written decision to reduce all of Martin’s arguments to nit-picking. Enumerated powers were not like creating a municipal code. “We must never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding,” Marshall said, not a building code.
He could not tell what was more perverse; Luther Martin insisting that every detail of the federal government’s responsibilities as a government had to be spelled out in plain sight to satisfy the enumerated power structure. Or the Maryland General Assembly’s refusal to read the words which the Constitution used to spell out the Constitution being the “supreme law of the land.”
Marshall said, “If the right of the States to tax the means employed by the general government be conceded, the declaration that the constitution, and the laws made in pursuance thereof, shall be the supreme law of the land, is empty and unmeaning declamation.” It is probably too much to say that what Hamilton had begun in his treasury reports, John Marshall secured.
Common Questions about How John Marshall Brought America’s State Courts to Heel
The Reverend Denny Martin was the heir of the Fairfax family, whose massive holdings on the Northern Neck of Virginia had been confiscated by the state of Virginia from Lord Thomas Fairfax in 1777.
In 1818, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill to limit the issuance of the Bank’s paper notes to no bills other than “5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, and 1,000 dollars,” and to have a Maryland revenue stamp fixed to each. The chief cashier of the Bank’s Baltimore branch, James William McCulloch, refused to purchase the stamps and was sued by the state of Maryland.
John Marshall argued that the Constitution didn’t have to spell out every little thing the federal government had to do. He also argued that America’s state courts have to respect the supreme law of the land.