Was the Republic Turning To A Democracy After the Panic of 1819?

From the Lecture Series : A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.,Gettysburg College

There was one institution that stood firmly in the way of a democratic backlash in 1819, the same institution that stood in the way of Jefferson’s revolution of 1800 – John Marshall’s Supreme Court. In the aftermath of the panic of 1819, the Republican Party was forced to adopt new ways for presidential nominations, which first moved into state legislatures and then into national convention. Thus, the republic was turning to a democracy under the pressure of the panic of 1819.

A photo of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.
John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States who stood firmly in the way of a democratic backlash in 1819. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Before the American Revolution, law was used mainly to enforce collective morality. However, with economic prosperity the role of the Supreme Court reversed from being a monitor of behavior to an arbitrator of contracts. Lawyers everywhere were defending the rights of property and contract against the willful demands of mobs and legislators for equity. By 1800, law in Massachusetts was no longer punishing Sabbath breakers instead it had become a mechanism for defending property and policing contract relationships. The best arguments won the cases in courtrooms and they were not necessarily the morally correct ones.

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Supreme Court–the Ultimate Authority

In the words of French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville “When the American people are intoxicated by their passions or carried away by the impetuosity of their ideas, they are checked by the almost invisible influence of their legal counselors.” And it was the Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall who personified this attitude more than any other lawyer in the country. Marshall had already established the ultimate authority of the Supreme Court and his powerful rulings reshaped America and the way the Constitution was interpreted. He used his authority to halt the fuming legislatures from smashing the National Republicans to pieces.

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Dartmouth College v. Woodward

One of the well-known cases that Marshall and the Supreme Court heard was that of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819).The New Hampshire legislature was attempting to rewrite Dartmouth College’s charter. This would allow the legislature to appoint a new Board of Trustees and, thereby, seize control. However, the old trustees challenged the ruling in the Supreme Court. The college, which was a private corporation, was seized for public purposes under the legal garb of the legislature’s authority to issue charters.

The earliest known image of Dartmouth appeared in the February 1793 issue of Massachusetts Magazine (Image: Josiah Dunham / Public domain)

The case took a new direction when a New Hampshire lawyer named Daniel Webster made a passionate appeal for the independence of Dartmouth College. He argued that the legislature had no right to amend corporate charters or contracts without the consent of both parties. However, it was not Webster’s eloquence that helped win the case but Marshall’s resolve to uphold the corporate charters under Article I, Section 10, of the Constitution. In an eighteen page opinion safeguarding Dartmouth College, Marshall wrote “under the Constitution no state legislature can meddle with them without violating the constitutional ban on the impairment of contract.” Marshall declared that rewriting the charter of the Dartmouth College was a violation of the Constitution. The decision in effect established that corporations, such as Dartmouth College, were protected against interference from every other state legislature. Dartmouth College v. Woodward was followed by the case of Sturgis v. Crowninshield, where Marshall once again struck down on the state statute on the grounds that the New York law violated the obligation of contracts.

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Supreme Court Case of Gibbons v. Ogden

Seal of the Supreme Court of United States
(Image: Optimager/Ipankonin
/ Public domain)

In 1924 Marshall reaffirmed the authority of the Supreme Court by striking at the authority of the states to interfere with market operations. In the case of Gibbons v. Ogden, Ogden had the New York state’s license to operate on the state’s waterways. Gibbon, on the other hand held the license from the federal government to operate on the interstate waterways. In this specific case, Gibbons v. Ogden, there was a risk of monopolizing the ferry and steamboat business on waters running through certain states. This was because a state legislature could grant exclusive monopolistic rights to its waterways to a particular steamboat company. 

The Supreme Court ruled that the Congress had the power to regulate interstate commerce and state laws must abide by the constitutional acts of the Congress. Marshall invoked the commerce clause in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which reads “Congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states.” Marshall argued that the states that were connected by the waterways had to surrender their sovereignty over those shared waters as trade was impossible without navigating them. He ruled that states bordering the Mississippi River had to permit free competition among the entrepreneurs who launched steamboats or other commercial vessels on these waterways. The intention of the Chief Justice was to prevent individual states from stifling market competition. With his judgement, he put the private contract rights beyond the reach of even state governments. In effect, Marshall made the United States safe for the penetration of capitalist markets.

One person who was enraged with Marshall’s judicial authority was the 76-year-old Thomas Jefferson, who had to mortgage Monticello after the Panic of 1819 in order to pay off his creditors. Jefferson wrote. “The great object of my fear is the federal judiciary, that body, like gravity, ever acting with noiseless foot and unalarming advance, gaining grounds step-by-step and holding what it gains, is engulfing insidiously the special governments into the jaws of that which feeds them.”

The Republicans could appeal to new democratic majorities, elect a president who would restrain Congress, slay the national bank, and clean out the Supreme Court to stop market penetration but that was a colossal task. However, there was one leader among the Republicans, a leader of mammoth ambition and will, yet one whose character would be saved from corruption by the love of the people and his heroism of soul, who could help the Republicans to turn the tide against the penetration of the market. He was the hero of New Orleans – Andrew Jackson of Tennessee.

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Common Questions About Was the Republic Turning To A Democracy After the Panic of 1819?

Q: How long did John Marshall serve as the Chief Justice of the United States?

John Marshall served as the Chief Justice of the United States from 1801 to 1835. He remains the longest serving chief justice in the history of United States, who served for 34 years, 5 months and 11 days.

Q: Was John Marshall related to President Thomas Jefferson?

John Marshall, the federalist chief justice was the second cousin of President Thomas Jefferson. However, despite their strikingly similar pedigree, they were political rivals.

Q: What is the composition of the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and a certain number of of Associate Justices as may be fixed by Congress. The number of Associate Justices is currently fixed at eight.

Q: What was the overall outcome of Gibbons v Ogden judgement?

The Gibbons v. Ogden judgement was a landmark decision that served to expand the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. This meant that the majority of businesses could be regulated by the United States.

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